HAS IT REALLY BEEN A QUARTER CENTURY SINCE THIS CLASSIC YOUTH MOVIE WENT TO THE OSCARS? AS GEORGE LUCAS' BREAKOUT HIT CRUISES INTO MIDDLE AGE, THE PLAYERS REMEMBER THEIR HOT-ROD SUMMER.
In the summer of 1972, a 28-year-old director named George Lucas began shooting a semiautobiographical film about California car culture. His only previous feature--a head scratcher of a science-fiction flick called THX 1138--had tanked.
|Lucas' first feature, a science fiction film, THX 1138 that expanded upon one of his student films|
I. THE MOVIE NOBODY WANTED TO TOUCH
Bruised by the failure of THX 1138 and the consensus that it was cold and clinical, Lucas reached back to his youth and came up with a "warmer" story. A car enthusiast since growing up in Modesto, Calif., Lucas decided to focus on cruising--which he later called "a uniquely American mating ritual involving automobiles."
|Lucas & Coppola|
FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA (producer): George and I met at Warner Bros. while I was making Finian's Rainbow. He was a student, and he'd won an award that allowed him to go there and watch a movie being made. He became like a younger brother.
WILLARD HUYCK (co-screenwriter): I was at USC film school with George. He was just this goofy guy. When George was shooting a scene for THX in L.A., he said, "I've got this great idea; I want to do a film about when we were all in high school, cruising."
COPPOLA: I think George was traumatized by THX and realized that his career was going to be dependent on how accessible people found his work.
HUYCK: He would fly down from San Francisco with his briefcase, which had his underpants and deodorant in it. And Gloria [Katz], George, and I sat for about two weeks and talked about all of the great things that had happened to us in high school.
|Graffiti co-writers, Willard Hyuck & Gloria Katz|
NED TANEN (then a Universal executive): It was the first script I'd ever read where the soundtrack was the script to some degree. What amazed me was I was the last person in town to ever see this screenplay. Every company in town passed on it.
KATZ: American Graffiti was viewed as the lowest form of movie alive because it was about that subspecies of human being--teenagers. It was really the movie nobody wanted to touch.
TANEN: After The Godfather opened, Francis was deservedly considered "the genius." And when he signed on as a producer of Graffiti, it got the movie made.
COPPOLA: I told George I'd be happy to be associated with it in whatever way would be helpful. And he said, "Well, would you produce it?" I was very seriously thinking about financing Graffiti myself. I had all this money that I'd made with The Godfather. But when I heard Universal would finance it and we'd all be given a piece of the picture, I figured, Well, it's the second-best thing.
II. CARPENTERS & GAS PUMPERS WANTED
|"Graffiti" Casting Director Fred Roos|
RICHARD DREYFUSS (Curt): I'd been doing some TV, and I felt I was kind of on the brink of a film career.
ROOS: Ronny was so identified with Opie that he wasn't getting parts and he wasn't really on the radar.
|Andy Griffith & Ronny Howard|
|Paul Le Mat as "Big" John Milner during a video taped rehearsal|
CANDY CLARK (Debbie): I was living with Jeff Bridges at the time--we'd met on "Fat City," and we were an item.
|Candy Clark & Jeff Bridges in FAT CITY|
CHARLES MARTIN SMITH (Toad): I'd been doing small parts in movies and TV shows, like an episode of Room 222 and The Brady Bunch. I was the kid Greg sold his lemon of a car to.
|Greg (Barry Williams) boasts to Ronnie (Charles Martin Smith) about the car, while winking at his sisters.|
CINDY WILLIAMS (Laurie): I met George for literally 30 seconds, and he just went, "Yeah. Great. Okay."
ROOS: Cindy's chemistry with Ronny was perfect. But she was older than Ronny, and he was a little intimidated about doing love scenes with an older woman.
|Cindy Williams & Ronny Howard prepare to rehearse their sock hop scene.|
|Mackenzie Phillips (Carol) pretending to be older than she really is.|
HARRISON FORD (Falfa): I was a carpenter, and I was making twice as much as they were offering me to be in the movie. So I refused at first. But when they called back with an offer of $15 a week more, I took it.
|Harrison Ford (Bob Falfa) carpenter & frustrated actor|
|Kathleen Quinlan (Peg) Mt. Tamalpais High, class of '72|
KATHLEEN QUINLAN (Peg): I was a student at the high school in Marin County where they shot the sock-hop scene. It was like the circus came to town and I got to be in it.
SUZANNE SOMERS (blond in T-Bird): I was a single mother from a teen pregnancy. 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.
LE MAT: I remember when I walked into George's office he was sitting in his chair, and I thought, "Well, this is going to be a piece of shit. This guy's gonna make a movie?" He looked more like a guy who did research in a library.
|Young auteur, George Lucas|
WILLIAMS: I felt like he was a guy I knew from high school. I was very relaxed with him because we were on the same level...at least we were then.
CLARK: I had just worked with John Huston, who dressed the part of a director with his safari bush suits and his Sherlock Holmes cape. And George was all T-shirts and tennis shoes.
