Don Orlandi is a famous name to those who are diehard fans of the 1973 nostalgic film American Graffiti. Don painted and assisted in the bodywork of the vehicles driven by the lead actors. Little did he know at the time that these vehicles for George Lucas’ low-budget car film would become some of the most popular and copied and desired cars of all automotive history, particularly, the yellow ‘32 coupe.
Orlandi grew up in Sonoma, CA and had always had a strong interest in cars. His first job was sweeping the floors for Barsotti's Body and Fender in San Rafael. He was always trying to get the employees to teach him how to paint. Pretty soon he had the shop guys teaching him how to do body work. They were always willing to help a young kid learn the business. Don picked it up very quickly, soaking up the techniques like a sponge. While attending high school in 1970 his father and Dennis Close started Close and Orlandi Body Shop. Don immediately began working in the new shop part time. After graduating from Mount Tamalpias High School in 1971, Don attended Marin Junior College studying Auto Shop for two years while continuing to work in his dad’s shop painting cars. During his time as a student at community college he had aspirations of becoming a teacher and sharing his knowledge with others however, in order to get a teaching degree he would need to take several more years of school and that cost money. It was not to be. He had moved into an apartment with his fiancé and was soon working full time to support a small family,
His attitude, flexibility and willingness to attempt to do whatever it would take to complete body repairs caused the Orlandi's shop to earn a positive reputation throughout the Northern Bay Area of San Francisco. Before long he was painting the nine cars from American Graffiti including the ’51 Merc, ‘58 Impala and the ’32 coupe. A few years later he painted about fifteen cars for the sequel, More American Graffiti, including an El Camino, a Dodge Wagon a moving van, cop cars, two Chevrolet trucks and several dragster’s bodies.
Last May, we met up at his shop, Past & Perfect where we sat in two vintage barber chairs to converse. Speaking in a friendly deep voice that is both resonant and clear, Don discussed his early years as a car painter.
|Don surrounded by memorabilia in his shop. Photo: Bob Canning, Argus-Courier Staff|
DON: Yes, before and after. Through the 1970s we were working on many famous people’s cars. Some were already famous while others had yet to become well known. For example, David Crosby of Crosby Stills and Nash had this Ferrari that he kept wrecking. He came to us and we’d repair it for him. Another musician, Carlos Santana was a customer. He was driving an old 1950’s Bentley. It had suicide doors on it. He drove it in to his garage and had the car door open and it practically ripped off the door and side panel. So we had to fix that and then he also wanted me to put a TV set in the back seat.
KIP: So you were keeping busy working on celebrities’ cars. How did you react to all this? Were you star struck?
DON: I don’t think I really knew the impact. That was the funny part. At the time it didn’t mean much because many had not heard of these entertainers because they hadn’t become internationally known yet. Many had yet to reach international stardom. Carlos Santana in 1971 wasn’t much-yet. David Crosby was making money, I kind of knew who he was, and I recognized him. Yet, the fame and fortune hadn’t quite peaked with those guys. Then George Lucas comes in with this scruffy beard, you look at this guy and think, and “You’re making a movie?” I was raising a family in my early twenties and so that was the most important thing in my life. I didn’t have time to pay attention to celebrities or trends.
|Disney artist, Milt Kahl was thrilled with Orlandi's work on his Panther|
KIP: How did you become involved with preparing the cars for American Graffiti?
DON: We became involved in the movie through Henry and Jackie Travers who lived in Sonoma, CA. Henry Travers, was the Transportation Manger for Graffiti.
KIP: I know Travers had a lot to do with transporting the cars to the film locations and keeping them running, he also drove the yellow coupe in the climactic drag race scene in the film. Did you know Henry Travers, before the pre-production of American Graffiti?
DON: About year after my dad had opened his shop, Henry introduced himself to us and he began bringing us his personal vehicles to repair. For example, he had an old van and some stuff he needed to be fixed so they would come to my dad. Our families quickly became good friends: My mom, dad, Henry and Jackie Travers. So that’s how we began the association. Henry was also a friend with my dad’s first partner, in the body shop business, Dennis Close. My dad and Dennis Close were both owners of the shop in the early days, which was called, Close-Orlandi Body & Fender; located in San Rafael. Henry used to race hardtops; “Super Modifieds,” they called them at the time, and Dennis Close also raced. So that was a three-way connection: Dennis Close, Henry Travers, and my family, The Orlandis. We developed both a personal and professional relationship that lasted for years.
|"Close" cover before striking|
DON: When the movie thing came up, Henry told Lucas, “I’ve got just the guy!” Referring to me, of course. He brought us everything. So it was really cool that we got to meet George Lucas, and we got to meet all the actors who were on the verge of stardom. Nobody knew who he or she was at the time. As time progressed I slowly watched them grow and become zillionaires.
