Hey cool cats! Fans of 1970s cinema might remember a little gem by the name of American Graffiti, a teenage coming-of-age dramedy that helped launched the careers of several beloved actors, including Harrison Ford, Cindy Williams, Ron Howard, and Richard Dryfus.
Directed by George Lucas and produced by Francis Ford Coppola, American Graffiti has remained in popular movie culture for more than 40 years now, and today is celebrating its 43rd anniversary.
Released August 11, 1973, American Graffiti sits comfortably between The Godfather and Star Wars in the amazing lineup that was 1970s cinema. Originally thought to be a flop by the studio that produced it (Universal), American Graffiti actually turned out to be one of the most profitable movies of all time, and even landed a Best Picture Oscar nomination, a Best Director nomination, and nominations for Best Supporting Actress (Candy Clark), Best Original Screenplay, and Best Film Editing.
To help celebrate the release of this wonderful film, here are a few fun facts about the movie that set the bar for all other high school flicks to come…
When Charles Martin Smith pulls up on his Vespa in the beginning of the movie, his crash into the building wasn’t scripted. He genuinely lost control of the bike during filming and Lucas decided to keep the shot.
American Graffiti was shot in sequence…in 29 days.
When radio personality Wolfman Jack makes an on-air prank call to Pinky’s Pizza, the voice on the other end is belongs to George Lucas.
Ironically, Lucas missed his high school reunion because he was too busy shooting this classic high school film.
Newcomer Harrison Ford was asked to cut his hair for the film, but he refused, stating his role was too short. He did offer to wear a hat instead.
Lucas kept several first takes in this film, including the scene where Carol gets hit in the face with a water balloon. The balloon was scripted to hit the side of the car, but actress Mackenzie Phillips adlibbed the rest of the scene, and Lucas decided to keep it.
Universal thought so little of American Graffiti that the film sat on the shelf for 6 months before the studio finally decided to release it in the summer of 1973. To their surprise, the film was an enormous success, becoming one of the most profitable films of all time and launching the careers of several of today’s most well known actors.
One of the main reasons so many studios turned down American Graffiti was because Lucas wanted at least 40 classic rock n’ roll songs on the soundtrack, leading to a large music rights bill. Universal finally decided to fund the picture after Lucas’ friend, Francis Ford Coppola—fresh from his success with The Godfather the year before—came on board as a producer.
Speaking of, American Graffiti also got an additional $175,000 added to the budget after Coppola signed on, solely for the studio to be able to say, “from the man who brought you The Godfather…”.
Mel’s Drive-In was demolished after the movie was completed, but re-opened as a small chain in 1981. There are two restaurants in Hollywood themed after the movie, and one in San Francisco, where Lucas occasionally dines.
Ever wonder why movie credits are so long? You can thank George Lucas for that! Due to the low budget, Lucas was unable to pay all of the crew members, so he offered a screen credit in lieu of payment, which many accepted. Traditionally, only department heads received screen credits, so this was a big deal to anyone looking to further their career in Hollywood. This has now become a tradition in most, if not all, Hollywood films.
There is a rumor that while Lucas was editing American Graffiti, a co-worker asked him for “reel two, dialogue two”, which abbreviated to R2-D2, inspiring the name of the little droid in Lucas’ later film, Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.
About 300 pre-1960’s cars were needed to create the cruising scenes in American Graffiti, and more than 1,000 classic car owners responded to ads placed in local newspapers.
American Graffiti was almost exclusively shot at night.
Paul LeMat, Harrison Ford, and Bo Hopkins were often drunk between takes and had climbing competitions to the top of the local Holiday Inn sign.
Charles Martin Smith and Ron Howard, both 18 at the time, were the only two teenage principal actors of the film. Most of the principal cast members were in their 20’s, with the exception of Mackenzie Phillips, who was 12, and Harrison Ford, who turned 30 during filming.
Ron Howard and Cindy Williams would go on to act together in TV, Howard starring in Happy Days, which debuted the year after American Graffiti was released, and Williams starring in the Happy Days spinoff, Laverne & Shirley, two years later. Williams also guest-starred in Happy Days with Howard.
Even though Ron Howard was supposed to be a year older than Cindy Williams, Howard is actually seven years younger than Williams in real life.
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