HOWARD: I had already been accepted to the USC film school, and George was kind of a legend at USC. But my first impression of him was one of utter confusion because George didn't say much. He's like a chatterbox now compared to how shy he was then.
IV THE RED-EYE NIGHT
|The first Mels drive-in built in 1947 was located at 140 S. Van Ness San Francico, CA|
WILLIAMS: We went off to San Rafael, Calif., and there was no rehearsal because it was low, low budget. I remember I got $1,000 a week and Harrison Ford got $400 a week. I always love to say that because now he gets millions for waking up in the morning.
|Mackenzie Phillips was 12yrs-old during the filming of Graffiti|
PHILLIPS: I arrived alone off the plane with no guardian. They were almost going to have to recast me. But [coproducer] Gary Kurtz and his family said, "We'll take her." So they went to the courts in San Francisco and got guardianship of me. I lived with his family, and they were Quakers. Here I was, this little rock & roll Valley kid, and we'd be singing songs and holding hands before dinner. I was like, "Where am I?"
FORD: It was done in 28 nights. It was very little time, very little money, and very few doughnuts. I almost got fired for taking more than my share of doughnuts.
PHILLIPS: I was so young I didn't even know we were making a real movie. I thought maybe we were making an educational movie or something. Almost all my scenes were with Paul Le Mat, and I thought he was so hot.
|Snobby Suzanne Somers|
SOMERS: It all seemed very insignificant to me at the time. In the trailer was Harrison Ford, Cindy Williams, Paul Le Mat, Ron Howard, and Richard Dreyfuss. And I thought, "What a bunch of losers." I just thought it was a stupid movie in a stupid town with a bunch of people who'd never done anything before.
DREYFUSS: "Guerrilla filmmaking" is the only way to describe it. It was like "run up on the porch and get the scene before the owner gets home!" And poor [cinematographer] Haskell Wexler--he was also shooting commercials down in L.A. And to this day, I have no idea when he slept.
HOWARD: George was whipped. Once he fell asleep during a shot. He said, "Action!" and the scene finally ended and George was sitting on the hood of a car and someone had to nudge him because he was asleep and he woke up and said, "Cut! Cut! Terrific! Let's move on!"
|Lucas & Haskell Wexler|
CLARK: George and Haskell Wexler looked like ghosts. They didn't sleep or 30 days. George was editing all day after the night shoots. And Haskell was flying back to L.A. every morning. At the end, they weren't even blinking anymore.
WILLIAMS: Poor George. He was up against everything. A lot of us had worked for Roger Corman, and I think we thought this was the same kind of thing--a lot of cars and a lot of kids.
DREYFUSS: Everyone on that set believed it was going to be a classic, and I thought they were nuts. I was the guy who believed American Graffiti wouldn't be a hit.
SMITH: At the wrap party at [Coppola's company] American Zoetrope in San Francisco, George put together about five scenes with some music over it and screened it for us.
|Wexler & Lucas filming at Mels Drive-in|
FORD: I don't really recall that. But I'm sure it's true. There was an understanding that what were called "youth films" had not represented the experience of young people. I mean, Beach Blanket Bingo was not really a revelation about the mysteries of life.
SMITH: I was so impressed. But I also knew it was a teenage cruising movie, so I thought no one would notice and it would go straight to the drive-ins because of the subject matter.
|Candy Clark & Charlie Martin-Smith|
|The first of two drag race scenes between rivals, Harrison Ford in the '55 Chevy & Paul Le Mat in the '32 coupe.|
TANEN: I've never met the man who wrote that wonderful book, but he's managed to quote me.... This has become the most overblown crock of s---ever. They ran the movie in San Francisco, which did not make me happy because I thought it was a set-up screening with all of their friends from Marin County and San Francisco.
|Lucas & Coppola at the hop|
TANEN: My reaction was, "This is a terrific movie. But there are a couple of problems, and here it goes on too long." Things of that nature. I had an unpleasant conversation with Francis.... He just became very belligerent, and I became very belligerent. I'll take half the blame. I don't deal well with bullies, and it got a little unpleasant. But not with George. He was at the other end of the theater.
HUYCK: Francis asked Ned, "You hate this movie?" And he got out his checkbook and said, "I'll buy it. If you hate it that much tell me how much you want." And he said, "What are you talking about? That's silly." Ned was sort of taken aback.
TANEN: The higher-ups at the studio really hated the movie. They didn't get it. But that was the business at the time. These guys were used to running things their way--they didn't need these kids coming in, saying "Hey, man." And now I was in a position of "How do I even get this movie released?" because they were going to dump it. They were still waiting for Abbott and Costello movies, not waiting for this or Easy Rider.
COPPOLA: Universal even wanted to change the title. They said they thought people would think it was a movie about feet. So all day we were trying to dream up hokey titles like Rock Around the Block.
TANEN: I was really caught in the middle. And the minute you work for the studio, you're automatically the enemy. The amazing thing is, 25 years later no one has anything better to talk about than a silly-ass screening.