KIP: Although you didn’t know the other actors, you probably recognized Ron Howard?
|Ron Howard driving a T-bucket roadster in the Mels Drive-in parking lot.|
DON: Yeah, it was fun, and I met “Opie” [laughs]. It was cool. But I never thought to take photos or get autographs of all the actors in the film. I just didn’t think of stuff like that at the time. Of course, we didn’t have cell phones with cameras back then. So, I didn’t think twice about it.
KIP: So, did you paint all the main cars driven by the actors?
DON: Yes. Most of them. All the good ones [laughs].
KIP: Tell me about the ’32 ford coupe or what is now known as “Milner’s coupe.”
DON: I didn’t paint the deuce coupe originally. It came to us yellow. So when I was originally going to repaint it I started off with something that I was spraying in the shop but I wound up spraying it with something I had on the bench.
KIP: According to a Rod & Custom article from August 1991, the color was a modified shade of Corvette Yellow, which was a Daytona, Yellow. While other sources have described the color as a Canary Yellow lacquer.
DON: They may call it Canary Yellow but that’s not the correct name of the color. It started off as a GM color but it has other colors mixed in. There’s no formal name for it. It’s Don’s creation. People always used to ask me, “What’s the color, what’s the color?” I guess I’m the only one who knows [Laughs]. But knowing that information and having $2.00 in my pocket won’t buy me a cup of coffee. But, its’ my secret.
|Transportation Manager, Henry Travers (white t-shirt) positioning cars into the parking spaces at Mels.|
DON: Anyway, I painted it yellow. The door jams were black and I painted them yellow. The seats and interior were already painted black. It was rough. Nothing fancy. I kept thinking I want to take this thing out and jump on it. So, I jumped the battery while it was parked in the shop. I warmed it up; drove around the block and the radiator blew up. The top seam of the radiator blew apart. So, I had to call Henry Travers and tell him he better get it fixed before they start filming. So it was soldered up. That’s the kind of car it was.
KIP: It was more about the appearance rather than the performance.
DON: Correct. Then during filming they banged it up so much, I had to retouch it over many times. They’d chaffed the fenders too.
KIP: Weren’t they hanging from the side of the cars with cameras?
DON: Yes and they’d put big gouges in the quarter panels and all that stuff. It was up to me to try to fix it in time for each evening’s filming. Besides that I had eight hours of work to do for the family’s body shop. So my dad would say, ‘ Here’s what you do make up a gallon of paint, we’ll fix the damper really quick and put a coat of paint on the whole car rather than try to blend it in.
|Lucas directs the action while hanging from the side of the coupe|
DON: That’s right. There wasn’t much to the body. It took a few minutes to take a scratch pad or Scotch Brite and just scour the whole thing. You just dip it in a bucket of water and scrub it like your washing a car and then the paint will stick to it. There’s no wax involved or none of that stuff. For the paint job we just threw paper over the engine, put some wheel covers on it, made sure the frame was taped off.
KIP: How long did this process take place?
DON: It only took us about an hour each night to get the coupe ready. We’d spray it in an hour and it’d be dry in nothing flat. I would drive it around a bit and then park it in front of the shop and it would sit out there in the sunlight and let it dry. That’s the way we did it.
KIP: Did you paint the Edsel driven by Cindy Williams?
DON: Yes. We painted it green and white.
KIP: Anything specific you remember about that car?
DON: I think it was a 1958 Edsel Corsair. I believe we just repainted it and there was some dent work. But I recall it was fairly Cherry. It was a great car.
KIP: What about the ’58 Impala?
DON: We took the door handles off and did a couple things to it. It had power windows and a keyless entry. I think it was Ron Howard who slammed the driver's side door shut and it cracked the glass. So, rather than fix the glass the window was just left down during filming. We painted it white and I put the red trim accents on it. The red trim was the exact same color as the ‘Pharaoh’s Mercury which came right off the bench. I had a can of Maroon paint and mixed a few other colors into the paint.
KIP: The late great Glenn Shimmin who built an exact replica of the Merc referred to the color, I think, as "Cimarron."
DON: It may have had some in it [laughs]. I mixed a can of metallic maroonish color with a can of BMW maroon.
