By Michael Aushenker
It was the movie that “launched a thousand careers” –and perhaps even inspired a comedy spin-off or two.
Thirty-one years ago this week, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” made its theatrical debut. The American Cinematheque’s Westside venue, the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, will screen Amy Heckerling’s 1982 coming-of-age comedy at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 17, along with Keva Rosenfeld’s 1987 like-minded documentary, “All-American High.” Heckerling and Rosenfeld will appear at the screening for a Q & A.
“‘Fast Times’ is one of my favorite films of the 80s,” movie critic Leonard Maltin told The Argonaut. “It captures the zeitgeist of Southern California teenage-hood in a way that’s both credible and funny. That’s largely because (writer) Cameron Crowe observed it all firsthand for his article in Rolling Stone, and because Amy Heckerling reproduced it so well.”
While oft-quoted “stoner” lines such as “Hey, bud! Let’s party!” and “That’s my skull! I’m so wasted!” caught on quick with tweens back in the 1980s, “Fast Times,” in hindsight, is considered by some to be the smart man’s teen sex comedy. While it didn’t have the box office success of the massive sleeper (and much more crass) “Porky’s,” “Fast Times,” a tidy little charismatic hit, eventually (thanks to video and cable) became a revered classic on the strength of its freshman class of Hollywood acting talent, well-drawn characters, a sharp script, and its unvarnished take on first love and teen sex with all of its attendant awkwardness.
“Fast Times” follows a school year in the lives of sophomores (including Stacy Hamilton, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) experiencing the ups and downs of first love. The film’s colorful characters include Stacy’s older brother, Brad (Judge Reinhold), working petty jobs to pay off his car; and stoner/surfer Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) and contentious history teacher Mr. Hand (Ray Walston).
“Fast Times” instantly established Penn as one of Hollywood’s most formidable actors thanks to Spicoli, still one of Penn’s most memorable roles. The movie also helped establish Leigh, Reinhold, Phoebe Cates and Forest Whitaker. Even the minor roles featured future stars Eric Stoltz, Anthony Edwards and Nicolas Cage. (Penn, Cage and Whitaker went on to become Academy Award-winning A-list actors.)
“We certainly didn’t think it was going to be a hit or have longevity while we were making it,” Reinhold told The Argonaut in a phone call from New Mexico, where he was shooting an upcoming project.
“Fast Times” was not only a breakout film for a who’s who of young actors, it was Heckerling’s and Crowe’s Hollywood debut. The in-demand Heckerling, currently busy directing episodes of “The Carrie Diaries” and “Suburgatory,” went on to direct “European Vacation” and another teen classic, “Clueless,” as well as the “Look Who’s Talking” movies and “A Night at the Roxbury.” Crowe, who based the comedy on his Rolling Stone article and subsequent book detailing the antics of high schoolers the then-20-something writer met while posing as a fellow student at San Diego’s Clairemont High, eventually became the auteur filmmaker behind “Say Anything” and “Jerry Maguire.”
While “Fast Times” may not have invented the coming-of-age comedy (George Lucas’ “American Graffiti” predates it by nearly a decade) or even the teen sex comedy (“Porky’s” came out five months earlier), it proved influential. In the wake of “Fast Times” came several John Hughes classics (“Sixteen Candles,” “Pretty in Pink,” “The Breakfast Club”), Heckerling’s own “Clueless,” “Bring It On,” and cult favorites “Dazed and Confused,” “Wet Hot American Summer” and “Adventureland.” The lineage of onscreen surfer/stoner dudes, from 1989’s “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” to the Dude from “The Big Lebowski” to Nic Krause’s Sid in Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” in 2011, harkens back to Penn’s Spicoli.
As Rosenfeld pointed out, the key to “Fast Times’” success was excellent casting.
“The casting is miraculous; every part is filled to perfection,” Maltin said. “Sean Penn is such a serious-minded actor that I sometimes find myself reminding people how hilarious he is as Spicoli in this movie… but again, it’s rooted in reality, as Penn remembers observing surfer dudes like that when he was growing up at the beach.” (Penn grew up in Malibu.)
“Amy was the perfect person to direct this movie,” said Reinhold, noting how she mastered “a consistency of tone” that avoided melodrama. Crowe, then courting future wife Nancy Wilson of the rock group Heart, trusted his material with Heckerling. “He totally turned it over to Amy. He was just really happy and at ease about what was going on,” Reinhold said.
Reinhold, who, with “Fast Times” and the original “Beverly Hills Cop” is proud to have played in two films on American Film Institute (AFI)’s Top 100 Funniest Movies list, commented on how Heckerling landed the gig.
“Amy broke into the business the same way Marty Brest did,” Reinhold said, referring to Martin Brest, director of the original “Beverly Hills Cop,” with a legendary New York University student film. “She got great attention from an AFI film she had made. Marty and Amy were friends. I never thought about it until this moment but they broke into the business the same way (with a student film).”
