Cindy Williams tried to turn down the part of Laurie in “American Graffiti.” Three times.
Amidst a regional tour of “Nunset Boulevard” (a spinoff of “Nunsense”), Williams called from a bus headed to Macon, Ga., a couple weeks ago to talk about “American Graffiti,” which film historian Bruce Crawford is screening Friday night at Joslyn Art Museum. Williams will be his special guest, signing autographs and introducing the movie. Tickets are on sale at Omaha Hy-Vee supermarkets.
Looking back, Williams said, it’s clear that playing Ron Howard’s clingy girlfriend in “American Graffiti” was her breakthrough role, soon leading to the part of Shirley on the hit sitcom “Laverne & Shirley.”
But back in 1972 when she got the call to audition, Williams had just finished filming “Travels With My Aunt” with Maggie Smith in Europe. Both movies had the same casting director.
“He called the day I got back,” Williams recalled. “I was jetlagging. He said, ‘I have an ingenue part we can’t find anybody for. It’s a young director (George Lucas, pre-”Star Wars”), and I think it’s going to be very good.’`”
Williams begged off. Too tired. But the casting guy persisted, and she grudgingly went to the audition.
“I really liked George. But I said I wanted Candy Clark’s part (flirty Debbie, who dates nerdy Terry) or Mackenzie Phillips’ part (13-year-old tag-along Carol). I said, ‘I could put braces on my teeth, I can play that part.’ I wanted to play comedy. I didn’t want to have to cry all through the movie while everybody else was having fun.”
She turned down the part of Laurie.
“My agent called and said, ‘Cindy, you really want to do this. It’s going to be a fabulous movie.’”
She still said no.
Then Francis Ford Coppola, who produced “American Graffiti,” called Williams’ house.
“I hadn’t seen ‘The Godfather’ yet, but I’d seen ‘You’re a Big Boy Now’ (a film Coppola directed), and it was fabulous. He said, ‘Cindy, you really want to do this.’ I said, ‘Of course I do.’”
And, boy, is she glad she did.
“George was terrific. He had a vision, went for it, and he got it.”
When she and Ron Howard met with Lucas the first time (she was 24, Howard was about to turn 18), Lucas described the movie as a musical, because of the soundtrack with about 40 classic rock’n’roll hits.
“I remember walking out of there with Ron, and he said, ‘That’s just brilliant.’ And when we saw a rough cut two weeks in, with some of the music, it was.”
Williams always wanted to act. As a kid she mimicked commercials in the bathroom mirror, put on shows in the family garage and performed at church socials. At Birmingham High School in Van Nuys, Calif., Sally Field was in her drama class.
Williams’ first notable role was a recurring part as a high school student on the TV drama “Room 222.”
She knew “American Graffiti” co-star Richard Dreyfuss long before the movie shoot.
“My best friend from college grew up across the street from Ricky, as he was known then, before any of us were in show biz.”
While Dreyfuss was very serious about his part, she said, Harrison Ford and Paul LeMat were mavericks.
“They were fun. It was like going to a risque church camp, real mischievous.”
The movie was so low-budget there were no dressing rooms. The actors hung out in the classic cars between takes — even during takes, in Williams’ case.
“Sometimes when they were shooting a scene in the front seat, I’d be lying in the back seat. There was no place else to go.”
Lucas was an easygoing director, Williams said, and open to suggestions. At one point Ford wanted to burst into song, crooning “Some Enchanted Evening” from “South Pacific.” Lucas let him. But they couldn’t get the rights to the song, so it was cut.
Did it surprise her when the movie was such a huge hit?
“Yes and no. Yes, because Universal shelved it (six months). They weren’t gonna release it. But no, because I’d seen it. It was so glorious, and I saw how the crowd responded to it. But Universal was off George. They even gave up the rights to ‘Star Wars.’”
Still, “Star Wars” owes a debt to “American Graffiti,” and not just because Lucas got rich and famous off it. During post-production on “American Graffiti,” one of the sound crew wanted Lucas to retrieve the second dialogue track from reel 2. In filmmaker lingo, his request was, “Could you get R2-D2 for me?”
And another star was born.