KIP: They should have nicknamed it "The Bondo Mobile."
|The side-rear glass & wing windows were removed and the door windows were left down during filming|
DON: It was chopped in a cheap way. The doors were simple, we chopped the top 3 inches down and the door windows would still roll up. The front glass was a split window that was easy to replace. But the back glass was huge and had to go somewhere. There was nobody at the time that could cut that big a curve of glass. Nobody was going to cut it. So, they couldn’t quite figure it out. Then one of the guys came up with the idea to just put the package shelf down into the trunk area. So they did. They just moved it. They welded it in and then they put silver tape on the glass to tape off the body. Then they Bondoed right up to the glass. I was a very experienced apprentice and I could paint cars. Those guys were the experience body men. I was the one there scratching my head thinking, “Are you kidding me?” My job was as soon as the Bondo dried to paint the car. As soon as they were done I was standing there with a primer gun to just bury the car in primer. Because just about every square inch of it was Bondo. Then they kept coming up with ideas such as frenching the headlights and putting a 65 Chevelle bumper in the front. They’d weld it in there, Bondo it and immediately I’d have to primer it so it could dry and I could have it ready for the next night so I could sand it and get it ready for paint. The whole turnaround for this thing was just a couple of days. So we were hauling ass.
KIP: A couple of days? Wow that’s impressive.
|On display at Universal Studios|
DON: So once we had finished with the painting project we had to figure out how we were going to put a headliner in it. We took it to an upholstery shop uptown. The owner always had a stubby cigar in his mouth. And he was really obnoxious and said, “What the hell you want me to do with this, damn thing? I can’t put dingle balls in it!” My dad said, “Just do something…” So he put the bows the other way and figured how to tie them up so they would stay. He told us that was the best he could do. Instead of full carpeting I think he just put down some mats to cover the floors. I don’t remember if he made seat covers.
|The Pharaoh's Merc parked on the street after musician, Brian Setzer owned it. circa mid-1980s.|
of turning shit into ice cream.
|Linda Christinsen (sporting bell bottom pants) & Harrison Ford leaning on the '55 Chevy|
KIP: I’d heard Travers painted two of the three ’55 Chevy that were used for the film?
DON: I think there were a total of three ’55 Chevys used in the film, I believe: a camera car, a stunt-roll car and a non-running junk yard Chevy used as the “burn car.” I’m not sure who originally painted the camera car and the stunt car for the roll over scene. The only Chevy I remember painting was the car that was rolled over and set fire at the end of the race. It was a non-running, salvage yard '55, 2-door hardtop. We painted the ‘55 ebony black. No specific color it was out of the can. I believe it was towed to the filming location on Frates Road [Paradise Road]. I don’t remember much except it was kind of a junk car. I think it was a 6 cylinder and we painted the wheels silver. “Okie chrome” we called it.
DON: Right, so it would look like the real one. I think Henry Travers painted one car with spray cans on location. Although I’m not sure as to the veracity to that story.
DON: Yes, she’s still pretty. I just joined her Facebook sight and mentioned we went to school together but she never responded. I guess I wasn’t popular enough [laughs]. Looking back I realize what an incredible opportunity it was to meet so many famous people. I think it took me about twenty years before I understood the impact and honor it was to meet and work for so many famous and talented people.
KIP: Once Graffiti came out in August of 1973 did you ever go to the movies to watch the film?
|The old San Rafael Drive-in at 280 Smith Ranch Rd. was across the highway from Orlandi's shop|
KIP: What was you’re involvement in the sequel, More American Graffiti?
DON: I did a ton of stuff for them on that film. But nobody ever saw the film. I went to the show and there were like 30 people in the theater [Laughs]. It was like nothing. But to make it brief, a few of the things I painted were: Paul Le Mat’s ’58 Chevy Pick-up with a camper shell on the back and his yellow dragster with flames. I also painted two other dragsters, one of which competed against Milner, it had a weird looking flame system on it. And, I painted the 38-foot Hunt Brother’s trailer with the eagle on the side, which Bekins moving company had loaned to the crew. The only slight difficulty I had was with the The Bekin's van. Bekins wanted their van back in the same condition as they had loaned it out. At the time the technology wasn’t available to easily remove paint. So I wound up thinning out a booth coating, which made it possible to peel off, the paint design I created once filming was completed. It was more work to peel off rather then paint on-but; I at least I didn’t have to repaint Bekins on the side.
