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The Hidden Mythos of 'Police Academy'

Brian Tousey

Exploring the strange parallels between the writing of mythologist Joseph Campbell and the first four Police Academy films.

Police Academy

Director: Hugh Wilson
Cast: Steve Guttenberg, Kim Cattrall, Bubba Smith, David Graf, George Gaynes, Michael Winslow
Year: 1984

Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment

Director: Jerry Paris
Cast: Steve Guttenberg, Bubba Smith, David Graf, Michael Winslow, Bruce Mahler, Marion Ramsey, Colleen Camp, Art Metrano, Howard Hesseman, George Gaynes
Year: 1985

Police Academy 3: Back in Training

Director: Jerry Paris
Cast: Steve Guttenberg, Bubba Smith, David Graf, Michael Winslow, Marion Ramsey, Leslie Easterbrook, Art Metrano, Tim Kazurinsky, George Gaynes
Year: 1986

Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol

Director: Jim Drake
Year: 1987

What do Joseph Campbell and Officer Carey Mahoney have in common?

Odysseus. Prometheus. Moses. Officer Carey Mahoney? Well, yes. The idea that all narratives share common themes and structures was coined as a “Monomyth” or “Hero’s Journey” by author Joseph Campbell. Campbell posits that, with some minor tweaks here and there, every story can be boiled down to the following essentials:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

-- The Hero With a Thousand Faces (Campbell 1949).

It is easy enough to see how the structure lends itself to, say, an epic such as Homer’s The Odyssey or even Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. But does it, can it, apply to something as apparently trivial as the Police Academy films?

The character of Carey Mahoney is the focus of the first four Academy films [Police Academy (1984), Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment (1985), Police Academy 3: Back in Training (1986), and Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol (1987)], and serves as the audience’s de facto “main hero” in a film series full of them. Seen through the lens of Campbell’s Monomyth concept, Mahoney clearly takes the “Hero’s Journey” in these four films, both externally as he finds purpose in his life, and internally as he attempts to come to grip with himself as a gay man.

Joseph Campbell breaks up his Monomyth concept into three parts: Departure, Initiation, and Return. Each part describes specific actions or steps that must be taken by the hero in order to adhere to the Monomyth concept. The first of these actions is the Call to Adventure.

In this step, the hero is given notice that everything in his life is going to change. When we first meet Mahoney, he is working as a parking lot attendant. We as the audience sense a restlessness in the character that perhaps Mahoney himself does not, watching as he self-sabotages by berating a customer, drawing attention to the man’s hairpiece through repeated shouts of “Wig! Wig!” and even fashioning an impromptu “wig siren” to alert others around to the wig, before destroying the customer’s Trans Am in an effort to park it in a non-spot.

This act gets Mahoney fired and arrested, and he is brought before Sergeant Reed, an old friend of Mahoney’s father. Through some dialogue between the two men, it is hinted that Mahoney has led a life of minor crime (“Sarge, it’s him again”). In an effort to curb Mahoney’s recidivism, Reed gives him a choice: 14 weeks of police academy training and discipline, or jail.

Mahoney, of course, resists the idea of being pushed out of his comfortable existence, which corresponds with the second step in Campbell’s idea of Departure: the Refusal of the Call. Sergeant Reed tells Mahoney that he may not quit the academy, but he may be thrown out. This immediately becomes Mahoney’s raison d’être; he determines to have himself thrown out of the academy at the first opportunity. We, the audience, know that the academy will bring order and purpose to Mahoney’s rudderless existence, but as with any good hero, the character will need to discover that for himself.

The Crossing of the Threshold and the Belly of the Whale are the next steps of the hero’s Departure, in which the hero crosses into the field of adventure and meets his allies, enemies, and mentor. Mahoney arrives at the Police Academy scarcely changed from his previous incarnation of an irresponsible rascal, clad in a “Bun In the Oven” half-shirt. It is here that he meets his allies over the next four chapters of the series: Eugene Tackleberry, the militaristic virgin; Larvell Jones, the clearly insane sound effects savant; Moses Hightower, the physically imposing but gentle former florist; Laverne Hooks, the meek wallflower who eventually finds her voice (“Don’t move, dirt bag!”); and his mentor and father figure, Commandant Eric Lassard.

Additionally, Mahoney faces off against the first of his two main adversaries in the story, Captain Thaddeus Harris. Captain Harris is introduced as a character whose sole purpose is “to get rid of the undesirables” at the academy, i.e. the women, blacks, and gays who have been granted admission into the program. While Mahoney, at least on the surface, does not appear to fit into any of these categories, he soon assumes a leadership role amongst these misfits, in keeping with Campbell’s Monomyth.

He teaches Hightower how to drive, thusly saving him from expulsion from the academy, and, despite being temporarily kicked out of the academy for insubordination (his original goal), Mahoney returns on his own to aid his friends in dealing with a city riot, in which he saves the life of his enemy, Captain Harris. By achieving this moment of grace, Mahoney completes the Departure portion of his Hero’s Journey.

The second prong of Campbell’s Monomyth is Initiation, in which Mahoney encounters The Road of Trials. These are a series of obstacles the hero must overcome in his pursuit of his transformation into the “hero”. Despite succeeding in making it through the academy (with honors!), Mahoney must continue to prove himself by first helping Commandant Lassard’s brother, Pete Lassard, to clean the streets of gangs in Their First Assignment, and again by returning to his alma mater and helping Commandant Lassard maintain his academy when challenged by both the economy and an evil rival police academy in Back in Training. In both of these second two chapters, Mahoney’s main adversary is Lieutenant Mauser and his lackey, Proctor. They work as tests to Mahoney’s character and morals throughout both of second and third chapters of the saga, but are not the true villains of either piece. Mahoney and his friends must risk actual life and limb during the climaxes of both films in the form of a vicious street gang (Their First Assignment) and the would-be kidnappers of the state governor (Back in Training).

