Sunday, August 11, 2013

Young Stars Left Their Mark in 'American Graffiti'

As I have mentioned here before, my father was a college professor when I was growing up.

He was rather young compared to others on the faculty, and I guess he always had a more informal relationship with his students than many of his colleagues did. I never really stopped to think about it. All I knew was that many of his students came to our house when I was a child.

The young men in my father's classes frequently came to help with the landscaping that my father often did around our property. Their girlfriends — well, I guess I assumed that was what they were — chatted with my mother and helped her make lemonade for the men to drink when they took breaks from their labor.

Other occasions appeared to be extensions of my father's classes. I remember times when many students came to our house, apparently for prearranged group discussions. My point is that my father had a friendly relationship with his students.

Anyway, we were kind of in a hurry in August of 1973. My family had spent about six or eight weeks in Austria that summer, and not long after our return, we had to move to Nashville where my father was going to be on sabbatical for the rest of the calendar year.

When "American Graffiti" premiered on this day 40 years ago, we probably hadn't returned to the United States yet, and, when we did, we didn't have time for movies. Fact is, I don't think we went to a single movie while we were in Nashville.

After Dad's sabbatical was over, my family returned to my hometown, and Dad resumed his teaching duties at the college where he had been employed for as long as I could remember. And not long after classes resumed following the Christmas break, I remember being in his office one afternoon, and a group of his students were there.

They were all chatting about a movie that had been in the theaters for some six months but was just getting to my hometown theater, and they were all excited about it.

(Actually, that was pretty quick for my hometown. As I have mentioned here before, it typically took movies a year or more to come to my hometown when I was a child.)

The movie was "American Graffiti," and its advertisements asked a simple question: "Where were you in '62?"

One of the students had seen the movie while she was home for Christmas, and she told the other students, "If you can remember the '60s, you'll love this movie."

And on the basis of that remark, my father decided to take my mother to see it. They were reasonably young, younger than most of my father's faculty colleagues, and I guess my father figured they could relate to the same things his students could.

But the truth was that my parents were a bit older than the characters played in the movie by Ron Howard, Richard Dreyfuss, Harrison Ford and Cindy Williams. My father's students were a bit younger, but they were influenced by the same things.

So they could relate to what they saw in "American Graffiti," but my parents really couldn't. They had already been shaped by other experiences by 1962, and I think that was when they realized that their lives were at a different point than my father's students.

I couldn't really relate to it, either. It was before my time. Wolfman Jack, an important albeit minor character in the movie, was a pioneer D.J. to my father's students; to me, he was an occasional host of The Midnight Special on Friday nights in the '70s.

And, while I can't speak for my father's students or anyone else, I remember the night before I started my college years, and it was nothing like what was depicted in "American Graffiti."

Well, it was a different time.

What's really interesting for me today when I watch "American Graffiti" is to think about where all these people are now and what they've done with their lives in the last 40 years. "American Graffiti" was a big break for many of them.

Howard, of course, needed no break. He started out as Opie on The Andy Griffith Show, and he starred in another hit sitcom, Happy Days, not long after appearing in "American Graffiti." Then he moved on to directing.

Dreyfuss has had a distinguished career, which included an uncredited part in "The Graduate" several years before he was in "American Graffiti," but his best, most successful — and, in one case, Oscar–winning — roles came after he was in "American Graffiti."

(In hindsight, success may have come a bit too quickly for Dreyfuss. He was, at 29, the youngest Best Actor winner, and he struggled for awhile with drug issues.)

Ford was in several movies before he made "American Graffiti," but it seemed to open a lot of doors for him. He's made a lot of movies in his life, but he is probably best known for playing Han Solo in the first "Star Wars" trilogy, and Indiana Jones in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and the other Indiana Jones movies, all of which came along after "American Graffiti."

Williams is probably best known for starring in a TV series that was a spinoff from Happy Days — although she also appeared with Ford and Gene Hackman in "The Conversation" the next year. She had mostly forgotten TV roles in the years before "American Graffiti;" people remembered her after the movie was a hit.

Even Suzanne Somers, who played the mysterious (and silent) girl in the white T–bird, enjoyed success that may have been due, at least in part, to her role in "American Graffiti." A few years later, she was a co–star on a smash hit TV sitcom, Three's Company.