One of these days director George Lucas oughta throw a reunion for American Graffiti’s class of ’62, but it will probably have to be down at Mel’s Drive-In rather than on TV. Unlike, say, last month’s My Three Sons/Partridge Family klatch or John Wayne’s World War II, no network will be able to afford the cast. Ron Howard, Cindy Williams and Suzanne Somers have graduated to the top three series on the air. Harrison Ford and Richard Dreyfuss have whooshed off into box office outer space.
Five years ago Lucas assembled this troupe of then unknowns for two simple reasons: he wanted a fresh look and they were all he could afford. Lucas’ script had been rejected by every other major studio before Universal let him shoot ahead on “housekeeping money” of $750,000. Thus Somers, who now earns four figures a week, was paid $136.72.
“We told every agency in town we were looking for young talent,” recalls Mike Fenton, Graffiti’s co-casting director, and so the company was culled from commercials, little theater and TV. Because of his eight years as Opie on The Andy Griffith Show, Ron Howard was probably the most familiar. But he had never even filmed a petting scene until one 4 a.m. Lucas ordered the petrified kid to unbutton the blouse of a co-star whose credits included an award-winning commercial for Foster Grant sunglasses. She was Cindy Williams, who says, “Ronnie developed into quite a good kisser.” The one totally untrained talent just happened to be John (Mamas and Papas) Phillips’ daughter, Mackenzie.
Lucas’ little-regarded script went on to win the 1974 National Society of Film Critics Award. George also proved that unveiling human comers was mere kid’s stuff. At 28, it was time to move on to the next challenge: droids.
“Where were you in ’62?” ran the ads for American Graffiti, George Lucas’ 1973 elegy to adolescence. Its return on the dollar has exceeded even his Star Wars, and spun wheel marks for lesser nostalgiana like TV’s Happy Days.
Despite pre-Graffiti parts in potboilers like Valley of the Dolls and Dillinger, it was his portrayal of Curt, the class intellectual, that propelled Richard Dreyfuss (right) to stardom in Jaws, Close Encounters and The Goodbye Girl.
Ron Howard and Cindy Williams are the two cast members who cashed in most directly from Graffiti. Within a year Howard was hanging out with the Fonz, and two years later Williams spun off in Laverne and Shirley. Cindy kept her clothes on in The First Nudie Musical, while Ron directed Grand Theft Auto, but they remain best known as small-screen teens. Ron, now 23, says in Graffiti, “You just can’t stay 17 forever.” But you sure can try.
As “the beautiful blonde in the T-bird,” Suzanne Somers whispered “I love you” through a car window and drove Dreyfuss ape with a breathy one-minute phone call. Now she’s the beautiful blonde in ABC’s Three’s Company.
American Graffiti’s odd couple, Paul Le Mat and Mackenzie Phillips, were both making their screen debut. Only 12 at the time, Phillips went on to appear in Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins and is currently taking things One Day at a Time for CBS. Despite good notices in Aloha, Bobby and Rose and Handle with Care, Le Mat, casting director Fenton says sadly, hasn’t begun to deliver on his potential. At present Paul is contemplating a return to professional boxing.
Candy Clark was nominated for an Oscar as the drive-in Kewpie doll, Debbie. She lost to Tatum O’Neal but has since starred opposite David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth and was reunited with Paul Le Mat in Handle with Care.
In Graffiti, Kathleen Quinlan (billed as “Kathy” at the time) spent much of her time in the girls’ room. An Oscar contender for her performance in I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, she next stars in a love story, The Promise.
Whether piloting a souped-up Ford or a glued-together spaceship, as in Star Wars, Harrison Ford is the definition of cool. He honored the director of his two mega-hits, naming his character in the upcoming Apocalypse Now Colonel Lucas.
As Terry the Toad, Charlie Martin Smith (bottom right) had a bad night in Graffiti. His car was stolen, he got drunk, sick, beaten up. Though lately less visible than his co-stars, Charlie will soon surface in The Buddy Holly Story.