The Meeting of the Goddess and The Woman as the Temptress are also key components to the Hero’s Journey. These steps represent the point when the hero experiences unconditional love and may stray from the quest by the idea of a woman. It is important to note that Campbell sees these steps as not necessarily needing to be with actual women, but instead could be a metaphor for temptation in general.

Mahoney meets several women on his adventures, and with them comes a brief diversion and examination into the internal journey he takes in the tale. At first glance, Mahoney appears to be the consummate ladies man. In each of his four movies (except Their First Assignment, which is the story of Tackleberry’s courtship with a female motorcycle cop), Mahoney “actively” pursues the pretty blonde on campus: Cadet Thompson originally, Cadet Adams in Back in Training, and Ms. Madsen, a photographic journalist, in Citizens on Patrol. However, Mahoney is engaging in an internal heroic quest as well, that with his latent homosexuality.

Mahoney’s pursuit of the “pretty blonde” is essentially a smoke screen for what is clearly a struggle with his sexuality. One of the recurring motifs in the Academy films is that Mahoney is a prankster; if you cross him, he retaliates with a prank of varying degree. A common target of Mahoney’s can be called “the naked man in the shower”: Lieutenant Mauser in Their First Assignment, in which Mahoney tricks him into using industrial glue rather than shampoo, and Captain Harris in Citizens on Patrol, where mace is substituted for deodorant. Clearly, the naked man brings out an impishness in Mahoney that is not seen elsewhere in the films.

Add to the fact that despite Mahoney consistently and clumsily hitting on women, he is never seen to consummate any of these relationships. Instead, Mahoney is content to fetishize women with no clear attempt to actually understand them in any real way. In fact, the farthest we see Mahoney progress in this area is a fairly chaste make-out session with Cadet Thompson at the end of the original film, and even that could have been to convince Commandant Lassard, his surrogate father, that Mahoney is not gay.

But perhaps the most telling example of Mahoney’s gay panic is his intimate knowledge of the local gay bar, The Blue Oyster. While we never actually see Mahoney frequent the Oyster, he consistently sends his enemies there in apparent acts of subterfuge to his true plans (a party, a secret mission). The patrons of the Blue Oyster, exclusively leather-clad gay biker types, apparently exist only to make Mahoney’s straight enemies uncomfortable by slow dancing with them to the now-familiar strains of “El Bimbo”. It seems clear, in a way similar to a schoolyard boy who pulls the pigtails of the girl he secretly likes, that Mahoney wishes it were he who could slow dance the night away with the denizens of the Blue Oyster.

Mahoney’s denial of his true self is most likely a result of Campbell’s next step in the Hero’s Journey, Atonement with the Father. Commandant Lassard, as noted before, is both a mentor and a father figure to Mahoney. Lassard provides a model of how Mahoney wants to be as both a man and a police officer by not reining him in, but instead encouraging his strengths. The first four films in the Police Academy series can be seen as one long attempt by Mahoney to live up to what he sees as Lassard’s expectations.

Midway through the first film, during a prank gone wrong, however, Mahoney is accidentally thought of as having fellated Lassard. From that point on, Lassard subtly disapproves of what he perceives of Mahoney’s homosexuality. Where it was possible that Mahoney could have outed himself earlier in the series, it never truly happens due to a character flaw in his mentor. Mahoney does seem to reach some degree of self-acceptance by the end of his story (in Citizens on Patrol), but it is never acknowledged whether he ever comes out of the closet to Commandant Lassard.

Mahoney does, however, achieve the final step of the Initiation stage of the Monomyth: The Ultimate Boon. This is the achievement of the goal of the quest; in Mahoney’s case, this is represented by his saving Lassard’s academy from closure at the end of Back in Training. The assurance that Lassard’s academy will continue to thrive also ensures that future generations of misfits will have the chance to succeed in life. In essence, Mahoney has come full circle and achieved immortality by providing a world where future Mahoneys can exist in peace.

The final third of Campbell’s Monomyth is Return. This is when the hero, having achieved all of their goals, returns of their previous “ordinary world” in which they have conquered their fears and are free to live in the moment forever more. However, one of the key components of Return is the hero’s Refusal of Return, essentially questioning why the hero would return to a normal life after having experiencing one of adventure. By the end of Back in Training, Mahoney has achieved his external goals, yet at the beginning of Citizens on Patrol, the audience senses a lack of closure for him. Mahoney’s story is clearly not finished.

His story reaches its natural end in The Crossing of the Return Threshold, in which Campbell’s hero must retain the wisdom gained on his initial quest and integrate it into human life. Lassard’s concept of the “Citizens on Patrol” (or C.O.P.) program allows Mahoney a way to achieve this. The C.O.P. program, a bridge between the police force and the community, puts the power of the police force into the hands of ordinary citizens. In his final act of heroism, the one that allows him to return to his “ordinary life” with no regrets, Mahoney institutes the C.O.P. program, thusly taking the concept of the police academy to the next level, essentially making all the misfits of the world police officers.

After this is achieved, Mahoney finally achieves the final steps of the Monomyth: Master of the Two Worlds and Freedom to Live. When we last see Mahoney, he is floating into the heavens in a Police Academy hot air balloon. He has finally achieved the balance for which he has been searching, between the material and the spiritual world.

Although the Police Academy series continued for three more films (Operation: Miami Beach, City Under Siege, and Mission to Moscow), Mahoney was never seen, heard from, or mentioned again. His mission, his journey, had been accomplished.

Brian Tousey teaches English, History and Film in Los Angeles. He has studied at the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign, The Second City and The Groundlings. You can read more of his thoughts on movies at his Maximum Tenderness blog (

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