Monday, September 27, 2010

CASTING AMERICAN GRAFFITI


Cindy Williams' final screen test for Graffiti took place a month before filming began.
The interview and audition process for American Graffiti took place over a period of about 6 months beginning in the Winter of 1971 as filmmaker, George Lucas and casting director, Fred Roos pre-interviewed hundreds of mostly unknown actors between the ages of 12 and 25 in order get the mix he desired. Many young actors auditioned including Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker in Star Wars), who never made it past the first meeting. Roos, who had recently cast The Godfather (1972),  proved extremely beneficial in casting Graffiti. In fact, he was friends with many young aspiring actors who were eventually cast in the film including Ron Howard, (whom he'd worked with on The Andy Griffith Show), Harrison Ford, Cindy Williams and Richard Dreyfuss. "I hung out with Richard in my circle," Roos recalls, "We called him 'Ricky' in those days. He was kind of a smart-ass...that was part of his charm."
 
Although Lucas was ultimately in charge of casting, Candy Clark, who eventually won the role of Debbie,  remembers when she first met with the director he was shy and uncommunicative.  “When I met him for the first time he was sitting behind that desk and he hardly said two words to me. He was mostly looking at me which makes for an uncomfortable audition, ya know, when someone is just kind of looking at you and sizing you up…looking at you but not saying, not interacting.
 

The interviews and auditions took place in both the Los Angeles vicinity and the San Francisco, Bay Area. The performers who had potential, were called back to do a quick interview with George Lucas while he took notes on the ones he thought would work well together.  Lucas was very particular about making sure the actors complemented each other.  He wanted the young actors to exhibit an ease and natural chemistry with one another. For more info on many of the actors with smaller parts see my post titled BIT PARTS & PIE PIECES: BEFORE & AFTER.
During their screen test, Paul Lemat & Ron Howard improvise dialogue while sitting on the back of a truck.



"[Dreyfuss] was kind of a smart-ass...that was part of his charm."
After he had a select group of actors for each of the major roles Lucas had them run their lines as they were filmed on video tape. These actors were narrowed down and from there 16-millimeter screen tests were made with the final group.   During the tryouts all potential cast members for Graffiti were asked to perform scenes and sometimes even improvise or ad-lib their lines with other hopeful actors. Richard Dreyfuss (Curt) recalls the audition process for Graffiti being the most
involved he had ever been part of.  He remembers reading for the part 6-8 times, always with different actors.  According to Lucas biographer, Dale Pollock, when the director met Dreyfuss he liked him immediately and offered him his choice of roles.  Dreyfuss recalled during a BBC interivew for the film, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls that Lucas gave him his choice to play either Curt or Steve.  "I chose Curt, which I felt was a compliment... to me," [laughs].  In retrospect, its difficult to imagine Dreyfuss playing anyone but Curt.

At the time of auditioning only Ron Howard was a familiar face to fans of Hollywood. When he auditioned for a part in Graffiti he was still a senior in High School and courting future wife, Cheryl Alley. Luckily, when being considered for a part in the film Howard's image as "Opie" from The Andy Griffith Show didn't bother George Lucas.  According to biographer Beverly Gray, the actor’s chances were increased when casting director Fred Roos viewed a segment from the ABC-TV anthology series, LOVE AMERICAN STYLE.  The episode that featured the actor was about growing up during the 1950s titled, "Love and the Happy Days" and included Howard in a role he would later reprise in the long-running TV series, HAPPY DAYS.  "So," says Gray, "the videotape of Ronny Howard playing 'Ritchie Cunningham' helped prove he could be convincing as 'Steve Bolander,' nice guy and big man on campus."

 During their screen test Laurie (Cindy Williams) reacts after being called a "bitch" by her boyfriend, Steve (Ron Howard).  Incidentally, this colorful and direct dialogue was not used in the film.





















 

Most of the young actors in the film were virtually unknown to moviegoers at the time.   In retrospect, it is amazing to think there was a time when movie fans had not heard of Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard or Harrison Ford. Most of the lead actors in Graffiti are millionaires now, but at the time most were just struggling to get by and worked for scale.  "I got $1,000 a week and Harrison Ford got $400 a week," Cindy Williams recalls. "I always love to say that because now he gets millions for waking up in the morning."
 

