Before he made one of the most iconic sci-fi franchises ever (Star Wars!), George Lucas directed another iconic film that has become a cultural touchstone. American Graffiti, released nearly five decades ago, is a fun, homey, nostalgic look at what it was like to be an American teen before the ’60s came around and changed everything.
The movie was a hit; it made $55 million when it first came out in 1973 and an additional $63 million when it was released once again in 1978. Let’s respect this nostalgic gem by diving deep into how it all came to be.
Who Directed American Graffiti?
George Lucas. His previous film, the futuristic sci-fi drama called THX-1138 was a total disappointment both critically and commercially. The young director’s wife, Marcia—as well as his friend Francis Ford Coppola— advised him to film something a bit more relatable.
“Don’t be so weird,” Coppola told Lucas at the time. “Try to do something that’s human … Everyone thinks you’re a cold fish, but you can be a warm and funny guy; make a warm and funny movie.” And so, he did!
It Could Have Been a TV Movie
George Lucas was handed a budget of $600,000 by Universal Pictures to make the film—in other words, not a lot. Thankfully, after Francis Ford Coppola joined as a producer, shortly after the release of The Godfather, the studio gave them another $175,000.
When they were done shooting and the film had test-screened positively, Universal Studios wanted to re-edit it and – gasp – release it as a TV movie instead. Lucas objected furtively but had little influence on their decision. Coppola, though —by this time an Oscar-winner—had more power. He convinced the studio executives to do just a little bit of trimming and to release the movie in the theaters.
Contrary to Popular Belief…
There’s no actual connection between Happy Days and American Graffiti. The series aired five months after American Graffiti was released to the cinemas. It was set in the 1950s, with Ron Howard playing a young man very similar to his character in American Graffiti.
It even used the American Graffiti font in its credits! No wonder people assumed there was some connection. Many believed Happy Days was a spin-off. However, it first aired in 1972 as part of the series Love, American Style, and after American Graffiti took off, ABC reconsidered bringing Happy Days back on TV. It aired for 10 years and became one of the most beloved sitcoms in TV history.
Universal Studios Wanted a Different Title
Executives from Universal Studios didn’t know what the title American Graffiti actually meant (and they weren’t the only ones). They begged George Lucas to change it. They whipped out a list of at least 60 alternates, including titles like Rock Around the Block (Coppola suggested that) and Another Slow Night in Modesto.
However, Lucas wouldn’t budge. He was hooked on that specific title. While graffiti is a type of art, in the movie’s title, it possesses the meaning “glib, funny, and immediate,” which coincides with the comic side of the movie.
George Lucas’ Co-Writers Disliked the Ending
Spoiler alert – The movie ends with title cards unveiling what happened to the main protagonists (the male ones at least). And things get pretty grim. The co-writers Lucas brought on board to help him write the script, Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, believed it was too depressing.
They found it strange and tried to coerce Lucas out of it. However, they didn’t succeed. As you can tell, stubbornness is one of George Lucas’ most prominent traits! It’s safe to say, we’re glad he insisted on keeping it the way he wanted it.
The Story of Wolfman Jack
The American DJ with the unique voice played a huge part in Lucas’ teenage years in Modesto, California. George was so inspired by him that when he was a student at USC’s film school, he considered filming a documentary about him.
So, when American Graffiti turned him into a millionaire, George Lucas paid the Wolfman DJ a little extra cash for serving as the movie’s inspiration. Surely, the movie wouldn’t have been the same without him.
The Blonde Wasn’t Real
The film sees the character Curt (played by Richard Dreyfuss) spending most of his time chasing a beautiful and mysterious young blonde (played by Suzanne Somers), whom he sees driving a Ford Thunderbird.
Originally, Lucas intended to film a scene where the blonde and the vehicle were briefly transparent, showing the viewers that she was nothing but a figment of Curt’s imagination. However, this was one of the scenes that was taken out when Universal Studios insisted on a strict, tight budget.
