In 1984, respected TV writer/producer/director Hugh Wilson helmed a sketchy Stripes rip-off that he co-wrote with Neal Israel and Pat Proft for producer Paul Maslansky (not, as many a hasty IMDB-skimmer has briefly thought, Paul Mazursky). The premise of the first Police Academy movie was simple: A progressive lady mayor loosens the requirements to become a police officer, and suddenly the training program is overrun with misfits, who, when put to the test, prove more resourceful than their stuffy superiors expected. The 1984 Police Academy was such a huge hit that it spawned six sequels (plus an animated series that ran from 1988 to 1989, and a live-action series that aired from 1997to 1998). The first film was a typical R-rated ’80s comedy, complete with shower scenes and raunchy misadventures, but the films that followed went more “family-friendly,” reducing the sexiness from occasional toplessness to occasional wet-T-shirt jiggle (though the series never lost its faith in the comic possibilities of excrement and gay panic). Each Police Academy movie is more a series of slapstick sketches and short bursts of farce than a proper story, but the franchise is replete with memorable characters and moments, some of which recur from film to film, and some of which are fleeting. What follows is a handy guide to what the seven Police Academy movies have in common, what sets the individual movies apart, and how each reflects—to at least some degree—the era in which it was made.
And remember: When we say, “Hey, dirtbags,” that means you.
Police Academy (1984)
Director: Hugh Wilson, creator of WKRP In Cincinnati and Frank’s Place
Writers: Wilson, Neal Israel, and frequent Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker collaborator Pat Proft.
The plot: Steve Guttenberg plays Carey Mahoney, an anti-authoritarian troublemaker forced by one of his father’s old cop buddies to go through the 14-week training to become a police officer, in order to avoid being sent to jail. At the academy, Mahoney meets a motley assortment of fellow cadets: the weird “human sound-effects machine” Larvell Jones (Michael Winslow), gentle giant Moses Hightower (Bubba Jones), squeaky-voiced Laverne Hooks (Marion Ramsey), gung-ho militarist Eugene Tackleberry (David Graf), accident-prone married man Douglas Fackler (Bruce Mahler), chubby wimp Leslie Barbara (Donovan Scott), faux-Latin ladies’ man George Martin (Andrew Rubin), and foxy rich girl Karen Thompson (Kim Cattrall), who becomes Mahoney’s love interest, if only for one movie. The cadets are whipped into shape by Lt. Thaddeus Harris (G.W. Bailey)—who secretly roots for them to fail so that the academy will go back to the less-dirtbag-infested way it used to be—and statuesque disciplinarian Sgt. Debbie Callahan (Leslie Easterbrook), who wins the affection of Cadet Martin by dominating him sexually. The new recruits make a mess of everything, naturally, but they rally in the end to save Harris from a crazed kidnapper in a riot-torn neighborhood, thus earning their stripes.
The cast: In addition to the above, the first Police Academy introduces George Gaynes as sweet-but-dim academy commandant Eric Lassard, and George R. Robertson as skeptical police chief Henry J. Hurst.
Series motifs: The first film launches several recurring gags and bits of style, from Robert Folk’s cheerfully martial score to the way Mahoney and company trick a huffy authoritarian (Harris, in this case) into getting sticky crap all over his face and body. Police Academy also has Sgt. Callahan sitting on a recruit’s chest for the first time, the meek Hooks erupting with her signature line, “Don’t move, dirtbag,” and the series’ first visit to The Blue Oyster, a leather bar where rough-looking guys hold tango competitions.
Best Larvell Jones sound effect: Sitting alone in his dorm room at night, Jones plays an imaginary videogame, mimicking every beep and blast.
Best line: Chief Hurst reflects on the glory days when only men were allowed into the academy: “They all had johnsons… There were johnsons as far as the eye could see….”
Wait, which one was this one again? This is the one where Sgt. Harris gets propelled from a motorcycle and flies headfirst into a horse’s rectum. It’s also the one where a prostitute hiding in Commandant Lassard’s podium gives him a blowjob in the middle of one of his speeches.
1984 signifiers: A pre-teen boy wears a M*A*S*H T-shirt; Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Relax” plays on an enormous boombox; and when Thompson’s mother complains about her wanting to be a policeman, she huffily corrects her mom, saying, “a policewoman, mother.”
Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment (1985)
Director: Jerry Paris, who played dentist Jerry Helper on The Dick Van Dyke Show
Writers: Saturday Night Live writers Barry Blaustein and David Sheffield
The plot: Now out of the academy, Mahoney and his wacky pals find themselves working in a rough precinct under Commandant Lassard’s kindly brother Pete (played by Howard Hesseman), though their efforts are undermined by the sneakily ambitious Lt. Mauser (Art Metrano) and his goofy sidekick Sgt. Proctor (Lance Kinsey). When a gang of toughs threatens to destroy the precinct, a sleeveless-shirted Mahoney rallies the troops—half-sarcastically saying, “If caring is a crime, and trying is a felony…”—and restores order.
The cast: No Thompson, Barbara, Martin, Callahan, or Harris this time, but Peter Van Norden signs up for a one-move stint as Mahoney’s slobby new partner Vinnie Schtulman (who in one scene picks the cat shit out of his cereal bowl but still eats the cereal), while Colleen Camp plays Sgt. Kathleen Kirkland, a by-the-book gun nut who becomes Tackleberry’s love interest. And the new neighborhood brings two significant new characters: sensitive but deranged street punk Zed, played by Bobcat Goldthwait, and nebbishy businessman Carl Sweetchuck, played by Saturday Night Live nerd Tim Kazurinsky.
Series motifs: The Blue Oyster Bar and “Don’t move, dirtbag!” make their requisite appearances, while Mahoney comes up with ever more creative ways to get Mauser covered in goo. New motifs include Commandant Lassard accidentally torturing his pet goldfish, and Zed spraying toxic chemicals on himself for pleasure.
Best Larvell Jones sound effect: While two preppies eat lunch, Jones makes disgusting chewing and gulping sounds, tricking each half of the couple into thinking that the other is gauche.
Best line: Capt. Pete Lassard tells his brother, “I need to get my hands on some healthy young men.”
Wait, which one was this one again? This is the one where Mahoney goes undercover with Zed’s gang and gets wired up with a Mr. Microphone, which picks up and broadcasts radio signals in the middle of the operation. It’s also the one where Tackleberry loses his virginity with Kirkland, after they strip off their respective arsenals.
1985 signifiers: Mauser puts a lot of faith in his loudly beeping digital watch, and when Zed’s gang trashes a supermarket, a box of Pac-Man cereal can be seen on one of the shelves. Also, future The Wonder Years teen actor Jason Hervey pops up in a bit part.
Police Academy 3: Back In Training (1986)
Director: Jerry Paris
Writer: Gene Quintano
The plot: If the first Police Academy was just “Stripes with cops,” then Police Academy 3: Back In Training is “pig Meatballs,” as Lassard’s increasingly madcap academy has to compete with Mauser’s much more efficient crosstown academy to see which one will retain its state funding. Mauser seems to be well in the lead, until Lassard’s crew saves the governor’s life when he’s ambushed by a gang at a charity event. Back In Training is also noteworthy as the first Police Academy movie to be shot largely in Toronto, which the filmmakers barely try to conceal. The background is full of Canadian soft-drink machines, Canadian restaurants, and Toronto Sun newspaper boxes.
The cast: Zed and Sweetchuck return, now as cadets, joined by Miss USA/Miss Universe Shawn Weatherly as Cadet Karen Adams (another one-off love-interest for Mahoney), Brian Tochi as Cadet Tomoko Nogata, and Match Game wise-ass Debralee Scott as Fackler’s wife, who appeared briefly in the first film and now joins her husband on the force. Tackleberry’s new wife Sgt. Kirkland takes this movie off, though she returns for the fourth film (which will be her last appearance in the series).
Series motifs: Another scene of Zed getting happily gassed, more goldfish-abuse, and a hearty Hooks “Don’t move, dirtbag!” Back In Training also represents the first (but far from the last) time that Jones does kung fu while pretending to be in a badly dubbed Hong Kong movie, the first time that a citizen is blasted for smoking in public, and the first time that Lieutenant Callahan (now back in the series for good) belts out a musical number. And poor Mauser gets a sticky substance on his face, which rips out his eyebrows.
Best Larvell Jones sound effect: Though in the past Jones has used his abilities to trick criminals into thinking they were under assault, here he makes fake crook-detector noises to himself while in pursuit of the bad guys, which raises serious questions about whether Jones is really all that useful in a crisis.
Best line: From the moment that Commandant Lassard says, “I’m going to accompany the governor to the charity regatta,” veterans of raunchy comedies know that mayhem is a-comin’. Never have the words “governor,” “charity” and “regatta” led to anything non-wacky.
Wait, which one was this one again? This is the one where the prostitute from the first movie returns, seduces Proctor, and leaves him wandering naked through the street, until he inevitably stumbles into The Blue Oyster Bar.
1986 signifiers: When Tackleberry rises out of the water at the regatta, he’s dressed like Rambo. (Also, in the shots of the Toronto skyline, there are no signs of the not-yet-constructed Skydome.)
