Barbara Walters cried through high school and felt out of it. Dolly Parton was a Future Homemaker who lived so far out in the sticks boys wouldn’t date her. Dustin Hoffman was “pantsed” by a bully. Norman Mailer’s classmates barely remember him at all.
High school, as Kurt Vonnegut once said, “is closer to the core of the American experience than anything I can think of.” Like everyone else, celebrities stumbled uncertainly along, suffering snubs and humiliations (whether real or imagined), hoarding resentments and vowing revenge. In his insightful book Is There Life after High School?, author Ralph Keyes argues that the feeling of rejection—of being an “Outie” in a world of confident “Innies”—fuels ambition. “If you were not popular in high school,” Keyes concludes, “I don’t think you can ever feel entirely secure again.” On the other hand, Outies utilized that solitude to build up talent, defenses, assertiveness, ambitions and daydreams. After graduation they often found the very thing that kept them out—being different—is just what the world liked best about them later.
Gangly, introverted Carol Burnett was funny only in front of her best buddies. When she went into show business she deliberately did not change her name, so the gang at Hollywood High would notice her at last. Roy Frowick of Evansville, Ind. (who now calls himself only by his middle name, Halston) always had style. “He wore his hair Brylcreemed back,” says a teacher. Even the macho Telly Savalas admits, “If I talked to a girl, I’d blush.”
Stars like Faye Dunaway, Valerie Perrine, Kris Kristofferson and Mark Hamill grew up in transient military families and had to make friends by performing for attention at each new school. Others, like Waylon Jennings, Richard Pryor, John Travolta and Robert DeNiro, never graduated.
None of them, presumably, would have been caught dead talking to any of the hoods in Grease. But in the year that movie ruled the American box office, not to mention psyche, PEOPLE retraced the high school careers of some luminous grads to find comfort for all those who ever giggled, sang, slept or felt Angst through high school.
Warren Beatty was the quintessential Innie at Washington-Lee H.S. in Arlington, Va.—’55 class president, pianist-emcee of the variety show, football center and “Best All Around” boy. A solid student whose government teacher remembers his “quick, keen mind,” Warren was also famed for the ’39 Chevy in which he’d drive around anyone who would cough up 25¢ for gas. A friend recalls Warren dating senior girls as a freshman, but even earlier, says another, “He tried to put the make on this cute blond teacher in third grade.”
In seventh grade Jerry Brown begged his parents for hormone shots so he could dance with taller girls, but they refused, and by his senior year (’55) at San Francisco’s St. Ignatius Prep he’d only made it to 5’8″. A year younger than his classmates at the Jesuit school, Jerry tried debating, boxing and cheerleading, but is remembered as “an average student” who had to work hard to bring his grades up to qualify for the seminary. Father Charles Largan, Brown’s old religion teacher, says of his shy charge: “I do wonder why he ran for office.”
As Bob Zimmerman at Hibbing (Minn.) High, Bob Dylan sat front row in English, joined the Latin Club and went to synagogue. But he had a hip flip side—he rode a motorcycle, wrote poetry, combed his hair like his hero, Little Richard, and formed a band during his freshman year. Dylan, says one teacher, “beat the hell out of the piano during assemblies.” His ’59 pals suspect that Bob’s Girl from the North Country was his honey, Echo Star Helstrom, but she wasn’t mentioned in an interview this fall with the old school rag, the Hibbing High Times.
Teachers at Sterling H.S., the only black public high in then segregated Greenville, S.C., still talk about the “charisma” of Jesse Jackson, ’59. Student president, honor society, scouted by major league baseball, he also quarterbacked the football team to a state championship. A prankster, he made a girl faint by throwing a rubber snake on her, but told friend Owen Perkins: “I don’t want to be one of the boys, I want to be one of the men.”
Reggie Jackson fulfilled a thousand fantasies last year when he cruised up unannounced to Cheltenham (Pa.) H.S. in a two-tone Rolls. Back in the class of ’64, Reggie was lionized as the co-captain and halfback on the wealthy, largely white school’s football team. When he hurt his shoulder, 200 students visited him in the hospital. He ranked at near-genius level on IQ tests, but a teacher says he “barely scraped by” in grades.
“I was miserable at 16,” Erica Jong (née Mann) recalls. But then at Manhattan’s High School of Music and Art, “We were all outcasts. We never listened to American Bandstand, and it was the absolute opposite of Grease.” A classmate remembers Erica as “brilliant. I was completely in awe of her.” Even then a literata, Erica co-edited the 1959 yearbook and “sat around with friends writing communal pornographic novels.”
