I’m surprised I was able to watch The Undergrads. When I did a preliminary search for movie availability in January, this one seemed to be nowhere online (save for a few clips) and nowhere for sale on VHS. But I finally found it, so I watched it. This is one of my favorite Disney Channel Premiere Films so far, and it came early in the catalogue — the channel launched in ’83; The Undergrads premiered in ’85.
The main character, Mel Adler, was played by Art Carney, a legendary actor with television credits including The Honeymooners and The Jackie Gleason Show. Mel Adler is in the process of moving into a retirement home because he accidentally set fire in his apartment and didn’t realize it for several moments. He is not close to his son, but he loves to spend time with his grandson, Dennis (nicknamed “Jody”). Jody has finished high school and is planning on the Ivy League, but he’d rather be with his grandfather than go to Harvard. Seeing how miserable Mel is at the retired living facility, Jody suggests that Mel come to live with him at a local college. To reside in a dorm, Mel must be enrolled in classes. That’s precisely what the grandpa does. He secures his spot, but only by making an agreement that he must earn a certain grade point average in his first semester to continue with his studies.
Although Jody has come from a privileged upbringing, his father has cut him off financially for not choosing Harvard. Mel has some emergency cash he keeps in a sock, but it runs out quickly when he and Jody account for all their school and housing expenses. They live on a shoestring budget and eat Raisin Bran for about every meal. Though I know it’s not appropriate, Mel’s flirtation with his professor is depicted very sweetly in the movie. Jody’s after-school job, however, becomes nightmarish when he finds out he’s working for a mafia boss. Despite their optimism for learning and living together, life keeps getting more difficult for Mel and Jody.
Mel tries to leave school and go back to the retirement home, but his grandson won’t have it. With no money, Jody runs across town to the facility and persuades Mel to try college again. After he finishes his final exams, the two wait with their friends at the bar for his scores to come in, and he meets the criteria to continue at the university. I’d say the best parts of this film are the grandfather-grandson bonding — seeing them attend class and high-five each other, talk to each other at their modest apartment, and enjoy the college experience together.
It’s a shame that this film isn’t more widely available. Directed by Steven Hilliard Stern, the movie was nominated for four CableACE awards, and Art Carney won for best actor in a movie or miniseries. The South Florida Sun Sentinel has an archived review of The Undergrads with this great description: “…a film that should serve as an inspiration to people who think they’re over the hill.”