|The Bekins moving van painted with the Hunt Bros insignia|
Working with Lucas was really one of the best parts in my career. I loved being creative and I hate just doing simple work. There were many times when I’d wish Lucas and the gang would come into the shop and give me something stimulating, inventive and different to do. I’ve been in this business for thirty-six years. The first half was great and the second half of my career – not so much. I hated the business when it stopped being creative. But, the career has helped raise my family and put my kids through school. So, it did what it was supposed to do.
into the shop and give me something stimulating, inventive and different to do!
|Anna Bjorn & Paul Le Mat sitting on the bumper of the coupe|
KIP: Did you have any other involvement with George Lucas besides American Graffiti?
|David Prowse, the original Darth Vadar Source: News Corp Australia|
DON: Yes we did. We had a good relationship with the art department. When George Lucas was in pre-production for Star Wars he would just tell them to go over to see us and see what we could do with certain things such as Darth Vader’s mask, helmet, and chest plate.
KIP: I presumed you were paid a decent wage for your work.
DON: It’s funny, when I worked on the Star Wars costumes I did it on my own time and didn’t even think about taking money for it. I was just happy to paint. When they asked me how much do we owe you I said, I don’t need any money but I tell you what, "It looks like this movie is going to be another Lucas hit so why don’t you give me autographed copies of all the stars." Thinking these actors would become stars and I would have something to give my kids. The movie wrapped and I forgot about my request. But after the movie came out I received an 8x10 envelope with autographed pictures of all the characters. But instead of it being signed by Harrison Ford “Hans Solo, and “Princes Lea” signed it
|Original Star Wars "stars"|
KIP: Did you work with Lucas' art department on anything else?
|A nice shot of Orlandi's versatile style. Here we see Mlner's coupe, dragster & campervan|
DON: To me that’s not much fun.
KIP: What cars have you had that you personalized as you were growing up?
DON: I had my share of hot rods. Nothing that would compare to today’s stuff. Let’s see, I had a ’62 SS Impala, a little red Ford pick-up both I painted my color and I put my motor into it. I always wanted my cars to stand out a little bit. I always did mine a little bit different. For example, everybody that had a ’58 or ’59 Ford pick-up and I had a ‘60 and everybody had his or hers white or black but mine was red. I didn’t want to go with what everybody else was doing.
|Orlandi shared this rare pic of Milner's coupe in front of Orlandi's shop after getting a touch-up for the 1978 sequel.|
DON: Now I’m getting too old to say, “I can.” because I’m running out of time.
|Don sporting a vintage bottle of Old Harper|
DON: I got a few years left, yeah. But I gave up my body for the business so that my knees hurt, my legs hurt, my back hurts. I’ve battled a few diseases and blown up like a balloon because of the steroids and stuff I had to take but once I get past a few issues maybe I can trim myself down a bit once I get off the medications. But I gave it up. I mean we didn’t wear masks when we were painting cars. I’d be just standing there spraying a car with a cigarette dangling from my mouth. So you learn, but I didn’t think I’d live to be sixty. When you’re in your twenties and thirties you never think about age. Then when you hit forty you start thinking, wow, sixty, that’s not too far away. And then when you get to be fifty oh my god, and my dad is seventy something. Then when I hit sixty and look at my dad who is eighty-four, I think holy crap! So you know how much abuse you get.
DON: Yes. It’s a lot of abuse. I’d crawl around on my knees and used the upper part of my body the knees and my arms and elbows. I ‘ve probably sucked in a 100 gallons of Bondo and sucked in a hundred gallons of thinner and another 100 gallons of paint. So you don’t realize it at the time how your body breaks down, as you get older and older.
KIP: Nowadays car-painting laws regulate the type of ingredients that can be in the car paint and the method in which the paint is applied have changed since you first started in the business.
DON: Yeah, I’d probably get arrested for working the way I did. So, I paid for it but I loved it. Especially the first half of my career when there were more challenges. But after that it became just like putting a bandage on cars that would come in the shop. Very routine, very monotonous. And, it seems like the customer is never happy. I just got tired of dealing with people’s problems.
|Car-painting laws are much more stringent than they used to be. Photo: http://www.autotrainingcentre.com|
KIP: Any advice for those aspiring to follow in your footsteps?
DON: Advice? We don’t seem to teach the trades anymore. Trades aren’t the same. Nobody wants to get dirty. I’d recommend learning by taking something completely apart and put it back the way it was. That’s how you start. Don’t be afraid to do it. Just do it and see what happens. If you can do it, you can work on cars. But do it without a book or instructions.
Past & Perfect
400 Western Ave
Petaluma, CA 94952
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