Detroit’s Liggett School was an all-girl preserve where gagsters had status, so Gilda Radner was vice-president of the class of ’64, a cheerleader, a field hockey reserve and big in dramatics. She tried public high one year “to date guys,” but came running back to Liggett’s supportive “family,” though she was embarrassed about her good grades and got in trouble for smoking (“just cigarettes”). Gilda’s one disappointment: “I never made May Queen.”
Linda Ronstadt says she felt inferior at Tucson’s Catalina High after transferring from parochial school. “It was a terrible experience.” Overweight and more into chorus and horses than boys, she once bleached her hair blond and dropped out just before graduation in 1963. “We didn’t want to encourage her in music,” sighs her mom. “It was a very difficult field, and we wanted her to have an education. She didn’t listen, and look what happened.”
As a cuddly, 6’2″ kid at Newtown High in New York’s Queens, Gene Klein was too squeamish to cut up frogs. Then the ’68 grad metamorphosed into Gene Simmons, the tongue-flashing co-founder of the rock group Kiss. “It’s a shock,” says classmate Carol Bourdette, now a Newtown teacher. “He was very quiet, very nice.” Gene tried drama (“I liked getting into costumes”) but switched to guitar: “It was a way to get a girl at the end of the night.”
Air Force brat Kris Kristofferson outshone even old alum Merv Griffin at San Mateo (Calif.) H.S. He was ’54 class president, honor student, football star and had, according to the yearbook, “Best Boy Complexion.” Kris later married his steady, Fran Beir, but they divorced. Says senior class adviser Bob Mills: “I was amazed he became an actor. He was always so reserved, I thought he’d be a doctor or lawyer.”
Steve Martin was already a wild and crazy guy at Garden Grove (Calif.) H.S. Principal Eileene LaBarthe recalls, “He did some really weird things.” Like after winning the 1963 Yell Leader election, he and a pal hung up a huge bra inscribed: THANKS FOR YOUR SUPPORT. “He was always practicing magic,” says ex-steady Linda Rasmussen. “It bothered me that he’d put his arm around my shoulder and roll a coin in his knuckles at the same time.”
Bette Midler’s speech teacher at Honolulu’s Radford H.S. says, “She sang like a toad,” but fellow alums say her mournful routines about being “the only Jewish girl in a Samoan neighborhood” were all shtik. Bette was outgoing, made honor society and beat out a boy for president of the 425-member class of ’63. “When she came back for the tenth reunion,” a classmate says, “guys were saying, ‘Why didn’t she look like that in school?’ ”
Bruce Springsteen was such an Outie at Freehold (N.J.) High that some teachers don’t remember he graduated in 1967. “He never spoke in class and didn’t have much to do with other kids,” recalls one. “He seemed unhappy, but had his guitar [an $18 model bought at age 13]. If he could skip class and play in a corridor, he would.” Even Bruce has admitted, “I was on the outside looking in. That’s why I started playing—to get recognition.”
Suzanne Somers was Suzanne Mahoney when she was kicked out of a Catholic school for “writing notes” and wound up class of ’64 at Capuchino H.S. in San Bruno, Calif. “It was pretty obvious that she had talent,” says drama coach Ken Ton, “but then she got married and had a baby and I never thought she’d make it.” But after Suzanne and her school sweetheart Bruce Somers divorced, Ton, now 56, was briefly engaged to her himself.
As it says in the yearbook, Gloria Steinem “Hit Western with a Bang” when she moved to Washington, D.C. from Toledo in her senior year. “Glo” made class vice-president (“I was new and there was a certain mystery”) and was “Best-Looking Girl” at the 1952 Senior Prom. Aside from the fact that “it was still segregated,” Western High “cared about books” and was, Steinem sighs, “one of the happiest school experiences I ever had.”
Lily Tomlin was cheerleader captain and voted most popular girl in the class of ’57 at Cass Tech in Detroit. Her major: Home Ec.
Robert Redford’s 1954 tennis coach at Van Nuys (Calif.) High can’t remember “if I cut him or if he quit the team.” No matter. Redford drew cartoons for the school paper.
Abbott (Tex.) High was so small in 1950 that everybody who went out for the football team made it, including Willie Nelson. He also reports: “My grades stunk.”
Reggie Jackson was a fine if “cocky” jock back in Pennsylvania. Now he gets Yankee tickets for his old teachers.
In 1954 “Frosty” Friesen was Miss West Seattle and sang in the choir. She was not yet Dyan Cannon.
Though crowned king of the Mardi Gras Ball, Steve Martin was judged “kind of cheap” by one old flame.