Fast Times at Ridgemont High might be a teen classic now, but 35 years ago it was an irritating thorn on Universal’s side. The studio didn’t give writer Cameron Crowe and director Amy Heckerling the resources they needed; both were plagued by outside voices telling them high school movies were a total waste of money. When Fast Times was released, it opened in just 200 theaters and fizzled in ticket sales. But there was one silver lining: Jeff Spicoli.
The stoner character, played by a dedicated young Sean Penn, was a hit with teenagers. Praise for this happy-go-lucky slacker in Vans spread by word of mouth, inspiring teens to check out the film.
“The word got out that there was this movie with this character who wore checkerboard Vans, called the teacher a d— and ordered pizza into the room,” Crowe tells Variety in a new retrospective of the film. “They started showing up.”
True, that interest wasn’t quite enough to really save the movie. “The studio never caught up to the demand to see it,” he explains. “They were always scrambling to try and get into more theaters, but it never worked out until the movie came out on VHS and was a big hit.”
Penn’s Spicoli is a benchmark stoner character, up there in the pot-lined hall of fame alongside people like the Dude in the Big Lebowski and Slater in Dazed and Confused. Penn seemed to throw himself fully into the role, Crowe says, wearing his character’s checkerboard Vans every day and refusing to let people call him by his real name.
“He didn’t let us call him by his name until the last day when he gave Amy, Art [Linson, the producer] , and I each a ceremonial shoe and said ‘My name is Sean,’ ” Crowe says.
Despite its initial box office shortcomings, Fast Times is now widely regarded as a seminal high school film, particularly one that paved the way for the John Hughes-Molly Ringwald wave of the ’80s. But it would have been a very different film if Universal exec Thom Mount had been able to negotiate a deal with his first choice director: David Lynch, the surrealist who had just come off of Eraserhead and The Elephant Man. Crowe took a meeting with Lynch, recalling that the oddball director drove up in a VW beetle.
“He had a very wry smile on his face as I sat talking with him,” Crowe says. “He went and read it. We met again. He was very, very sweet about it, but slightly perplexed we thought of him. He said this was a really nice story but ‘it’s not really the kind of thing that I do, but good luck.’ He got into the white VW bug and drove off.”
Probably for the best, right? Besides, just a few years later Lynch would try his hand at a high school film . . . though it ended up being the neo-noir Blue Velvet, which is a dark, bloody world away from the sweet reckless kids at Ridgemont High.
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