Police Academy 4: Citizens On Patrol (1987)
Director: One of Norman Lear’s go-to TV directors, Jim Drake
Writer: Gene Quintano
The plot: Commandant Lassard decides to enhance the effectiveness of the force by deputizing a posse of concerned citizens—after they go through training at his academy, of course. Before he can implement his plan, however, Lassard has to go away to a conference in England, leaving Capt. Harris (now back in the series for good, replacing Mauser) in charge. Harris, naturally, does all he can to get the citizens to fail, but Mahoney’s bunch helps the citizens prove their mettle when a prison break sees the city overrun with punks, thugs, and ninjas. The film ends with a battle royale, culminating in genuinely thrilling aerial stunts involving biplanes and hot-air balloons.
The cast: Mrs. Fackler is gone, as is Mr. Fackler (for now, anyway), but otherwise this is easily the most crowded Police Academy, supplementing the usual cast of crazies with a sizable band of citizen cops: Billie Bird as arms-loving old lady Lois Feldman; Tab Thacker as hefty Tommy “House” Conklin; Derek McGrath (a.k.a. “Andy Andy” from Cheers) as Butterworth; David Spade as Kyle Ault; and ’80s girl-next-door sexpot Corinne Bohrer as Zed’s love interest Laura. (None of these “citizens” will return, save House.) Randall “Tex” Cobb plays one of the bad guys, while Sharon Stone—yes, Sharon Stone—plays a reporter whom Mahoney tries to impress.
Series motifs: Harris visits The Blue Oyster (which Proctor has been told has “the best salad bar in town”), gets a megaphone glued to his lips, and suffers when his spray deodorant is replaced with mace. Zed nearly eats Commandant Lassard’s goldfish. Callahan sits on Nogata. Tackleberry suffers through a dinner with his overly aggressive in-laws. Jones does his bad lip-dub routine while fighting ninjas. And we hear the end of a Lassard anecdote in which he’s clearly talking about what happened to him at the podium in the first film.
Best Larvell Jones sound effect: It’s hard to top Michael Winslow’s performance in the title song, for which he mimics the sounds of multiple voices and instruments.
Best line: Capt. Harris gets irritated when Proctor plays with the Newton’s Cradle on his desk and snaps, “Don’t you ever touch my balls without asking!” (And later, he tells Mahoney to “kiss my rosy red ass,” which leaves Mahoney quietly asking, “Rosy?”)
Wait, which one was this one again? This is the one where Proctor is reading Archie Pals ’N’ Gals in a porta-potty, which our heroes lift with a crane and deposit on a football field, just in time for the national anthem.
1987 signifiers: The city is terrorized by skateboarders, played in part by members of Stacey Peralta’s legendary Bones Brigade: Tony Hawk, Lance Mountain, Mike McGill, Tommy Guerrero, and Steve Caballero.
Police Academy 5: Assignment: Miami Beach (1988)
Director: Alan Myerson, stalwart of Second City and the hip ’60s comedy troupe The Committee
Writer: Steven Curwick
The plot: Though nobody bothers to tell Commandant Lassard in advance, now-Commissioner Hurst announces at the academy’s graduation ceremony that Lassard is being forced to retire because he’s too old. Before he takes his leave, though, Lassard is invited to receive an award at a conference in Miami, where he accidentally ends up with a bag full of hot goods being smuggled by some slickly attired gangsters. When the crooks try to kidnap Lassard to get their merchandise back, he assumes this is all part of a drill, and helps his captors as they lead Lassard’s men and women on a boat chase through the Everglades.
The cast: Mahoney leaves the series for good, taking Zed, Sweetchuck, and Nogata with him. Our new main hero is Commandant Lassard’s nephew Nick, a Miami police sergeant played by Matt McCoy. Also in Miami, Janet “Mrs. Wayne Gretzky” Jones plays the helpful Officer Kate, while Rene Auberjonois plays the ganglord’s main henchman, Tony.
Series motifs: Harris gets flung into a bass drum and Jones does his kung-fu dubbing bit again, while Hooks sprays a cigar-smoking airplane passenger with a fire extinguisher and goes from meek to shouting “Back up, you turkeys!” during a crowd-control drill. Commandant Lassard’s goldfish craziness reaches new heights, as he carries his fish tank in his airplane carry-on bag and puts goldfish-shaped covers on his gold clubs. And in one of the most unexpected callbacks, a female cadet falls to her knees in front of Commandant Lassard during graduation, reminding him of the first movie’s podium-set suck-off.