 Paul LeMat also remembers receiving a low salary.  "I'd just been kicking around Hollywood driving a cab and working at a gas station," he said. "I think a major reason I got the role is because George Lucas is so cheap.  There was no actor in Hollywood who would do it.  I got $600.00 a week."  LeMat worked a total of 6 weeks on the film which adds up to a measly, jaw-dropping $3,600. Despite the meager pay, at the time, he was thrilled to have gotten the part.

Winning several medals during his stint in Viet Nam during the late -'60s, LeMat seemed like a natural choice to play tough guy, "John Milner."  Further testament to Mr. LeMat's ruggedness was his history as a professional boxer winning the L.A. Diamond Belt Welterweight Division title and the Southern Pacific AAU title in 1972. However, Milner was not a one dimensional character.  Besides being tough, the actor who portrayed Milner had to be able to exude compassion.  The "soft" side of the character is revealed when he allows a bratty pre- teen, with nowhere to go, to ride in his car all evening as he cruises up and down the circuit. Like the character he portrays in the film, LeMat in real life can be indignant with people who aren't cool but he is also friendly, soft spoken, and personable. In many ways he is John Milner.   Be sure to check out the popular video of my conversation with the talented actor on my March 2011 post.

Paul LeMat rehearses with Mackenzie Phillips.  Compared with the other actors, LeMat went through the most drastic change in appearance to play his character.


When Fred Roos asked Mill Valley's, Mt. Tamalpais school drama teacher if anyone was a good actor he immediately thought of Kathleen Quinlan. Kathleen played Laurie's friend, Peg. She graduated from Mt. Tamalpais High School in June 1972. A month later she was back at her school acting in the sockhop scenes for the film. "I look at [the film today,]" she says, "and I see all my gym buddies in there.  We thought it was so much fun because the circus had come to town and they picked us because we were athletic and we could pick up the dance steps quickly."


The youngest actor in the cast was 12-yr-old, Mackenzie Phillips who played the bratty preteen Carol. Casting Director, Fred Roos first spotted her singing with her teenage band, "CLASS" on open-mic night at The Troubadour in Hollywood. In her biography, High on Arrival, Mackenzie says that when asked if she would like to be in a movie she replied, "That would be so cool." She recalls that at the audition she was up against 250 girls for the part. Later Roos would tell Mackenzie that he saw her as a spunky kid with a good look and an instantly recognizable desire to look older than she was. 


Suzanne Somers, who was paid a mere $136.72 for her role in Graffiti, was extremely broke at the time she auditioned for the part of the mysterious blonde in the T-bird.  Two years earlier she had even resorted to minor crime leading to an arrest for bouncing a $100.00 check. Somers avoided prosecution by promising to make reparations and cover the check. In 1972 when the Graffiti audition came up she almost didn't make it because she couldn’t afford to get there.  "I was a single mother from a teen pregnancy," she says.  "I'd been doing commercials and local modeling.  I lived in Sausalito and had to drive across the Golden Gate Bridge to audition, and there was a 50-cent toll, and I didn't have 50 cents to my name.  So when I got to the tollbooth, they told me I'd have to leave something as collateral.  I left a lipstick. Fortunately, no matter how poor a woman is, she always has a lot of lipstick."

Two years before she acted in Graffiti, Ms. Somers was arrested and booked on charges of writing a bad check in March 1970. She was 23 at the time, and avoided prosecution by paying back the money she owed.

THE COMMITTEE 
Many of the smaller parts that required a few speaking lines were filled by members of a San Francisco Bay Area improvisational satirical review called The CommitteeA few of the many Committee members that had parts in the film include John Brent (Car Salesman), Ed Greenburg (Kip Pullman), Del Close (Man at Bar), Scott Beach (Mr. Gordon), and Jim Cranna (Liquor Store Thief).  

