“Surviving The Laughter,” with Robin Williams & Walter Matthau: The making of “The Survivors”

By on January 16, 2018

If you haven’t been checking out the full episodes of “Night Flight” that we’ve been adding to our Night Flight Plus channel — like this June 21, 1983 full episode — you may not know that they occasionally feature rarely-seen ’80s content you won’t find anywhere else online, like Surviving the Laughter: The Making of ‘The Survivors’.


This 9-minute featurette — a behind-the-scenes preview of The Survivors, a rambling black comedy starring Robin Williams and Walter Matthau, released theatrically on June 22, 1983 — was produced by Cimarron Productions, who regularly made featurettes for major studio movies.

It not only features great interview footage with the film’s two major stars, but also interviews with director Michael Ritchie, actor/musician Jerry Reed and 20-year old actress Kristen Vigard in her first major screen appearance.

The interviews were shot sometime during the winter months of its long production (November 1982 – May 1983) in South Lake Tahoe, CA, in the Sierra Nevada mountains.


During the Reagan Years, the threat of all-out nuclear war with the Soviet Union — not to mention recession, Reaganomics, unemployment, high gas prices and other factors — led to a lot of Americans becoming survivalists, or “preppers.”

Concerned about the possible breakdown of civilized society, they began wearing camouflage clothing and started preparing to survive by building bomb shelters, stockpiling food supplies and water, storing up emergency medical supplies, and hoarding ammo and guns, especially automatic weapons.


Jerry Reed

The Survivors — a darkly comic satire that poked a little fun at these survivalists — arrived in theaters during the early summer of ’83, when lots of Americans were feeling disenfranchised with the American Dream because it no longer seemed possible for everyone (it still doesn’t).

Read more about The Survivors below.


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The plot of The Survivors chiefly concerns a couple of down-on-their-luck unemployed New Yorkers.

Robin Williams plays corporate junior executive Donald Quinelle, who is called to a boardroom meeting only to find the room empty except for his boss’s parrot, who gives him the bad news that he’s no longer employed due to a restructuring.

Walter Matthau’s Sonny Paluso has found also himself out of work when his gas station and auto repair shop burns to the ground.


They’re drowning their sorrows at a local diner when a holdup man, his face hidden by a black hood, attempts to rob the place. When Quinelle and Paluso try to disarm the bandit, snatching off  his hood, they expose the fact that he’s just another unemployed white dude.

Jack Locke — who Sonny recognizes from seeing him earlier at the unemployment office — is played by Jerry Reed, who nearly steals the movie as an out-of-work mob hit man (he claims to have offed Jimmy Hoffa).

Williams describes Jerry Reed as ” a combination of Jack Nicholson and Mister Rogers.”


Paluso and Quinelle — who is shot in the shoulder as Locke flees — are both hailed as heroes, but then Quinelle inadvertently reveals his friend’s identity on TV, and that leads to Locke going to Paluso’s house in order to kill him and his daughter Candice.

However, once again, his nasty plans are foiled. Unfortunately, after Locke is escorted by gunpoint to the police station by Quinelle and Paluso, he slips through cracks in the system and somehow avoids going to jail, vowing his revenge.


Kristen Vigard and Robin Williams

Quinelle — now believing that American society is on the verge of collapse — decides he needs to toughen up if he wants to stay alive, and be a survivor.

He buys a buttload of guns and signs up for two weeks of survivalist camp, telling his fiancée “When I return, I’m going to be a real man!”

The camp turns out to be headed up by a neo-Fascist reactionary paramilitary wingnut Wes Huntley (James Wainwright) who believes everyone should be prepping for a “new Middle Ages.”


There’s an inevitable final showdown in the snow, and Robin Williams even finds a reason to strip down to his boxer shorts, which is certainly one way to get laughs in a dark summer comedy.

Producer William Sackheim thought a film about survivalists was a very funny idea for a comedy, and hired director Michael Ritchie, who by the early ’80s had already made a handful of great little films, including The Candidate (1972), Smile (1975), The Bad News Bears (1976, starring Matthau and Tatum O’Neal), and Semi-Tough (1977).



Actor Joe Bologna was originally cast as Paluso, but after a couple of weeks of principal photography, it was clear to Ritchie he needed a bigger star to play opposite Robin Williams, replacing him with Matthau, who was not only sixteen years older than Bologna, but he’d also recently had heart bypass surgery.

The production also had to move to South Lake Tahoe after the Fairlee, Vermont, location — the site of the movie’s survivalists training camp — suffered a “huge blizzard” in the winter of ’82,.


Walter Matthau with Michael Ritchie

Williams ended up playing the straight man to Matthau’s deadpan one-liner comebacks, although Williams — already a breakout star — was also able to improvise as well.

Veteran TV writer Michael Leeson — who by then had already won an Emmy for his work on the sitcom “Taxi” — earned his very first feature film writing credit for The Survivors.

Although neither his Wikipedia and IMDB page have been updated lately, the Writer’s Guild of America announced on Twitter that Michael Leeson died on July 27, 2016, age 69.


The Survivors didn’t show a profit after its short theatrical run, which isn’t that odd, really, considering the movie poster’s tagline said the two comedic leads had declared war on each other (not true).

Watch the rarely-seen 9-minute featurette Surviving the Laughter: The Making of ‘The Survivors’, which you’ll find streaming in our full episode from June 21, 1983 on Night Flight Plus!


About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.