Best Larvell Jones sound effect: In one of the most delightfully weird bits of business in the whole series, Jones entertains his young seatmate on the plane by pretending to drill a hole in the back of Commissioner Hurst’s skull and then play Hurst’s brainstem like a violin.
Best line: As Capt. Harris tries to sunbathe, Sgt. Nick Lassard wanders by, prompting Harris to growl, “Some dickhead is standing in my sun!”
Wait, which one was this one again? This is the one where Harris falls asleep on the beach and Nick Lassard writes “DORK” on his chest with sunscreen, and the one where House sits next to Hightower on an airplane and makes the entire aircraft tilt. It’s also the one where Proctor has a waterskiing mishap and ends up getting the butt ripped out of his wetsuit, and the one where Lassard gestures at Callahan’s chest as he introduces “my best friends.”
1988 signifiers: This was close to the end of the Miami Vice era, which makes the setting itself—along with the presence of slickly attired gangsters—so very 1988.
Police Academy 6: City Under Siege (1989)
Director: Peter Bonerz, who played dentist Jerry Robinson on The Bob Newhart Show (seriously, what is it with this series and TV dentists named Jerry?)
Writer: Stephen Curwick
The plot: Harris is in charge of his own precinct now, but it’s being swamped with crime, all of it centered on the parts of the city where the new train line is being built. Against Harris’ will, Commandant Lassard and his team are brought in to help, and it’s Lassard’s nephew Nick who figures out that the criminals are trying to devalue property so that they can make a killing in real estate when the train goes in.
The cast: House has moved on, but after taking the last two movies off, Bruce Mahler returns as Fackler. Citizens On Patrol’s Billie Bird is back too for one brief scene (though her character has a different name this time). The bad guys include Mel Brooks favorite Kenneth Mars as The Mayor, who fumbles for words amusingly, and onetime Brian De Palma regular Gerrit Graham as Ace.
Series motifs: The return of Fackler means the return of Fackler absentmindedly knocking props over. Jones does his kung-fu dubbing routine yet again. Harris gets glued to a chair and also gets splattered with paint when Sgt. Lassard slips him a stack of money with an exploding dye pack.
Best Larvell Jones sound effect: Jones entertains nightclub patrons during a blackout by recreating an entire Jimi Hendrix concert with his mouth. He also freaks out a crook by pretending to be a defective robot.
Best line: The inarticulate mayor is disappointed that Harris hasn’t caught the bad guys yet and sputters, “I want to hear that these crooks have been… the thing… where you put the cuffs on the….”
Wait, which one was this one again? This is the one where criminals cut a hole in the bottom of an armored truck, and when the truck starts moving again, Harris falls through the hole and has to run along the street like Fred Flintstone.
1989 signifiers: Hip-hop legend Melle Mel performs in the park, and has an impromptu rap conversation with Hightower and Hooks. (Though given that 1989 was the year of Boogie Down Productions’ Ghetto Music, Ice-T’s The Iceberg, Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, and De La Soul’s 3 Feet High And Rising, Melle Mel’s decidedly old-school flow is more a signifier of 1979.)
Police Academy: Mission To Moscow (1994)
Director: Alan Metter
Writers: Randolph Davis and Michele S. Chodos
The plot: Commandant Lassard brings his team overseas to help the locals deal with a tricky case involving computer fraud. The usual complications ensue.
The cast: There are defections aplenty in the ranks of the cops, as Hooks, Hightower, Proctor, Fackler, and Sgt. Lassard all take their leave, while TV’s Ferris Bueller, Charlie Schlatter, steps in as vertigo-suffering Cadet Kyle Connors. On the Russian side, Christopher Lee plays mustachioed lawman Rakov, Claire Forlani plays Connors’ uniformed love interest Katrina, and Ron Perlman plays sneering villain Konali.
Series motifs: Commandant Lassard’s uncanny grasp of physics manifests in an impossible basketball shot, while Harris gets yanked through a wall while practicing his surveillance technique. For the first time since Back In Training, Callahan sings.
Best Larvell Jones sound effect: During Rakov’s briefing, Jones makes ear-splitting squeaky noises every time Rakov writes on the chalkboard. Later, he opens a safe by making the sound of falling tumblers.
Best line: Connors follows in the tradition of such nervously quipping adventurers as Bob Hope and Woody Allen, telling the threatening Russians, “I’m just here for the herring.”
Wait, which one was this one again? This is the one where Jones pours tequila and sour mix into his mouth, shakes his head around while whirring like a blender, and spits a margarita into a glass.
1994 signifiers: The whole world is obsessed with a Tetris-like Russian Game Boy game. The world, however, is no longer obsessed with Police Academy movies. The seventh film was a resounding flop.