A HISTORY ON THE COMMITTEE

 For 10 years, 1963-73, the theater company, founded by Alan and Jessica Myerson, resided at The Committee Theater located at 622 Broadway in San Francisco.  A second company of The Committee performed at the Tiffany Theater on the Sunset Strip in LA, CA from 1968-70.  The Committee is often credited with setting the model that modern improvisational groups such as Upright Citizens Brigade, Improv Olympics, and The Groundlings follow to this day.  In addition, National celebrities such as Mike Myers, Tina Fey, and Bill Murray and so many others have the Committee to thank in part for their success because they studied with Committee co-founder, Del Close.  

The Committee off stage. Seen here are Ed Greenberg (second from left) who played Kip Pullman in Graffiti, & a bearded, James Cranna (fourth from left) who played the Liquor Store Thief in Graffiti wearing a wig to hide his long hair. 
Considered by many as one of the hippest comedy theater groups on the West Coast, the group included about 40 actors during its tenure.  Some of the more famous alumni include: David Ogden Stiers (Major Charles Winchester from the TV series M*A*S*H), Howard Hesseman (Dr. Johnny Fever from "WKRP In Cincinnati," "Head of the Class,"), Carl Gottlieb (screenplay author of  "Jaws" and other films,) Peter Bonerz (from "The Bob Newhart Show," and TV director), and the legendary improvisational leader, Del Close.
 
"He must not have been used to drinking."
Del Close (Man at bar) and Candy Clarke

The sketch comedy troupe made frequent appearances on TV including The Dick Cavett Show (originally aired 1968-75), and the controversial "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" (1967-69). The group had parts in a few San Francisco based movies including the cult classic "Billy Jack," (1971).  For those wishing to sample some of the groups' humor, you can find a few sketches on You Tube.  In addition,  A 1969 film titled, A SESSION WITH THE COMMITTEE has occasionally been available on DVD.  The film is a montage of skits filmed in front of a live audience.  This writer has never seen the film so it can't be confirmed, but it is rumored to include Wolfman Jack in his first major screen appearance. 


Here's a sample of the brand of humor made famous by the two "Graffiti" co-stars, (and Committee members), John Brent (Used Car Salesman) & Del Close (Man at Bar).  In the skit called, "BASIC HIP," they use the format of a language learning record to teach "squares" how to use the "hip" vernacular.   It is from the famous 1959 comedy album by the two comedians titled, HOW TO SPEAK HIP.  

Basic Hip

You can dig the whole album without shelling out any bread here: 

- FINE -
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References:
-A&E Biography: George Lucas. With Harry Smith. Original air date: 1/27/2002.  Quote from Candy Clark re: first interview. Posted on You Tube 5/15/2013. Retrieved 2/01/2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VJgfaTjoicg
-Close, Del and J. Brent. (1959, 2009).  Sound recording.  Mercury Records and 101 Distribution.
-Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Dir. Kenneth Bowser. DVD. Fremente Corp./BBC, 2003.
-Pollock, Dale. Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas. Updated Ed. (1983, 1999).  New York:   De Capo Press.
-Kathleen Quinlan. Marin Nostalgia website. http://marinnostalgia.org/quinlan.html.              Retrieved 10/6/2010
-Patinkin, Sheldon.  (2000).  The Second City: backstage at the world's most greatest comedy theatre. Sourcebooks, Inc.  Naperville, Illinois. 
-The Making of American Graffiti. (Supplementary documentary by Laurent Bouzereau). American Graffiti. Dir. George Lucas. DVD. (1989).  Universal Studios, 1973; dist. Universal Home Video, Inc.
-Veltman, Chole. (Aug 7, 2010). Bay Area Improv Thrives.  The Bay Citizen website.  http://www.baycitizen.org/performance/story/long-roots-bay-area-improv-comedy/.  The Committee picture Retrieved 5/6/2011.

3 comments:

  1. There was a pretty girl John Milner was talking to just before Carol gets out of the car and rides with John. She says she was Turlock.
    Anyone know who that was?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Who is the guy in the auditions on the back of the truck who has his face fudged out?

    ReplyDelete