Late in March, we were filling an order for our Bull Shit tee. No big deal, right? Normally, yes, but this was no ordinary purchase, because attached to the order was a note added by the customer:
This shirt is for the kid from the movie The Jerk! He’s grown up and turning 40.
Our curiosity naturally piqued, we fired back a response which led to a second exchange, and ultimately, an interview with Jon Leichter, the actor who played Billy in the film, and the recipient of said gift. Mr. Leichter was kind enough to wax eloquently on The Jerk and his memories thereof…
It Goes to 11: So the obvious question here — what do you think of our Bull Shit tee? Is it a fair approximation of the original? Any idea where the one you wore came from and how it ended up in The Jerk?
Jon Leichter: I received the replica Bull Shit tee as a 40th birthday gift, and I was thrilled! For years, anyone who has known that I was in that scene in The Jerk has asked me if I got to keep the shirt (which I didn’t). The original shirt was allocated (and taken back) by the wardrobe department. I have no idea what they ever did with it. Too bad my mother didn’t request to keep it!
(Editor’s note: one imagines that it would be a tight fit at this point in time…)
It Goes to 11: Tell us a bit about how you were cast as Billy in The Jerk. How old were you at the time of filming?
Jon Leichter: I was born and grew up in Hollywood. You know how people always say to parents that their kids should be in movies? My parents took it literally.
At age 7, my father (who was in the music business) found an agent to represent me. I started going on auditions and booking gigs. I had a certain 70’s look that casting directors seemed to like. I did about 4 commercials before I got cast in The Jerk. I continued working until about age 9. My agent ended up leaving the business, and at the time I was too young to understand the implications and whether or not I cared to continue.
It Goes to 11: What can you remember of the carnival train shoot?
Jon Leichter: I remember several details of the train shoot quite well. The scene was filmed in a section of Griffith Park (in Hollywood). The specific area was called Travel Town. The train ride already existed as part of the park. I got to drive the train myself. There was a lever that controlled the speed and direction of the train. The more one pushed the lever forward, the faster the train went. One would put the lever into neutral for the acceleration to stop. Pulling back on the lever caused the train to go in reverse. There were no brakes, but there was an emergency brake, which I never used. I didn’t have to steer since the train was on a track. We filmed my scene in one day, and it was a blast!
It Goes to 11: There’s a look of pure glee on your face as the train rounds the track and Navin chases from behind. Was that improvised?
Jon Leichter: My facial expressions were not improvised. The director (Carl Reiner) was quite specific about how I was to act, e.g. the gleeful smiles, slapping my hands on my lap, etc. We took several takes, which means I had to “act” like I was having a great time over and over again. If you think my expressions looked natural, then I guess I did a decent acting job after all!
It Goes to 11: Any fun Steve Martin memories (or Bernadette Peters for that matter)? Did your paths ever cross again later in life?
Jon Leichter: Steve Martin was a quiet guy, at least with me. The bulk of my interaction with him was doing our scenes. I was completely surprised when he first kissed me on the cheek. I didn’t know at first how the scenes were going to play out. I recall having off-camera conversations with Bernadette Peters. Our conversations were more about the scenes than personal stuff. I have not crossed paths with either actor since.
It Goes to 11: In a movie packed with sight gags, the Bull Shit tee remains among the most memorable. Until we put it into our design queue in 2010, we routinely received requests for it, attesting to the film’s cachet as a cult fave. Any thoughts on why this is and do you think that something similar — that is, a kid with a questionable slogan who might not be aware of its significance — would have anywhere near as much staying power in the Internet era?
Jon Leichter: I don’t know exactly why the Bull Shit tee (or The Jerk for that matter) has retained its popularity, but I think it’s amazingly cool. One has to give credit to the film makers for being so creative and revolutionary. Having a kid wear a slogan that he doesn’t understand can often be hilarious. Perhaps The Jerk was the first of its kind to do this, and maybe that’s why it’s had staying power. Nowadays, the concept is well-known such that there are probably too many cases to be uniquely remembered.
It Goes to 11: On a related note, have you seen Bad Santa, with Billy Bob Thornton? There’s a great tee that makes an appearance at the end and I’d like to think it’s a nod of sorts to The Jerk…
Jon Leichter: I never did see Bad Santa, but I have heard of it. I’m probably going to watch it now so I can at least see the scene you’ve referred to and gain some context. The image you’ve shown me definitely seems like a nod!
It Goes to 11: Thanks again, Jon, for taking the time to write thoughtful responses!