The Real Story Behind “Real Genius”


The 1985 movie Real Genius depicts the adventures of brilliant physics students at the fictional Pacific Tech University. If you are unfamiliar with it, you can read a plot synopsis here.

While the film itself is classified as fiction, it appears to have drawn upon a number of real-life people and events — most of whom were connected to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech):

  • Laslo Hollyfeld, a former student at Pacific Tech, is an off-the-charts genius. Upon discovering that his research was being used in weapons, Hollyfeld snapped and lived the rest of his days in the steam tunnels under the university. Odd as this may sound, something very similar actually occurred at Caltech. David Marvit, one of the technical advisors for Real Genius, said, “Among the Tech legends are the students who couldn’t take the strain and retreated into the steam tunnels. A friend of mine knew someone who spent three terms down there. You’ll find their graffiti on the walls, from mathematical equations to in-jokes and outbursts.” (source)
  • Hollyfeld also spent his time in the tunnels churning out 1.6 million entries to the Frito-Lay Sweepstakes, giving him a mathematical probability of winning 32.6% of the prizes, including the car. He is later disappointed that he won only 31.8% of the prizes. This event was based on a 1975 stunt where Caltech students submitted 1.2 million entries in a McDonald’s sweepstakes, anticipated earning 35% of the prizes, but ended up receiving only 20%.
  • The movie depicts a “Smart People on Ice” winter carnival, where the dorm is converted into a skating rink and bobsled course. Caltech students would remember the actual event of using a circular stairway as a bobsled run, and then, as the ice melted, a change events from bobsled to white water rafting. Sometimes dry ice was used so the ice would change immediately to gas.
  • Mitch Taylor is a 15-year-old genius when he is admitted to Pacific Tech. Dr. Hathaway notes that the youngest student ever accepted was 12 years old, but he cracked under pressure. This was a reference to just such a student at Caltech.
  • Jordan, the “hyperkinetic” mechanical engineer, is another character inspired by an actual student (whose nickname was “Tigger”). Jordan, in turn, became the inspiration for Gadget Hackwrench in Disney’s Chip and Dale’s Rescue Rangers. 
  • The initials D.E.I. appear throughout the movie as a thinly-veiled reference to the phrase “Dabney Eats It,” which has a long-standing connection with the Dabney House at Caltech. To read up on the history of this phrase, read here. The initials have appeared on the summit of Mt. Everest, the Moon, and on many satellites and space probes manufactured at the JPL. Caltech alumni participate in an informal contest to see who can place the initials in the most visible and/or unlikely place. Among the references to DEI are:
    • “Darlington Electronic Instruments” — the sponsors of Dr. Hathaway’s television program and the place where Chris Knight is to work after graduation;
    • “Drain Experts, Inc.” — the name on the truck used to transport popcorn to Dr. Hathaway’s house.
  • As the students break into Dr. Hathaway’s house, Chris Knight picks the lock of the front door. Richard Feynman, Nobel laureate and Caltech physics professor, was an accomplished lockpicker.

For an exhaustive list of Caltech references in the film, see here.

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