The Producer Became Mackenzie Phillip’s Legal Guardian
Mackenzie Phillips was only 12 years old when she was cast to make the film, and even though she had experience in the industry (her dad, John Phillips, was in The Mamas & the Papas), neither Mackenzie nor her parents thought that California law required her to have a guardian present on set.
“They were almost going to have to recast me, but Gary Kurtz (one of the producers) and his family said, ‘We’ll take her,'” Mackenzie recalled in 1999. “So, they went to the courts in San Francisco and got guardianship of me.” She lived with Gary and his family for the duration of the film and described it as a happy experience.
Where Was American Graffiti Filmed?
As it turns out, the production was booted out of town after just one day of shooting. Lucas planned to shoot the movie in San Rafael, California, but after one day there, the city council kicked them out. And they had good reason to do so.
One member of the crew was arrested for growing weed. And on the first night of filming, local businesses complained about all the noise. They moved about 20 miles north, where things continued a bit more smoothly.
The Movie’s Soundtrack Sold a Whopping Three Million Copies
The idea of filling an entire soundtrack with a bunch of preexisting popular hits (rather than an instrumental score) was still relatively new. 1969’s Easy Rider was the first major example before American Graffiti.
The movie’s double album included 41 of the 43 songs played in the film and was arranged in the order they appear. The only songs missing from the soundtrack are “Gee” by The Crows and “Louie Louie” by Flash Cadillac & the Continental Kids.
Elvis Presley Is Absent From the Soundtrack
The reason Elvis Presley was absent from the playlist was, of course, money related. To lower the cost of licensing a huge number of songs, Universal Studios offered one flat rate to all the record labels involved.
All labels agreed to his pricing except for one – RCA. This meant, unfortunately, no Elvis Presley. Therefore, and quite unrealistically, the young characters in American Graffiti were probably the only teens in America who listened to the radio in 1962 and didn’t hear an Elvis hit.
Harrison Ford Refused to Cut His Hair
Before agreeing to star in the movie, Harrison Ford posed one ultimatum – there would be no messing around with his hair. At the time of his audition, he was actually working as a carpenter to support his family. In fact, he was pretty disenchanted with showbiz and wasn’t sure he wanted to do the film in the first place.
That’s why he allowed himself to give such an ultimatum. His character, Bob Falfa, was supposed to sport a flat top hairstyle, but Ford refused to do it. Eventually, a compromise was reached, and Bob wore a hat all through the film.
A Whole Lot of Shenanigans
George Lucas worked hard. He shot five to ten script pages a night! An amount twice the norm. However, there was still a lot of time to rest and even some time to play. The large ensemble of young and energetic actors really needed to let off some steam.
Harrison Ford, one of the oldest actors in the cast (he turned 30 during shooting), as well as Paul Le Mat and Bo Hopkins, shared a lot of beers between takes and were even said to have been kicked out of the hotels for things like urinating in Holiday Inn’s ice machines and climbing on the building’s rooftop sign.
More crazy stunts include Le Mat throwing Dreyfuss into the swimming pool. And instead of it ending in a fun water fight, it ended with Dreyfuss gashing his forehead and bleeding in the water.
Someone also set fire to George’s hotel room once. And if all that wasn’t enough, there were dozens of locals who hung out with the actors every night, drag-racing their cars on the back streets with the young and enthusiastic cast.
300 Vehicles Were Used
Around 300 cars were used in the film. Locals with vintage cars were paid about $20 to $25 per night to provide their fancy rides. They were also given free food and drinks and allowed to have a jolly good time with the rest of the young cast.
Some of the cars used were painted for the film. After shooting wrapped up, many of the cars were put up for sale but not all sold well. Most of them were bought by vintage car collectors.
They Thought It Would Flop
All of the main actors in American Graffiti were unknown. Therefore, Universal Studios wasn’t sure that the movie would do well. They even considered airing it as a TV movie. In other words, they believed it would suck.
