Cindy Williams Interview: Film-television Atar to Appear at Nov. 2 Screening of ‘American Graffiti’ in Omaha
©by Leo Adam Biga
FOR EVENT DETAILS, VISIT: http://www.omahafilmevent.com
Cindy Williams broke our hearts in American Graffiti and made us laugh in Laverne and Shirley and this ageless American Sweetheart is still plying her craft in film, television, and theater. She’s coming to Omaha for a 40th anniversay screening of the classic George Lucas coming-of-age movie, American Graffiti. The Friday, Nov. 2 event at 7 p.m. in the Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall is the latest revival by film historian and impresario Bruce Crawford. Williams will speak before the film to share some behind-the-scenes anecdotes from one of the most warmly regarded pictures of the last four decades. She spoke with me by phone from a bus transporting her and her fellow cast members after having just completed a performance of Nunsense Boulevard as part of a tour the musical comedy production is making on the East Coast and in the Southern states. The play is part of the Nunsense franchise by Dan Goggin. Williams appeared in Nunsense I and she calls the material “a lot of fun,” adding, “They’re happy musicals about a gaggle of nuns.”
LAB: In terms of your work on American Graffiti the first thing I’m curious about is what did you make of the young George Lucas?
CW: “He was just one of the gang, he was like one of us, he was our age. We knew he had directed at film at USC. There were rumblings he was a boy genius and his film THX-1138 was received so well. When Ron Howard and I went in to read for him, even before we had read it, he said, ‘Think of it as a musical.’ He told us that was because the music would never stop in the entire film except when the source of the music was gone, which would mean that the car was gone or the characters were out somewhere where they couldn’t hear a radio.
“I remember walking out of that meeting with Ron and saying, ‘A musical, incredible, that’s genius. Both of us agreed on that.”
LAB: So what kind of an experience did you have working on the film considering it was a low budget production all shot at night and you were among a cast of relative newcomers on a film that the studio (Universal) had little faith in?
CW: “It was like a very risque church camp experience.”
LAB: How is that?
CW: “We had one car, which was the prop car, that also was the car that took us to and from the hotel – the Holiday Inn we were staying at. Everybody had to ride together because he (the driver) wasn’t going to make anymore trips than he needed to because he was also the prop master. There was a Winnebago for the cast. There were no dressing rooms, there was no makeup, there was no place to go.
“We would start shooting at 6 at night and end at 6 in the morning with a guy from Universal there watching the clocl, making sure we didn’t go over schedule, and with one hand on the plug to the generator (to pull it and shut down filming if he had to). And so it was like fly-by-your-pants and we’ve-got-to-get-this-done and we’re-all-pulling-together.
“I don’t know if Ron had worked for Roger Corman yet but I had and I believe Harrison (Ford) had and a few others had. It was like Roger’s schedule. We were all young and anything he (Lucas) said we would just go with. Like the ending scene…Ron and I had been dismissed, it was over for us for the night, so we were in the Winnebago and he was in the boys section and I was in the girls section and we were waiting to get a ride from the prop car home. And all of a sudden the A.D. came in and said, ‘Put your wardrobe back on, we’re shooting the ending scene.’ And this was like 5 in the morning.
“Well, we had never rehearsed it, we weren’t prepared. I panicked and I said, ‘I can’t do this, I’ve read it like twice, we haven’t blocked it.’ We put our wardrobe on and ran out to George and said, ‘We’re not ready,’ and he said, ‘We’ve got to shoot it now because we’ve got to get the sun rising.’ We said, ‘Well, what do we do?’ and he said, ‘Improvise.’ And so we all got together and decided what we wer’e going to do. Haskell Wexler, the cinematographer, with a hand-held (camera)…The cars turned over, they started the car on fire, and Harrison and I figured out I’d be hitting him with my purse and then Ron was going to run up…We just talked about it as actors and we discussed it with George in about 30 seconds and he said, ‘Action!,’ and that was it, it was one take and it was over.”
LAB: Did you have a sense while making it that the picture was something special or did it surprise you because as you know little was expected of the film and yet it became a sensation?
