Nearly 40 years after its August 1973 release, Omaha film historian Bruce Crawford has chosen “American Graffiti” for his 31st classic-film screening Nov. 2 at Joslyn Art Museum.
Crawford's special guest for the event will be Cindy Williams, widely known for her role as Ron Howard's girlfriend in the movie and for a spinoff of Howard's “Happy Days” sitcom, “Laverne & Shirley.” She played Milwaukee brewery worker Shirley, opposite Penny Marshall, from 1976-82.
Williams is bringing along actor Eddie Mekka, who was Carmine on “Laverne & Shirley.” Before the 7 p.m. movie screening, Williams will talk about the making of “American Graffiti,” while Mekka will lead an audience sing-along of rock 'n' roll hits. The Jitterbrats dancers will also appear, dancing to tunes from the movie.
The event is a benefit for the Nebraska Kidney Association. Tickets, $20, go on sale today at Omaha locations of Hy-Vee supermarkets.
“American Graffiti,” a coming-of-age tale set in 1962, centers on two high school kids scared about going off to college. They're part of a wild night of cruising, drag racing, romance and pranks in a small city. The plot was molded by director George Lucas' teen years in Modesto, Calif., and featured classic cars including a 1955 Chevy, 1956 T-Bird and 1932 Ford roadster.
Nobody wanted to make “American Graffiti” back in 1972. Fox, Columbia, MGM and Paramount all turned it down. One reason was the proposed score of 40 classic-rock hits, since it would be expensive and time-consuming to obtain the rights to use them.
But Universal finally said yes to Lucas, who was as much of an unknown back then as his cast: Richard Dreyfuss, Harrison Ford, Suzanne Somers, Paul LeMat, Mackenzie Phillips, Charles Martin Smith, Candy Clark and Williams.
The PG-rated movie's budget of $777,777 was parlayed into more than $200 million in revenues and wide critical acclaim, even though Universal executives had little faith in it and shelved it for six months after completion.
Lucas capitalized on the success of “American Graffiti” to get financing for his next movie, megahit “Star Wars,” in which Ford became a star as Han Solo.
Dreyfuss soon starred in “Jaws” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” before winning an Oscar for “The Goodbye Girl.” LeMat got a Golden Globe nomination for “Melvin and Howard,” and won for “The Burning Bed.”
Somers snagged a television sitcom, “Three's Company,” while Phillips soon co-starred in another sitcom, “One Day at a Time.”
Howard, who had previously appeared in movies and on “The Andy Griffith Show,” soon was cast as Richie Cunningham on “Happy Days” before becoming an Oscar-winning movie director.
“American Graffiti” was a best-picture Oscar nominee, and Clark snagged a supporting-actress nod as flirty blonde Debbie. The movie kicked off a wave of nostalgia for the 1950s, fostering the rise of “Happy Days,” “Laverne & Shirley” and the musical “Grease.”
“Lucas had an eye for picking the right people,” Crawford said. “He was willing to take risks. There had been nothing like this movie before.”
He might say the same about “Star Wars,” in which Lucas partnered with fellow UCLA film student Francis Ford Coppola to launch one of the most lucrative film franchises ever.
Crawford said “American Graffiti” is a crowd favorite.
“People think it's light and funny, which it is, but it also has moments of great drama,” he said. “And it shows a pivotal time in our national history. After JFK was assassinated the next year (1963), things began to change in ways we're still dealing with.”
He said he was especially excited to welcome Williams to Omaha.
“She loves the film, and she's one of the most genuinely kind, sweet people I've ever spoken to.”
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