Luckily, co-producer Francis Ford Coppola had high hopes and convinced Universal to do a theatrical release. The movie grossed a whopping $55 million on a meager budget of just over $750,000. It earned an additional $63 million in re-release.
No One Wanted to Take It
Most people might think that American Graffiti would be a sure bet for production studios. It was a low-budget film that focused mainly on unknown actors, and it didn’t require any special effects. It was an inexpensive film, so why didn’t anyone want to take it?
The script for American Graffiti bounced between United Artists and Universal Studios for almost a full year before Francis Ford Coppola, fresh off finishing his work on The Godfather, joined as a producer. With him on board, Universal agreed to pay for the film.
George Lucas Saw More Than 100 Auditions
American Graffiti’s actors were chosen wisely. Even if you’ve only seen the movie once, the actors stick in your mind, and it’s easy to see why George Lucas chose them. But the audition process was arduous. It was tough finding the perfect actors.
Along with casting directors Fred Roos and Mike Fenton, Lucas saw nearly 150 actors. He had the people sit in groups, then in smaller groups, then smaller, until he found just the right group of people he wanted on board.
Lucas Created the Role of Music Supervisor
In the documentary about the making of American Graffiti, William Murch, credited with Sound Montage and Re-Recording revealed:
“It was really the first film to have a wall-to-wall classic rock soundtrack, something that set a precedent and is fairly common today. Such that now you have a credit for somebody on films called ‘Music Supervisor’ and that’s their responsibility.”
The position of Music Supervisor didn’t really exist at the time. And George Lucas took the role on himself. To determine which songs to use in the film, he used his sister’s record player and went through a stack of songs from the late 1950s and early ‘60s.
Is American Graffiti a True Story?
Some of it.
Spoiler alert – Towards the end of the movie, Bob Falfa gets a chance to race John Milner, the ultimate king of drag racing. The race was tight, but when Falfa suddenly blows a tire, his vehicle flips into a ditch and explodes.
Bob barely makes it out alive. As it turns out, this wasn’t a random plot point meant to steam things up. It’s actually based on a true story. George Lucas was apparently into his local drag racing scene, and one time, he flipped his car and nearly died. The event prompted him to go to filming school instead.
None of the Background Actors Were Paid
One of the biggest scenes in the film happens at the high school sock hop when Steve and Laurie break up and make up, arguing over Steve’s desire to leave Modesto, and Laurie’s need for him to stay in place.
Because the movie was shot on such a tight budget, none of the 300 extras in the background were paid. They spent four hours rehearsing dance moves yet got nothing out of it. Well, some actually did. To keep them entertained, the production hosted raffles to provide the teens who stuck around with a few little prizes.
It Took Three Weeks to Find Enough Cars
Today, if you want to make a movie revolving around cars, there’s usually someone in the crew whose job it is to rent out cars. But at the time of American Graffiti, that wasn’t really the case. Even if there was someone responsible for it, they didn’t have enough money to rent so many.
Instead, they spent three weeks tracking down cars and their owners in the area, to see if they would be willing to let them use them. “We spent three weeks advertising on rock & roll radio for cars to be in this movie… cars and drivers who looked vaguely late ’50s,” Gary Kurtz explained.
George Lucas Used Two Cinematographers
To save time and money, George Lucas tried to cut costs in any way possible. He had to move the shooting from San Rafael, California to Petaluma and start about a day and a half behind schedule. So, he needed to make sure not to waste any more time.
To do so, he hired Jan D’Alquen and Ron Eveslage, two filmmakers who shot all of the conversational scenes in the film. Their style of filming allowed for more elegant scenes, and they were also able to knock out scenes at a faster rate.
It Was Almost Called Burger City Blues
Thankfully, the movie’s title ended up being American Graffiti, which is hands down one of the most iconic titles of a movie from the last 100 years. And even though it doesn’t technically describe what’s happening in the movie, the title is still enticing!