Reinhold landed the role of Brad Hamilton because their first choice, a then-unknown Cage, was underage.
“They couldn’t use Nic,” Reinhold said. “He was 17. His age would’ve intruded on the shooting schedule.”
At the time, Reinhold was living with his girlfriend and future first wife, Carrie Frazier, upstairs from Heckerling. Frazier, who went on to become a major casting director for HBO, was Heckerling’s assistant and confidant. Heckerling instructed Reinhold to pretend not to know her when he auditioned.
Producer Art Linson liked him, but Reinhold was 23 and Linson’s reaction, as Reinhold recalled it, was, “‘You’re so old, though.’ He starts to talk about me like I’m not in the room. He said, ‘He looks like Ed Asner.’” Linson’s solution: “‘Just cast everybody else older.’ All the extras looked older.”
Reinhold landed the part. Cage, billed under real name Nicholas Coppola, subsequently had a bit part as “Brad’s bud.”
“[Casting director] Don Philips was insane,” Reinhold remembered, laughing. “They were all having to get over the fact they couldn’t use Nic (as Brad). Don Philips never quite got over it. Especially after (Cage’s career) took off.”
Heckerling shot the movie in the San Fernando Valley, including the mall scenes after-hours inside the Galleria in West Hills.
“It was all location,” said Reinhold. “When we did the last scene, the (convenience store) robbery scene we were really downtown. I think we were in South Central. It had a vibe. The regulars thought they were open (and were disappointed to learn the store was closed).”
He remembers Penn as an enigma during the shoot.
“We didn’t know who Sean was. We knew he was from Malibu. We thought he was the stoner guy. The girls (in the cast) were really turned off. He loved turning them off,” Reinhold said, chuckling.
Penn essentially stayed in character, and then, to Reinhold’s surprise, he would overhear Penn’s “erudite conversations with Cameron and Amy. I was like, ‘Who the hell was this?’ And then I started to realize he was really good. Man, this guy is really smart.”
Upon the movie’s completion, the studio executives panicked.
“Two weeks before the release, Universal gets cold feet,” Reinhold recalled. “(They said) ‘This is just about California kids. Other kids around the country won’t get it.’”
So Linson took charge.
“He ran across the street to (MCA’s Black Tower),” continued Reinhold. “He goes into (powerful music industry executive) Irving Azoff’s office and he says, ‘Hey, Irving, do you want to produce a movie?’ Irving knows nothing about producing movies. Art says, ‘It doesn’t matter! Get me Tom Petty! Get me, Jackson Browne! I need a hit soundtrack.’ He goes back to Universal and says, ‘We’ve got a hit soundtrack!’” Unusual in its day, the rock song-laden soundtrack became another bullseye arrow in “Fast Times”’ quiver.
Rolled out by Universal Pictures on Aug. 13, 1982, “Fast Times” went on to gross more than $27 million – six times its $4.5 million budget.
The Cinematheque credits Rosenfeld for suggesting to pair his movie with “Fast Times” at the Aug. 17 screening. Rosenfeld, who has known Heckerling since when she shot “Fast Times,” says the movie’s success derives from the fact “she puts a lot of heart in her work (which is) always character-driven, personal, very relatable.” And he says the brilliance of Penn’s performance (and the movie at large) was “its authenticity. You know those people in high school.”
“Obviously, some of the material is exaggerated for comic effect,” Maltin added, “but never so much that it becomes completely unrealistic or absurd.”
Reinhold chalks up “Fast Times”’ success to a large talent pool: “We were all on our game.”
He regarded Linson as his unofficial mentor, and he singles out the synergy between Heckerling and Crowe, both great writers: “They really liked each other a lot. They were both on the same page.”
Added Rosenfeld, “She had Cameron, she had a great cast, and she had a great casting director.”
“Amy was inscrutable,” said Reinhold. “She was nothing but encouraging and supportive. I’ve heard her say she was very nervous, but she never showed it. We never saw it.
“Her directions were succinct and specific. Those are the two things you want from a director. That’s what she was from the beginning.”
The actor credits his performance in “Fast Times” for getting him cast in “Beverly Hills Cop,” sans audition. And he still gets a thrill when young people approach him about it: “It’s had more resonance later on in my life because we have a whole new generation of fans.”
Rosenfeld has plenty to be excited about regarding the Aero engagement. For the first time since its original release, “All-American High” will be screened in a theater. And for the first time since making his doc, he will be joined by some of the people he filmed.
“Many of them are going to show up,” he said of his subjects, now middle-aged with teens of their own.
Rosenfeld is looking forward to seeing “Fast Times” and Heckerling again. This event, he added, will be an opportunity for new generations of cinemagoers to see some stars before they were famous and soak in those terrific lines.
Or, as Reinhold’s Brad tells a shirtless Spicoli in the movie: “Learn it. Know it. Live it.”