VI. WILL ACT FOR FOOD
KATZ: Before the movie came out, we were standing in the unemployment line one day with Dreyfuss. We were all collecting.
|Producer, Gary Kurtz, Wolfman Jack & Bo Hopkins|
HUYCK: Sherry Lansing [now head of Paramount Pictures] was on line too.
KATZ: Richard was talking about the movie, and he was all down on himself. And this guy behind us said, "Are you talking about American Graffiti? That's the best movie I've ever seen!" He had been at some sneak preview.
TANEN: Universal was trying to get rid of it, and I set up a screening. I called Wolfman Jack and said, "Get me 500 crazy kids tonight." And then I prevailed on the people at Universal to come. As soon as the logo came on and the music began, the kids started dancing and yelling and that was the end of everything. It woke everybody up.
|Wolfman Jack & George Lucas at the press screening at the Avco Theater in L.A., CA|
HOWARD: When it came out and did so well, we were all flabbergasted. Not that we thought it was bad. We just didn't think it was going to be respected and be treated like a grown-up movie.
WILLIAMS: Richard Dreyfuss was off doing The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz in Canada, and he called me one day and said, "What's going on?"And I told him there were lines around the block, and he didn't believe me.
DREYFUSS: Cindy screamed over the phone, "Ricky, you want to be a star?" And I said, "Yeah!" And she yelled, "Well, get your ass down to Joe Allen [restaurant] in New York. You walk in and they're going to stand up and applaud!" And I thought to myself, "What the hell am I doing up here in Canada?"
|Dreyfuss was in Canada filming "Duddy Kravitz" when he learned how popular "Graffiti" had become in the states.|
|For your consideration Best Supporting Actress|
In 1974, Graffiti received five Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Original Screenplay, and a Best supporting Actress nod for Clark. But the big winners that year were George Roy Hill and his movie The Sting.
CLARK: I thought it would be a smart idea to run a campaign in the trades for myself. I found out later that certain people thought that was very tacky.
COPPOLA: I was never a real big Oscar-goer. But at that point we were approaching a dreamworld because we had made The Godfather and we had made Graffiti and all of a sudden everything had started to go our way after years of really being underdogs.
KATZ: We were like Pulp Fiction that year. We were the kids invited to the grown-ups' party.
CLARK: I was all dressed up with a boa and I was with Jeff [Bridges] and I remember so many people at the awards coming over to me and giving me so much approval. I thought for sure Sylvia Sidney would win. And when they said, "Tatum O'Neal," I couldn't believe it.
|Paul Le Mat as John Milner, class of 1960|
LE MAT: I was watching the Oscars with my girlfriend, and when George's category came on for Best Director, they had the camera on each of the nominees' faces. And when they announced, "The winner is, George..." his face lit up with this great look of expectation. And then they said, "...Roy Hill!" Isn't that awful? He thought he had it.
|Cindy Williams and Milner's coupe|
HOWARD: American Graffiti really helped a lot of careers. There was kind of a "Graffiti Glow" which lasted for a few years. We were all in demand in ways we hadn't been before.
DREYFUSS: The people who are in successful movies are cast. That's kind of a law of nature. It just seemed odd because so many of the actors became familiar and recognizable.
FORD: Not too many doors were opened for me. I went back to carpentry, and didn't really work again until [Coppola's] "The Conversation."
PHILLIPS: American Graffiti opened lots of doors that I quickly managed to close all by myself. By the time I was 15, I was doing "One Day at a Time." And by the time I was 18, I was fired from "One Day at a Time."
|Mackenzie & cast "One Day at a Time"|
SOMERS: I wrote a book of poetry. And, trust me, that was not what the world was waiting for. Then I auditioned for the Dom DeLuise show Lots a Luck at NBC. And while I was sitting in the commissary, in walks Johnny Carson. And he said, "Hey, kiddo, what are you doing here?' And I was scheduled to be on The Tonight Show within a week. I thought the reason he wanted me on was my poetry, but he wanted "the mysterious blond in the T-Bird." So I look at Graffiti as the one night's work that changed my life. I'm so lucky to have passed through George Lucas' life...and to have had an extra lipstick.
IX. RESIDUALS FROM A GALAXY FAR, FAR AWAY
HOWARD: It was a totally and completely uncommon act. I don't know if anyone's ever done anything quite like that. I guess he had 12 or 13 points, and he took one of them and split it among the 10 key cast members. Everyone had worked for scale, so it was such a wonderfully gracious thing to do. It ended up being over $50,000 [for each of us].
PHILLIPS: I still get a check every year. It's not a huge check, but there's nothing like mailbox money.
DREYFUSS: George did that on Star Wars, too, and he made people millionaires.
COPPOLA: George talked about buying Flash Gordon to make into a film someday. But the people who owned the rights wouldn't sell it to him. So he just thought, "I'll go off and create my own thing."
KATZ: George acted out Star Wars--the whole movie--on the floor of our house. We thought he was out of his mind. I didn't get it. He was talking about Chewbacca and Jedi Bandu. We were like, "What?!"
An original press book clipping
|Charlie Martin-Smith as Terry "The Toad"|