The 10 Cheesiest "Just Say No" After-School Specials
After-school specials and made-for-TV movies about the dangers of drug use originated in the early '70s, but these message-driven flicks hit their peak in the '80s, during the "Just Say No" era of President Reagan. Basic cable networks churned out these movies designed to teach kids valuable lessons about drugs and sex, while networks launched a series of after-school specials centered around the theme. While the results were high on anti-drug propaganda, they were notably low on production values and acting quality. Still, the franchise did launch the careers of several prominent names—while providing a final big payday for some fading stars.
In the first several of anti-drug movies featuring Scott Baio, he plays the role of awkward high school freshman Jack Melon. He initially refuses a joint offer from the school’s reputed pothead and dealer Teddy (Jeffrey Frichner), but eventually tries it and the two strike up a friendship. Jack’s pot use quickly leads to a deteriorating relationship with his brother older Mike (Vincent Bufano), his new classmate Felicity (Largo Woodruff) rejecting his advances and his Spanish teacher Mr. David (John Herzfeld) calling him out during a lecture for being stoned. Jack smokes a joint prior to a lake outing with Mike and accidentally whacks his older brother with an oar while rowing, leading to Mike waking up in the hospital with a broken nose and no memory of what happened. When their father demands to know the details, Mike tells him that he smacked into a tree trunk after swimming ahead of the boat and that Jack saved his life. The incident turns Jack off smoking pot and (of course!) he ends up winning back Felicity as soon as his habit is kicked.
One Too Many (1985)
Unlike many after-school drug specials which featured Hollywood stars before they made it big, this one starred Val Kilmer post-Top Secret and Michelle Pfeiffer post-Grease 2 and Scarface. Unfortunately, the plot was hardly A-list worthy. In a flashback montage, Pfeiffer plays the role of Annie, a nerdy high school student whose boyfriend Eric (Kilmer) is a major drinker. Eric starts a fight with Annie’s best friend Beth (Mare Winningham) one night while drinking and the couple leave. Although both have been booze, Annie has drunk somewhat less, and insists that Eric give her his keys so that she can drive them home. When Beth runs out into the road to stop them, Annie accidentally smashes into her with his car and kills her. Because she was legally drunk at the time, Annie is sent to juvenile hall, facing a potential vehicular manslaughter charge.
The Boy Who Drank Too Much (1980)
Based on a novel of the same name by Shep Greene, Scott Baio continued his anti-drug propaganda career by playing the role of a likable high school hockey player, Buff Saunders, who drinks excessively to escape his damaged home life. His father (Don Murray) is also an alcoholic and absent when Buff is eventually rushed to the hospital for alcohol poisoning. Buff eventually enters rehab in order not to lose his position on the team, and his straight-laced hockey teammate Billy Carpenter (Lance Kerwin) commits to helping him stay clean and sober. Billy’s grades start to drop due to his efforts in helping Buff, who leaves the hospital when his friend misses one meeting because it’s his birthday, but the hockey star ultimately manages to stay on the wagon.
The Fourth Man (1990) (7 minutes in)
Playing up the statistic at the time that seven percent or more of all high school students are on steroids, the film features Joey (Peter Billingsley), a non-athletic bookworm whose father (Tim Rossovich) is a former football hero. Joey’s father raves over the athletic accomplishments of his best friend Steve (Vince Vaughn), so he tries out for the high school track team in an effort to win his father’s approval. When diet and exercise don’t yield quick results, a sports equipment store employee recommends steroids for Joey. Although his track results begin to improve drastically, Joey begins to exhibit episodes of roid rage and his grades fall drastically. Eventually, a near-fatal collapse reveals Joey’s addiction to steroids and his family intervenes to help him.
Francesca, Baby (1976)
One of the few anti-drug movies that centers around a child dealing with a family member suffering from addiction, teenager Francesca James (Carol Jones) struggles to cope with the alcoholism of her mother Lillian (Melendy Britt). Lillian’s drinking increases after the death of Francesca’s brother in an accident and between that and her father Bix’s (Dennis Bowen) long trips away working, Francesca is essentially forced to fend for herself. When Lillian nearly causes a house fire after dropping a lit cigarette on her pillow after a drinking binge, Francesca’s friends invite her to attend meetings with support group Ala-Teen. Although she’s initially angered by the suggestion, she attends the meetings and not only begins to learn important life lessons, but becomes empowered to help her mother begin to help herself in beating her alcoholism.
Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue (1990)
Widely considered the worst anti-drug movie ever made, this film features a random posse of cartoon characters advocating against drug use—including Winnie the Pooh, the Chipmunks, Bugs Bunny, The Smurfs and The Muppet Babies. The movie centers around Michael (Jason Marsden), a teenager who is stealing his father’s beer and experimenting with pot. When the piggy bank of his younger sister Corey (Lindsey Parker) goes missing, her cartoon toys help her discover it in Michael’s room—along with a stash of drugs. The cartoon characters then join forces to take Michael on a fantasy journey that teaches him about the risks and consequences that drug use can bring. Unsure if he can change, Michael and Corey go to their parents to tell them about his drug problem. McDonald’s later distributed a VHS version of the film, which including an opening introduction from President George H.W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush.
Desperate Lives (1982)
Want to see Helen Hunt on crank? This ‘80s flick shows just that. Hunt plays the role of teenager Sandy Cameron, who engages in reckless drug experimentation with her brother Scott (Doug McKeon). After ingesting angel dust cooked up by Scott in the school’s chemistry lab, Sandy jumps through a glass window at the school and is paralyzed from the fall. Scott also smokes drugs with his girlfriend and crashes their car off a cliff, then later has a violent reaction to drugs which sends him to the hospital. Recognizing a severe problem amongst the student body and frustrated at the staff’s refusal to do anything about it, guidance counselor Eileen Phillips (Diana Scarwid) storms into a school assembly and confronts the students. making it clear that their drug use is having a severe impact and that further tragedies will continue to occur unless something is done.
15 and Getting Straight (1989)
One of the few anti-drug movies in which the actors had already experienced severe drug problems in real life, this film is set in a 12-step, 28-day drug addiction treatment center for teenagers where the group leader Kim (Tatum O’Neal) is a recovering addict herself. The film centers around two newcomers: Jeff Hoyt (Corey Feldman), who is new to treatment and despite trying to commit suicide while high, refuses to admit his addictions; and Susan (Drew Barrymore), a bulimic and fellow newcomer to the group, who provides the most powerful scene in the flick when she confronts her mother’s belief that she is “too fragile” to deal with a troubled daughter. Despite being written and directed by Emmy Award-winner Joanna Lee, the movie was considered a flop and quickly forgotten.
Shattered... If Your Kid’s On Drugs (1986)
Burt Reynolds and Judd Nelson narrate this anti-drug propaganda flick that exposes the “American nightmare” of drug use in suburbia. Kim (Megan Fellows) and Rick (Ricky Seagull) are teenagers who initially start experimenting with marijuana. But their “cool” drug dealer (Dermot Mulroney) tries to get them to take harder drugs like crack. Their parents, who are frequently either drunk or on valium, are in denial of their children’s drug problems as they watch them eventually get expelled from school. Rick eventually enters rehab, but Kim continues to use and even gets high before visiting a shrink. Meanwhile, Reynolds and Nelson periodically appear to provide personal thoughts from the sidelines—but don’t appear to be particularly sober themselves while delivering their lines.
Get High On Yourself (1981)
No, this special wasn’t promoting vanity; the hour-long offering kicked off an anti-drug concept of the same name that filled an entire week of primetime programming on NBC. Ironically, it was created by Hollywood producer Robert Evans as part of a court-ordered, community service probation deal after he pled guilty to purchasing $19,000 worth of cocaine. A loosely structured documentary about the making of an all-star sing along, the special featured a variety of major names from the ‘70s, including Bob Hope, Carol Burnett, Paul Newman, Ted Nugent and Muhammad Ali—all of whom informed kids that taking drugs isn’t cool and that nobody in Hollywood actually does them. Some of the more infamous vignettes include John Travolta and Burt Reynolds awkwardly rapping about drugs, while Al Jarreau inexplicably leads a gospel songfest.
All The Kids Do It (1984)
Part of the CBS Schoolbreak Special series, Scott Baio returned to the anti-drug franchise for the final time with the role of Buddy Elder, an Olympic high-diving hopeful who is secretly hiding a crippling drinking problem. The film features Buddy going on long drinking binges with his friends and justifying it with the rationale, “All the kids do it.” However, Baio is eventually caught drunk driving and the incident could potentially put an end to his Olympic dreams. Buddy ultimately learns his lesson and puts down the bottle to focus on his diving career. Baio earned an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Performer in Children’s Programming. The film also marked the directorial debut of Henry Winkler, aka. The Fonz.