Adam Sandler Wanted ‘Leo’ to Be an Elementary School-Style ‘Grease,’ Says Former Manager Inspired Voicework

Adam Sandler is heading back to fifth grade for his latest film, Leo.

In the Netflix animated movie, the star voices a 70-year-old lizard named Leo, who for decades has served as a class pet for a rotating group of fifth graders. One day, he learns he only has a year left to live and plans to escape to freedom, but instead has to rescue the students from their mean substitute teacher.

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Sandler, who also co-wrote and produced the project, told The Hollywood Reporter at its Los Angeles premiere on Sunday that he was inspired to a do a version of “Grease for the last year of elementary school,” while working with writer-director Robert Smigel to craft a musical comedy. Sandler stars in the voice cast alongside his daughters Sunny and Sadie, as well as wife Jackie, marking the second family collaboration they’ve done this year, after You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah. (Though the tightknit group loves working together, don’t expect family-only projects from now on, as Sandler acknowledges, “They want to do their own thing, too.”)

When it came to crafting the voice of Leo, Sandler revealed that he channeled late manager and producer Bernie Brillstein, who helped launch Saturday Night Live and served as manager to SNL stars including himself, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, John Belushi, Martin Short and Lorne Michaels. The star recalled how they would always impersonate Brillstein’s voice on set, which he’s held on to for years since leaving the show.

Smigel — who worked on SNL for more than 25 years — said he also used to do an impression of the manager, and remembered how Brillstein would give advice in a way that would suit the film’s wise lizard. “Adam said, ‘Let me do Bernie for this one.’ I thought he might do Peter Falk, but he said, ‘I want to do Bernie for this one,'” Smigel added.

The writer-director noted that the film came together after Adam Sandler had already started work on a movie set during the fifth grade. “It was a very different movie, and it had a narrator who appeared two or three times and the last time it appeared, it was revealed, at the very end of the movie, that it was a snake at the back of the classroom. That sort of just triggered this whole idea for me of like, ‘What if the class pet has been stuck in this room for 70 years, seen every kind of fifth grader, was incredibly jaded, then finds out he has a year to live, and then he decides he’s got to make more of his life, then he ends up giving advice to kids?’

“Kids have such heightened anxiety about the smallest problems sometimes when they’re that age, so I thought that was a really funny thing to put together — kids with really tiny problems that are huge in their minds, confiding with a wise old lizard,” he continued.

Bill Burr co-stars in the film as Squirtle, a turtle who shares the classroom terrarium with Leo, saying that it was “surreal to be in the booth with [Sandler], he’s the greatest guy ever.” And although Sandler and the film’s child stars perform a number of musical performances, Burr goes song-free, joking, “I’m actually disappointed they didn’t ask me. I’m one of the great bad singers of all time.”

Smigel’s sons also star in the voice cast alongside Sandler’s daughters, as co-director David Wachtenheim noted they “kept evoking Peanuts cartoons” as inspiration, adding, “We wanted natural sounding kids and any of them who tried to be a little more Broadway, we had to say, ‘Tone it down.'”

Leo begins streaming on Netflix this Tuesday, Nov. 21.

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