CW: “That’s a tribute to the genius of George Lucas and to the beautiful photography of Haskell Wexler (one of three DPs on the film and officially credited as the film’s “visual consultant”). But, you know, the overriding factor is George Lucas had a vision and he shot the vision. And when he said it was a musical, when you think about the music in the film it’s another character in the film and it tells the story. It just leads everybody through this fabulous one night of coming-of-age.”
LAB: Do you regret that Lucas departed from this personal, humanist strain of movies to go on to do the Star Wars franchise?
CW: “That’s a very good question, no one’s ever asked me that. But here’s the thing: we wouldn’t have had Star Wars, there wouldn’t have been the phenomena of Star Wars. Yeah, you’d have to ask George, I can’t speak for George. In him, you have someone who can write the humanist story and who also can write the techno story and the fantasy futuristic story in brilliant terms. And let’s not forget it was written by Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck and George.”
LAB: Anything more you’d care to add about Lucas?
CW: “He’s a great great person, he’s got a wonderful heart and he just happens to be a genius. He’s a computer-age genius along with being a humanist.”
LAB: Even though you were a relative unknown to most moviegoers then, you’d already done some films and a fair amount of television before Graffiti and you’d worked with some very good people. I’m thinking of Drive, He Said with Jack Nicholson and Bruce Dern and Travels with My Aunt with Maggie Smith and directed by George Cukor.
CW: “I don’t even know if I had a line in Drive, He Said. Travels with My Aunt – I had just come back from doing in Spain, and the next day they called me about American Graffiti and I said, ‘I cannot come in and meet anyone.’ I was jet-lagging so bad that I was sick, I just wanted to go to bed for like a month. They kept calling me and I went in and that was because of the casting director Fred Roos, who’s brilliant. He produced The Godfather. He cast American Graffiti. Fred Roos had cast Mayberry RFD and that’s why he thought of Ron to play the lead in American Graffiti.
“I went in and I met with George and I really liked George. After I read the script I said, ‘I’d like to play debbie, the Candy Clark character, or Carol, the Mackenzie Phillips character, and Fred Roos said, ‘No, we’ve cast those, we cant find the ingenue, Laurie,’ and I said, ‘Oh please don’t make me an ingenue who cries all night.’ I didn’t want to go and screen test becauae I was so tired. I didn’t think i could learn the dialogue. I’ve got ADD and Dyslexia anyway, so it was almost impossible. I needed two weeks and a fresh mind. Well, I went in and did screen test with Ron and they offered me the part, and I said, ‘I can’t,’ I was still jet-lagging. I know, it sounds crazy. So then my agent called and said, ‘I think this is going to be a great movie.’ But it wasn’t until Francis (Coppola, who produced the film) called (that she accepted the part).
“I hadn’t seen The Godfather but I had seen (his) You’re a Big Boy Now – it’s one of my top ten favorite movies of all time. I was just awe struck that Francis Coppola would call me. I was like hypnotized: Yes, evil master, I will do the film. I said, ‘Of course I will.’ And it wasn’t because of The Gofather, it was because of You’re a Big Boy Now.”
LAB: You went on to work with Coppola on The Conversation, which also reunited you with Harrison Ford.
CW: “I could tell you a whole bunch about that (film) and about the genius of Francis Coppola, and I’m talking about a double scoop of genius.”
LAB: A few years after Graffiti you played the character of Shirley Feeney on several Happy Days episodes before starring alongside Penny Marshall in the monster TV sitcom hit Laverne and Shirley and so I take it then that Graffiti had quite an impact on your career?
CW: “Oh, absolutely. People always ask me if it was because of American Graffiti that Happy Days happened. I think they had already shot the pilot for Happy Days and American Graffiti was shelved by Universal. They hated it (despite great test screenings). Yeah, it was shelved for a year and then Francis Coppola offered to buy it. You should look that up, it;s so interesting. And then it was because Elton John and a bunch of musicians had screenings for it and people went crazy and they loved it and it became a populist kind of thing. And then I guess Universal took another look.
“Well, you know Universal passed on Star Wars (too), so then Fox picked it up.”
LAB: And the rest is history. Star Wars helped usher in the blockbuster event motion picture but Graffiti became a huge hit in its own right, sparking the nostalgia craze, and it’s still one of the top money earned versus cost to make productions in movie history.
