Isabel Pellerin doesn't think Adam Sandler is one bit funny. She has never seen him on Saturday Night Live. She did not see his goofball films Airheads or Billy Madison. And she has no plans to take in his current hit comedy, The Waterboy. Why should she? Give or take a few dog poop pranks, Pellerin knows the act: the silly voices, the naughty words, the food-on-your-face frat-boy antics. Sandler's official disciplinarian at New Hampshire's Manchester Central High School from 1980 to 1984, Pellerin says sternly, "You've seen his movies? That's the way he was here." He was always pleasant, she explains, but always fooling around, and that just wasn't conducive to a proper school atmosphere. "I can't believe he's making all that money for things he was being punished for here. I thought he would grow up," Pellerin adds. "Instead he grew rich."
Life just ain't fair—unless you're the guy whose per-picture asking price just rose to an estimated $20 million. With a resume that includes this year's $80 million box office hit The Wedding Singer and five years on SNL perfecting such endearingly annoying characters as the nonsensical Opera Man and the hyperaccented Cajun Man, Sandler, 32, is hardly a Hollywood newcomer. Still, in an interview in the current Seventeen magazine, he chides his mother, Judy, 61, for bringing too many of her discount-ticket, senior citizen pals to see The Wedding Singer. "Get some younger friends," said Sandler, "so I can get some business, Ma." He needn't worry. Panned by critics, The Waterboy—in which Sandler plays a good-hearted nitwit turned college football hero—earned $79.1 million in its first 10 days, with its opening weekend take breaking the previous nonsummer record held by Jim Carrey's 1995 hit Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls. Carrey may be dumb and dumber, but Sandler's now got dibs on dumbest. And that, fogies and cynics, is a compliment.
"Adam has always been criticized by a generation of people who felt pretty confident that when the 'next big thing' happened, they would recognize it," says SNL creator Lorne Michaels, who hired Sandler in 1990. "[But] comedy changes, and of course, part of it enrages the previous generation."
Which is not really what this particular next big thing wants to do. Described by Michaels as a "really hard worker" who is "pretty disciplined," he often pulls all-nighters working on material. At The Water-boy's first read-through, Henry Winkler, who plays a football coach, was impressed by Sandler's focus. "I watched him as he heard the material being read, and Adam was in complete charge of every joke," says Winkler. "He knew if it worked or it didn't."
And yet he doesn't agonize over material. Unlike such comedic greats as Lenny Bruce, whose caustic wit was fueled by inner demons, the only thing goading Sandler, say friends and family, is his inner child. Give the guy an air hockey table (like the one in the living room of his two-bedroom Manhattan bachelor pad, a gift from former SNL pal Conan O'Brien), a bunch of old college buddies with whom to watch Sunday football, and the freedom to leave his dirty clothes on the floor, and Sandler is content. "I wouldn't call him the neatest person in the world," says his older brother Scott, 36, a lawyer in Manchester, "but he's having a good time."
And has been since he was a 7-year-old singing "The Candy Man" for Manchester nursing home patients. The youngest son of retired engineer, Stan, now 63, and Judy, a homemaker, Sandler was "perpetually performing," says Scott. At first the audience consisted of a few friends, his siblings—including older sisters Elizabeth, now a dentist in Manchester, and Valerie, who works in the food industry—and, of course, his mother. "She would ask him to sing 'Maria' from West Side Story, and he would," says Scott. "He'd keep her happy most of the time."
Thanks, in part, says Scott, to a knack for "getting out of trouble." Take the time Sandler secretly tape-recorded his mother yelling at him for screwing up. "When she stopped shouting, I played [the tape] back at her. She laughed for half an hour," Sandler told Mademoiselle magazine in 1995. "That was my life: doing something wrong, getting yelled at, making the person laugh." Manchester Central principal Bob Schiavone agrees. "Teachers would ask him to leave the class, but they were laughing while they asked," he says. "He was hilarious."
Most of the time. While a fine arts student at New York University, he turned dormmates Tim Herlihy, now a producer on SNL who cowrote The Waterboy with Sandler, and Frank Coraci, who directed The Waterboy and The Wedding Singer, into partners in comic crime. Together they amused themselves blasting Led Zeppelin tunes and pulling childish pranks—like putting an amplifier in their window and shouting, "Hey, you! Baldy!" to pedestrians below. "It was funny to pick on random people," says Herlihy—until the complaints put an end to their game.
Fortunately other audiences were more appreciative. Several nights a week, Sandler hit various Manhattan comedy clubs to hone his act—such as it was. "He was onstage for 15 minutes, and he had only told two jokes, and the audience was laughing hysterically," marvels the Comic Strip's former doorman, known simply as Ozzie, now manager of the New York Comedy Club. "All he was doing was standing there." "With Adam it was never about the material," says the Comic Strip's talent coordinator Lucien Hold. "He was just so likable."
And not just to men. In college, Sandler dated off and on—but nothing serious, as Coraci says: "None of us were lady-killers, but we did all right going out with girls when they didn't think we were too much of idiots." Sandler's most serious relationship, with onetime fiancée Margaret Ruden, a cosmetics marketing executive, began in 1989 and ended a few years ago. But pals say marriage and children are likely in the cards. "He just loves kids—and they can't get enough of him," says Herlihy. Not surprising for a man who is still, as Mrs. Pellerin notes, a child himself. "If it's fun and it's working," says Herlihy, "why change?"
Karen S. Schneider
Reported by: Mark Dagostino in Manchester, Cynthia Wang and Michael Sommers in Manhattan and Julie Jordan, Elizabeth Leonard and Todd Gold in Los Angeles
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