How Sean Penn Saved Fast Times at Ridgemont High from Destruction

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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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Full ScreenPhotos:15 Times Teen Movies Delivered Timeless Style
James Dean in *Rebel Without a Cause,* 1955.

James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, 1955.

The red bomber, white T-shirt, and denim trio is an effortless ensemble worth emulating to this day.

Photo: From Bettmann/.

Stacey Dash and Alicia Silverstone in *Clueless,* 1995.

Stacey Dash and Alicia Silverstone in Clueless, 1995.

Their style is, like, so 90s chic, and you’re totally buggin’ if you don’t enjoy this dream team.

Photo: From Everett Collection.

Leonardo DiCaprio in *Romeo + Juliet,* 1996.

Leonardo DiCaprio in Romeo + Juliet, 1996.

Who knew souped-up Hawaiian shirts and Shakespearean romance went so well together? Baz Luhrmann sure did when directing this cult-favorite adaptation.

Photo: From Everett Collection.

Rachel McAdams in *Mean Girls,* 2004.

Rachel McAdams in Mean Girls, 2004.

The evil queen bee with girlish style taught us the value of wearing pink on Wednesdays.

Photo: From Everett Collection.

Ann-Margret in *Bye Bye Birdie,* 1963.

Ann-Margret in Bye Bye Birdie, 1963.

The 1960s are one of history’s most stylish decades—and the movie musical Bye Bye Birdie was no exception, thanks in part to colorful style and surprisingly modern moments, like Kim slipping on this giant sweater.

Photo: From Everett Collection.

Thora Birch in *Ghost World,* 2001.

Thora Birch in Ghost World, 2001.

Outsiders always have the best style, because they don’t care what anyone else thinks. Enid was no exception, rocking cat’s-eye sunglasses and outfits with a punk-rock twist.

Photo: From Everett Collection.

Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwald, and Anthony Michael Hall in *The Breakfast Club,* 1985.

Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwald, and Anthony Michael Hall in The Breakfast Club, 1985.

How can you pick just one? From Bender’s perfect flannel, to Claire’s prim pink oeuvre, there was plenty of style to go around in The Breakfast Club’s core quintet.

Photo: From Everett Collection.

James Dean in <em>Rebel Without a Cause,</em> 1955.

James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, 1955.

The red bomber, white T-shirt, and denim trio is an effortless ensemble worth emulating to this day.

From Bettmann/.

Stacey Dash and Alicia Silverstone in <em>Clueless,</em> 1995.

Stacey Dash and Alicia Silverstone in Clueless, 1995.

Their style is, like, so 90s chic, and you’re totally buggin’ if you don’t enjoy this dream team.

From Everett Collection.

Leonardo DiCaprio in <em>Romeo + Juliet,</em> 1996.

Leonardo DiCaprio in Romeo + Juliet, 1996.

Who knew souped-up Hawaiian shirts and Shakespearean romance went so well together? Baz Luhrmann sure did when directing this cult-favorite adaptation.

From Everett Collection.

Rachel McAdams in <em>Mean Girls,</em> 2004.

Rachel McAdams in Mean Girls, 2004.

The evil queen bee with girlish style taught us the value of wearing pink on Wednesdays.

From Everett Collection.

Jon Cryer in <em>Pretty in Pink,</em> 1986.

Jon Cryer in Pretty in Pink, 1986.

Duckie may have been the sidelined best friend in this John Hughes classic, but his over-the-top 80s style made him its secret star.

From Everett Collection.

Tupac in <em>Juice,</em> 1992.

Tupac in Juice, 1992.

Bishop was bad news from the start, but the high-school villain rocked denim and hoodie combos with gold chains better than anybody—topped off with an oft-imitated haircut.

From Everett Collection.

Olivia Newton-John in <em>Grease,</em> 1978.

Olivia Newton-John in Grease, 1978.

Sandy shed her goody-two-shoes look by the end of Grease, stepping out in an all-black ensemble that would still turn heads.

From Everett Collection.

Cuba Gooding Jr. and Ice Cube in <em>Boyz N the Hood,</em> 1991.

Cuba Gooding Jr. and Ice Cube in Boyz N the Hood, 1991.

The John Singleton classic put 90s Compton style on full display

From Everett Collection.

Ariyan A. Johnson in <em>Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.,</em> 1992.

Ariyan A. Johnson in Just Another Girl on the I.R.T., 1992.

Chantal epitomized 90s New York cool in high-waisted denim, colorful tops, and jangly gold hoops.

From Michael Ochs Archive/Moviepix/.

Sarah Michelle Gellar in <em>Cruel Intentions,</em> 1999.

Sarah Michelle Gellar in Cruel Intentions, 1999.

Kathryn was about as cruel as they come, but her sophisticated style was undeniable.

From Everett Collection.

Shameik Moore in <em>Dope,</em> 2015.

Shameik Moore in Dope, 2015.

Dope took place in the present, but Malcolm is obsessed with all things 90s—hence, his closet.

From Everett Collection.

Fairuza Balk in <em>The Craft,</em> 1996.

Fairuza Balk in The Craft, 1996.

Nancy’s witchy style was pure 90s goth: all-black leather and chokers topped with an unwieldy amount of black eyeliner.

From Everett Collection.

Ann-Margret in <em>Bye Bye Birdie,</em> 1963.

Ann-Margret in Bye Bye Birdie, 1963.

The 1960s are one of history’s most stylish decades—and the movie musical Bye Bye Birdie was no exception, thanks in part to colorful style and surprisingly modern moments, like Kim slipping on this giant sweater.

From Everett Collection.

Thora Birch in <em>Ghost World,</em> 2001.

Thora Birch in Ghost World, 2001.

Outsiders always have the best style, because they don’t care what anyone else thinks. Enid was no exception, rocking cat’s-eye sunglasses and outfits with a punk-rock twist.

From Everett Collection.

Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwald, and Anthony Michael Hall in <em>The Breakfast Club,</em> 1985.

Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwald, and Anthony Michael Hall in The Breakfast Club, 1985.

How can you pick just one? From Bender’s perfect flannel, to Claire’s prim pink oeuvre, there was plenty of style to go around in The Breakfast Club’s core quintet.

From Everett Collection.

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