CW: “Who knew?”
LAB: Why do you feel it resonated so strongly with the public?
CW: “It was the music, the cars, the characters. It all took place in one night, it was coming-of-age. There was something for everybody in that film.”
LAB: It’s a beautiful observance of certain youth rituals in a particular place and time and yet there are universal themes of yearning and courtship it touches on, too.
CW: “That’s so true, Leo. It’s the basic goodness of those rituals and also, and I remember George saying this, the story took place before President Kennedy was assassinated and before we all went to just hell in a handbasket, before everything became cynical. It was like a delineation. It was an age of innocence in those cars and with that music. There was nothing diabolique or gruesome or shocking. It was just all this sweet mirth. They were happy times, and you go to Garry Marshall in creating Happy Days. It was really a lovely time. It was such a different time.
“I remember that line drawn where you’re happy one day and then the president is assassinated and the whole country is trying to figure it out and mourn and grieve, and then all this cynicism began.”
LAB: You obviously continue to feel very warmly about American Graffiti and what it represents.
CW: “I always will. That film, to be a part of it, is such a privilege and an honor. A happy happy time of my life.”
LAB: Are you still close to some of the cast and crew?
CW: “Oh yeah, I see Paul Le Mat all the time and Candy (Clark) and Bo Hopkins. Things were so uncanny about the film. Like my best friend Lynne Marie Stewart, who played Miss Yvonne on Pee Wee’s Playhouse, she played Bobbie Tucker, who throws Richard Dryfuss out of her Volkswagon. Do you remember that scene? Well, Richard Dryfuss was her childhood friend – they went to elementary school together, and I knew Richard because of Lynne way before any of us started acting professionally. And so that was just like crazy that we all got cast in it, though Lynne and I went to theater school together. We knew Fred Roos together.
I haven’t seen Suzanne (Somers) and Ron (Howard) in a while. Richard, I’ve seen recently, and Harrison. But yeah everybody’s very friendly.”
LAB: Did you see any evidence of Howard’s interest in being a director?
CW: “Yes, he would get out of the car and he’d go and talk to Haskell and come and sit back in the car because we had no where else to do, and I’d say, ‘What are you doing?’ and he’d say, ‘Oh, I’m just asking Haskell how he’s shooting this because I’d like to direct some day,’ and I thought, ‘Yeah, right.'”
LAB: I take it that you’re coming to Omaha for this revival screening because you enjoy celebrating the film with fans.
CW: “I’m happy to get up before the film and tell everybody this was shot in 28 nights for $750,000 and most of that went to the music rights. Tell them little stories about it because people who love it, that just makes them love it even more and it let’s them see it the way I see it. I kind of give them a from-the-inside out kind of view of it. So yeah it’s a happy thing, Leo, and how many of those are in the world right now?”
LAB: The whole night shooting aspect of it is pretty fascinating.
CW: “Twenty-eight nights. It all takes place at night except for one shot in the morning when Kurt (Dryfuss) takes off for college in the plane. If you look at the plane real close one of the engines catches on fire when it starts up.”
LAB: Just how tight the shooting schedule was boggles the mind. But then again working fast forces you to be inventive.
CW: “You know, when you don’t give people a chance to (over)think and they’re thinking on their feet sometimes you get the best stuff because people just work twice as hard and they just buckle down. It’s great. When I was in school and we’d have a scene due a week you just did it, you didn’t question anything, you didn’t say, ‘What’s my motivation?’ You figured it out in your mind and your body and your heart and your soul and you did it.”
LAB: Do you regret making the sequel to American Graffiti?
CW: “No, not at all.”
LAB: Even though it was very poorly received and is not well regarded today either?
CW: “I know but I don’t regret it at all. I wish George had given the director more time to shoot it.”
LAB: Where do you place American Graffiti in your career compared with other projects you’re most proud of?
CW: “They’re on a loop – American Graffiti, Laverne and Shirley and The Conversation.”
LAB: You’ve done some producing as your career’s gone on.
CW: “I did co-produce Father of the Bride and that’s a whole other ball of wax, which im happy to talk with you about some other time. It’s a good story.”
FOR EVENT DETAILS, VISIT: http://www.omahafilmevent.com
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