CALL IT REVENGE OF THE NERD. Andy Rathbone could. Rathbone, 33, was the real-life model for “Rat,” the painfully awkward movie-theater usher in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. In that 1982 teen hit, the whole world learned that he was too scared to score with Stacy, the nom de cinéma of the pizza-parlor waitress he harbored a crush on. Now, 13 years later, Rathbone, a self-described computer addict, is savoring his newfound superiority over the cyber-challenged. TKO’d by their personal computers, these new-media neophytes have helped to make Rathbone’s user-friendly series of computer manuals for Dummies among the most successful in the world. The latest, Multimedia & CD-ROMs for Dummies, recently followed Windows for Dummies and Upgrading & Fixing PCs for Dummies onto the tradebook best-seller lists with sales that are anything but byte-size: His 12 titles have sold nearly 3 million copies worldwide and have been translated into more than a dozen languages.
A computer nut even at Clairemont, Rathbone was hardly hard driving. “I was the last one picked in gym,” he recalls. “Whenever I could, I would sneak off to read under a tree somewhere.” A member of the chess club, he also worked on the student newspaper The Arrow. It was there that Rathbone—known since grade school as “A. Rat”—met writer Cameron Crowe, who was posing as a student while researching a behind-the-scenes book about high school. Crowe’s cover, claims Rathbone, was a thin one. “We all knew who he was and why he was around,” he says. “We budding journalists could relate to him and vice versa. He was friendly and interesting to talk to.”
Crowe incorporated his semester-long stay at Clairemont into a 1981 bestseller in which, to Rathbone’s dismay, “all the nerdy things I did [like losing Stacy to his best friend] were attributed to me and all the cool things I did attributed to someone else.” Most infuriating was the infamous pizza episode. In the movie’s most hilarious scene, Jeff Spiccoli, a stoned surfer, played by Sean Penn, has a pizza delivered to history class. “That was me,” Rathbone protests. “My political-science class was in the same room as journalism, and there was a phone in the back.” Unlike Ray Walston’s apoplectic film reaction, “Our teacher was really liberal—we even gave him a piece.”
Embarrassed by his portrayal in the book, Rathbone filed a lawsuit against Crowe but dropped it a week later after the two talked. Crowe, who went on to write and direct Say Anything and Singles, regrets upsetting Rathbone but insists that the sketches were meant to be composites. Besides, Crowe says, “I was a bigger nerd than Andy ever was.”
Rathbone’s mother, Alice, agrees, saying, “I never saw Andy as a nerd.” The coroner’s office clerk who, with husband Rhett, a metrologist (a measuring expert), raised Rathbone and his older sister, Wendy, in San Diego’s oceanside community of Clairemont, did see “quite a bit” of Andy in the Rat character. “He was good and honest and had the same common sense Andy has.”
When the film was released, Rathbone was on a three-year break from studying comparative literature at San Diego State, returning in 1984. “College was a reaction to high school,” he says of those guitar-playing days spent writing stories and living out of a VW van. His hair grew along with his expertise in journalism, and gradually he rose to the ranks of Mr. Cool, complete with a pretty blonde girlfriend and the job of editor of the college newspaper the Daily Aztec.
After his 1986 graduation, Rathbone merged his interest in computers and journalism and began writing for technical magazines and ghostwriting computer books. In 1992 he coauthored (with Dan Gookin) PCs for Dummies, which sold nearly 400,000 copies, then went solo, employing his mix of humor (chapters include “Ten Dumb Things You Can Do with a Laptop” and “Your Keyboard Is Not a Coffee Filter”), cartoons and, in later volumes, a gentle respect for technophobia. “I think of my Mom when I write,” he says.”She really doesn’t know anything about computers. “Let’s face it, computers can be pretty darn boring.”
And romantic. In 1989, while writing for ComputerEdge magazine, he met his wife, Tina, now 39, a former college composition teacher who was then its editor. Now a member of the 40-member stable of Dummies writers, she recently published Modems for Dummies and travels the world with Rathbone promoting the manuals; the pair act as spokes-people for Compaq computers.
Back home in the Point Loma section of San Diego, the couple, along with their cat Laptop, take in the breathtaking ocean views from the four-bedroom contemporary house they recently bought. Most days are spent housebound, writing in separate offices. Rathbone’s is filled with machinery, books and guitars—and contentment. “When the Fast Times book came but, I didn’t have too much going for me, and it hit hard,” he says from a perch just feet above the Pacific. “But I have a sense of humor about it now. I realize that being a nerd in high school isn’t such a bad thing.”
JAMIE RENO in San Diego