A little before the film’s release, other names were suggested. Some of the notable titles shortlisted are “Reebus,” “Supercola,” “Last Night to Make Out,” Burger City Blues,” and “Make Out at Burger City.” Looks like whoever wrote this list was pretty hungry…
It Paved the Way for the Summer Blockbuster
American Graffiti isn’t just your ordinary good movie. It was a huge success that paved the way for George Lucas to keep shooting films, which eventually led to Star Wars and the whole Indiana Jones franchise!
In addition to all that, American Graffiti also set the template for the summer blockbuster. Not only did the movie make a load of money, but its soundtrack was one of the first records of nostalgia-based tunes that tore up the charts.
The 1979 Sequel
In 1979, a sequel titled More American Graffiti came out. It centered around the same crew from the mid-1960s. However, it lacked the cruising theme (even though the Milner character had become a drag racer).
Unsurprisingly, and as usually happens with sequels, it was a critical failure and a complete box-office flop. It just didn’t have that same special spark to it like the original one had. Different times call for different movies, and, in 1979, this was no longer as interesting.
Played by Richard Dreyfuss, Curt Henderson is a confused fellow who spends his time in the film contemplating what he wants to do after high school: is college the answer? He’s a tad anxious and naïve and tends to find comfort in his good friends.
He’s a truly relatable character, and on one eventful night he gets involved with a street gang. The man of the hour, Richard Dreyfuss, played the role brilliantly. He started acting in 1964, and when he was hired for the film, Lucas gave him the option to choose between Curt or Terry.
Where Is He Now?
After the film, in 1974, Dreyfuss starred as the lead in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Despite being one of the many great talents in showbiz, Richard Dreyfuss has gained a reputation as a troublemaker, often clashing with others on set. He clashed with Robert Shaw on the set of Jaws, and with actor Bill Murray while shooting What About Bob.
In his defense, Dreyfuss said that Murray was “an Irish drunken bully” getting all up in his face and yelling, “Everyone hates you! You are tolerated.” Nowadays, Dreyfuss is in his 70s and is working on a few projects simultaneously.
Steve, Your Average Kid
Played by Ron Howard, Steve is another relatable character. He tries to tell his girlfriend, Laurie, that following their graduation, they should start seeing other people. College is a time to experiment, he believes.
Steve is doing his best to try and find himself; however, Laurie doesn’t believe he needs to go 3,000 miles away to do so. After the movie, actor Ron Howard moved on to play Richie Cunningham in Happy Days. He became one of the most respected actors in the business.
Played by Cindy Williams, Laurie is Curt’s younger sister and the girlfriend of Ron’s character, Steve. In real life, Ron Howard is seven years younger than Cindy. After the shooting wrapped up, the on-screen couple moved on together to the set of Happy Days.
Cindy guest starred as Shirley Feeney (and moved on to film eight seasons of the show Laverne and Shirley). Nowadays, she’s not as active in the business, except for a few minor roles. Instead, she’s been focusing more on theater.
Terry “The Toad” Fields
Played by Charles Martin Smith, Terry “The Toad” Fields is a nerdy and socially awkward character. He’s the one driving Steve’s smooth ride around town when he notices Debbie walking all by herself. After a brief (and flirty) conversation, Debbie and Terry cruise all through the night until sunrise.
Actors Charles Martin Smith first started acting in 1971, landing a role in The Brady Bunch’s third season. American Graffiti was the first film in which Smith and Ron Howard appear together. Afterward, they met again on the set of the Western The Spikes Gang.
Where Is He Now?
After the film wrapped up, Charles Martin Smith devoted nearly three years to shooting Never Cry Wolf. The actor noted, “I was much more closely involved in that picture than I had been in any other film. Not only acting but writing and the whole creative process.”
This project led him to direct movies of his own. He directed the initial episode that launched the hit TV series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997). He then directed the hugely successful Disney movie, Air Bud.
