American Graffiti: Five Facts at 50

Before conquering space, George Lucas wrote a love letter to his youth.


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A long time ago, in a California far, far away, George Lucas grew up loving cars, comics, and science fiction. While the latter two would lead toward Lucas’s best-known work, his experiences with car culture and West Coast teen life in the 1960s would manifest in a different beloved movie, American Graffiti. Released 50 years ago in August of 1973, the hit film would net Lucas his first Best Picture nomination and lift the careers of Ron Howard, Cindy Williams, Richard Dreyfuss, and more to another level. Here are a few facts about that fateful fictional night in 1962.

1. If you love American Graffiti, Star Wars, or Raiders of the Lost Ark, Thank a Broken Seat Belt

Young George Lucas was into movies, but he was really into cars. At one point in his youth, he entertained the idea of being a race car driver. That aspiration was soured after Lucas was involved in a car accident on June 12, 1962. Lucas’s car was struck from the side and flipped, only stopping when the vehicle struck a tree. During the crash, Lucas’s seatbelt broke and he was thrown free of the car. Had he remained in the vehicle, he might not have made it. As he headed to college, Lucas’s car obsession was replaced with a new passion: film.

2. Lucas Accepted the Coppola Challenge

THX 1138 trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by Rotten Tomatoes Classic Trailers)

Lucas was a film student at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts alongside other future directors like Steven Spielberg and John Milius. As a film production grad student, he won first prize at the 1967-1968 Student Film Festival for his experimental sci-fi short Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB. Part of his prize include the chance to work and observe on a Warner Bros. set; he chose Francis Ford Coppola’s Finian’s Rainbow. The pair would later co-found the studio American Zoetrope. During the making of Lucas’s film THX 1138, an expanded reimagining of his prize-winning short, Coppola challenged Lucas to see if he could write something with mainstream appeal. Using his Modesto youth as inspiration, Lucas teamed up with co-writers Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck to write American Graffiti.

3. The Film Indirectly Launched Happy Days and Some Other Really Good Movies

American Graffiti trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by Rotten Tomatoes Classic Trailers)

Lucas connected to the experience of youth by centering the story not in the present, but in 1962. He also perceived that the cruising culture the film would celebrate was something that was waning at the time, so it would make the film both a nostalgia piece and, hopefully, something that would also appeal to a younger audience. One of the key casting decisions was Lucas’s choice of Ron Howard as Steve. Howard was well-known thanks to his lengthy run as Opie on The Andy Griffith Show, and he had already played Richie Cunningham in an episode of the anthology series Love, American Style titled “Love and the Television Set.” It was that episode that convinced Lucas to cast Howard. When the movie became a hit, ABC decided to turn the Love, American Style episode into an ongoing series, Happy Days, using Howard and his connection to the film as part of the draw.

Ironically, Howard had himself been accepted to USC film school before being cast in Graffiti, and he looked to Lucas as a mentor. After working for Roger Corman’s low-budget production house and directing Grand Theft Auto in 1977, Howard had his first major hit as a director with 1982’s Night Shift, featuring his buddy Henry Winkler and Michael Keaton in his first starring role. Howard went on to a very successful career as a director, helming movies like Cocoon and Apollo 13 (both of which featured visual effects by Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic) and teaming up with Lucas for Willow. Both Howard and his daughter, Bryce Dallas Howard, have continued to show their affinity for Lucas creations over the years; Ron stepped in as director of 2018’s Solo: A Star Wars Story, and Bryce has directed episodes of The Mandalorian, The Book of Boba Fett, and the forthcoming Star Wars: Skeleton Crew.

Howard wasn’t the only cast member to reap the benefits of the film. Co-lead Richard Dreyfus became a favorite of Lucas’s buddy Spielberg and became one of his leads in both 1975’s Jaws and 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind; that same year, Dreyfuss won Best Actor for The Goodbye Girli. Charles Martin Smith (who played Terry “The Toad”) became a perennially busy character actor and director.

As for the ladies, Cindy Williams popped up in an episode of Happy Days two years later, which lead to her run on Laverne & Shirley. Mackenzie Phillips parlayed her role into the part of Julie on One Day at a Time. Candy Clark’s turn as Debbie earned her a Best Supporting Actress Nomination, and she’s stayed busy in film and television ever since. And Suzanne Somers’s appearance as “Blonde in T-Bird” made her a recognizable face and later paved the way for her role on Three’s Company.

But the biggest acting name to emerge from American Graffiti has to be Harrison Ford. Ford played hot-rodding Bob Falfa, but he was in the middle of a career crisis. Though he’d been acting for a while, he was also making great money as a sort of carpenter to the stars, doing work for the likes of Joan Didion and Francis Ford Coppola. After Graffiti, Lucas asked Ford to help him run lines during the auditions for his next big film. It quickly became clear to Lucas that Ford should be playing the character he was reading, Han Solo. After Star Wars exploded, Lucas and Spielberg would cast Ford as a character they created, Indiana Jones. Perhaps you’ve heard of him.

4. Time and Place Were Important.

Two of the tools that Lucas used to really anchor the film in 1962 were a carefully chosen soundtrack and classic cars. Ron Howard has joked in multiple interviews that Lucas took as much time finding the cars as he did the actors. But both the cars and the music were a huge part of creating the reality of the film. The action takes place over the course of one night at the end of summer right before the characters separate for destinations like college and the military. Though the time and space were specific to Lucas, the notion of friends separating into adulthood was a universal theme, and it played extremely well on the big screen. Anchoring the film in the reality of the ’60s is the “Where Are They Now?” Epilogue, which deploys still pictures and captions to reveal the fate of the four main cast members in the future, including one death and one missing in action in Vietnam. That device became a staple of teen-related films in subsequent years, being used in films like Cooley High, Animal House, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Can’t Hardly Wait (oddly, despite several memes insisting that John Hughes used this type of ending, he never did).

5. The Studio System Was Not a Smooth Cruise

More American Graffiti trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by J. Silvestri™)

Universal didn’t really know what to do with the film. They were confused over the title and, at one point, thought about releasing it as a TV movie. However, American Graffiti turned out to be a success and earned even more in re-releases over the next few years. It’s one of the best studio earners in terms of cost vs. profit in movie history. It received Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Director, Film Editing, Screenplay, and Supporting Actress (for Candy Clark), and won two Golden Globes (Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy and Most Promising Newcomer – Male for Paul Le Mat).

Studio difficulty turned out to be a problem that Lucas would face again in the future. While shopping his science fiction fantasy project, he found himself shut out not only at Universal, but United Artists, Paramount, and (oh, the irony) Disney as well. He finally found a home for the new movie at 20th Century Fox. After writing drafts under a few different titles, Lucas settled on the name that would stick: Star Wars.

The success of that movie drew Universal back to American Graffiti, and they asked Lucas for a sequel. He co-produced 1979’s More American Graffiti and selected Bill L. Norton to write and direct. The film suffered from mixed reviews and wasn’t the success of the original; in recent years, however, it has received warmer critical reappraisals.  Of course, one of the reasons that Lucas didn’t take on a sequel himself is that he was already deep into the work on a sequel that would be just a tiny bit more successful and well-reviewed: The Empire Strikes Back.

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