Played by Mackenzie Phillips, Carol Morrison is a pre-teen who sports a gorgeous yellow coupe and turns John Milner’s night from cruising around town to babysitting. It’s amusing to watch! Her character is one of the most memorable ones in the film.
Mackenzie Phillips kicked off her acting career in 1952. Her part in American Graffiti put her in the limelight. And after the movie ended, she starred alongside Valerie Bertinelli in the hit show One Day at a Time.
Where Is She Now?
All in all, Mackenzie Phillip’s life has been wild. She’s the daughter of The Mamas and the Papas iconic singer, John Phillips. And in case you didn’t know, news of a troublesome relationship between the two blew up eventually in the press.
As it turns out, there was some drug-fueled, sexual tension going on between them. If you want to learn more about it, watch the episode on the docu-series Forgotten Child Stars of the 1970s.
Debbie Dunham – Where Is She Now?
Played by Candy Clark, Debbie Dunham was a fun, preppy blonde who hopped alongside Toad for a memorable night. Clark actually received an Oscar nomination for Supporting Actress. However, she lost to Tatum O’Neal for Paper Moon.
Most people might remember her from her little stint alongside David Bowie in his 1976 video for the song, The Man Who Fell to Earth. Nowadays, she’s in her 70s and is still acting. Lately, she’s starred in three episodes of Criminal Minds.
Bob Falfa – Where Is He Now?
Played by Harrison Ford, Bob Falfa is a spunky out-of-towner eager to race John and his famous Ford car. Apart from refusing to cut his hair for the role, Ford also caused a bit of trouble on the set. He was kicked out of his hotel room once during filming after getting caught up in a bar fight.
Most fans know Harrison from his role as Han Solo in George Lucas’ sci-fi series Star Wars. He’s surely one of the greatest actors out there. He also did a wonderful job in the Indiana Jones franchise. Fans can expect a new Indiana Jones film to come out in 2022!
The legendary DJ, Wolfman Jack, starred as himself in the film. With his iconic raspy voice, Wolfman Jack added authenticity to this charming film. Thankful for his performance, George Lucas provided Wolfman Jack with a fraction of the net profits.
This extra payment was enough to provide him with a comfortable income for the rest of his life. He began starring in cameos in the early ’70s, American Graffiti being his second film. He then used his voice to land gigs on cartoons and such.
May He Rest in Peace
The last time Wolfman Jack starred in a movie was in the 1995 film, Married With Children. That same year, the iconic DJ sadly passed away at the young age of 57 from a heart attack. Discussing his iconic voice, Wolfman was once quoted saying:
“It’s kept meat and potatoes on the table for years for Wolfman and Wolfwoman. A couple of shots of whiskey helps it. I’ve got that nice, raspy sound.” Surely, Wolfman Jack’s voice is a voice we will always remember.
John Milner – Where Is He Now?
Played by Paul Le Mat, John Milner is a different kind of guy. He is much older than the rest of the gang, yet he refuses to grow up. He spends most of his time fixing cars and cruising around in his flashy yellow ride.
The connection between him and Carol who jumps into his car for a ride is charming and dynamic. They both performed their parts superbly well! Before the movie, Paul Le Mat was a total newbie. After filming, he continued his line of work successfully, teaming up with famous directors to shoot films like 1977’s comedy, Citizens Band.
Today Paul Le Mat is in his 70s and has his very own YouTube channel.
What Is American Graffiti About?
A lot of the movie is based on Lucas’ personal experience. “It all happened to me, but I sort of glamorized it,” he explained, “I spent four years of my life cruising the main street of my hometown, Modesto, California. I went through all that stuff, drove the cars, bought liquor, chased girls… a very American experience.”
Lucas shared that he started out as Terry the Toad, but then went on to become more like John Milner, the local drag race champ. And THEN he evolved into Curt Henderson, the intellectual who goes to college. “They were all composite characters, based on my life, and on the lives of friends of mine. Some were killed in Vietnam, and quite a number were killed in auto accidents,” he revealed.