One of the trickier genres to get right is the teen comedy. Walking the line between not condescending to a high-school-age audience and yet also not alienating them is a difficult balance, let alone making a film that doesn’t age, feels truthful, and can be smart and funny as well. And one of the finest examples of the genre remains to this day, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”
Released thirty years ago today on August 13th, the 1982 film, directed by first-timer Amy Heckerling and written by future filmmaker Cameron Crowe, follows a diverse range of characters, including hot-headed Brad (Judge Reinhold), his virginal sister Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), her older friend Linda (Phoebe Cates), shy Rat (Brian Backer), ticket scalper Mike (Robert Romanus) and stoner/surfer Spicoli (Sean Penn). And of course, it’s responsible for some indelible moments both for those who were of the right age when the film released, and who caught up with it since. And no, we’re not just talking about the Phoebe Cates dream sequence.
Even today, the film stands up as an unusually authentic, touching and funny take on the genre, and certainly foreshadows great work that both Heckerling (“Clueless“) and Crowe would do in the future. And it also features great performances from the cast, many of whom would become huge names down the line. To mark the 30-year anniversary today, we’ve dug up five bits of information that you might not be aware of about the film. Check them out below.
1. Brian Backer’s character, Mark “Rat” Ratner, was based on the man who’d go on to create the “…For Dummies” series of books.
If you’ve seen writer-director Cameron Crowe‘s “Almost Famous,” you likely have a pretty good idea of how his career got started: the aspiring music journalist contributed to Creem and The San Diego Door in his early teens before graduating high school at 16 and later joined Rolling Stone as their youngest-ever writer. But when Rolling Stone moved their offices to New York, Crowe elected to stay on the West Coast and go freelance, and two years later, in 1979, the writer pitched a book idea to Simon & Schuster: he’d re-enroll in high school, going undercover to write about his experiences there. He enlisted (amusingly, as Dave Cameron), at Clairemont High School, convincing the principal to let him do so after telling him he’d interviewed Kris Kristofferson. Among the people he befriended and included (albeit with names kept under wraps) was one Andy Rathbone, who was the inspiration for Brian Backer’s shy, sweet character Mark “Rat” Ratner. Rathbone later claimed that everyone knew that Crowe was a journalist saying, “We budding journalists could relate to him and vice versa. He was friendly and interesting to talk to,” but was upset that the writer portrayed him as nerdier than he really was, claiming that the scene where Spicoli (Sean Penn) orders a pizza to be delivered mid-class was actually something that he’d masterminded. Rathbone filed a lawsuit against Crowe, but soon dropped it, and as it turns out, he wouldn’t have needed the money. He later became a computer journalist and in 1992, he authored “PCs For Dummies,” the first in a series of plain-spoken computer manuals of which there are now 15 million copies in print.
2. David Lynch was offered the director’s chair.
Cameron Crowe‘s work picked up great reviews and became a sleeper best seller when it was published in 1981, but the movie rights had already been snapped up. After leaving Rolling Stone, Crowe had played a small role as Delivery Boy in birth-of-rock-and-roll biopic “American Hot Wax,” and that film’s producer, Art Linson, bought the rights to ‘Fast Times’ when it was in the galley stage, and partnered with legendary rock manager and soon-to-be MCA Records boss Irving Azoff to produce the film, which was set up at Universal. Crowe was hired to write the screenplay, but was never a possibility to direct at this stage; instead, according to the DVD commentary, the first filmmaker to be offered the job was, of all people, David Lynch, who’d just made the acclaimed “The Elephant Man” and was being courted to direct ‘Star Wars‘ trilogy-closer ‘Return of the Jedi‘ around the same time. Lynch felt neither was a good fit (probably a good call…) and went on to make “Dune” instead, leaving AFI and NYU graduate Amy Heckerling to step in. The filmmaker would, over ten years later, deliver a second teen comedy classic with “Clueless.” Lynch has, as yet, not tackled the genre…
3.Tom Hanks, Jodie Foster, Matthew Broderick and Michelle Pfeifer were among those considered for roles in the film.
Virtually an entire generation of stars were given their big break in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” including Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Anthony Edwards, and future-Oscar-winners Sean Penn (who, already a Method man, insisted on being called Spicoli at all times), Forest Whitaker and Nicolas Cage (credited for the only time in his career, as Nicholas Coppola). And indeed, they could have ended up in rather different combinations: Penn also auditioned for Judge Reinhold’s part as Brad, while Cage actually won it, before it emerged that he was still 17 and too young to take the role. But even more impressive is the list of actors that were considered, but didn’t make it to the film. Future megastar Tom Hanks was one early possibility to play Brad, while Matthew Broderick, curiously, went up for the part of Spicoli, a role that Eric Stoltz also auditioned for (he got a smaller part in the film instead). Jodie Foster was a top choice to play Jennifer Jason Leigh‘s character Stacy, while Diane Lane, Brooke Shields and Ellen Barkin were also considered. For Phoebe Cates’s part as Linda, Melanie Griffith, Tatum O’Neal and Justine Bateman were all among those who auditioned, while Meg Tilly, Michelle Pfeiffer, Lori Loughlin, Elisabeth Shue, Kelly Preston, Carrie Fisher, Rosanna Arquette and Ally Sheedy all were considered for unknown parts. Elsewhere in the film, “The Munsters” star Fred Gwynne was the first choice to play Mr. Hand, but turned it down because of the sexually explicit content. And more morbidly, keep an eye out for the wife of teacher Mr. Vargas (Vincent Schiavelli); the actress is Lana Clarkson, who over twenty years later was shot and murdered by music producer Phil Spector.
4. The film got a spiritual sequel and a TV spin-off.
With the film proving such a success, Art Linson was keen to work with Crowe again, and immediately commissioned a “spiritual sequel” from the director, which Linson (who’d made his directorial debut with “Where the Buffalo Roam” in 1980) himself would direct. Released in 1984, the film, “The Wild Life,” followed a group of kids, including Eric Stoltz, Chris Penn, Lea Thompson and Rick Moranis, living in their first apartments after leaving high school. A box office flop on release, the film has never been released on DVD due to problems with the music rights. But there was also be a more official spin-off in “Fast Times,” a 1986 TV series on CBS, which Heckerling directed and produced and Crowe served as a “creative consultant” on, along with the then-19-year-old Moon Unit Zappa, daughter of Frank Zappa, who was intended to contribute a more contemporary take on teenage life. Only Ray Walston and Vincent Schiavelli reprised their roles, with Claudia Wells (“Back To The Future“) as Linda, Courtney Thorne-Smith (“Melrose Place“) as Stacy, unknown James Nardini as Brad, Wallace Langham (“CSI“) as Mark Ratner, Dean Cameron (“Summer School“) as Spicoli and, most amusingly, Patrick Dempsey as Mike. But as a network show, the series felt tame when compared with the film, and it only lasted seven episodes.
5. The film’s soundtrack was a bit of a compromise.
These days, thanks to the likes of “Jerry Maguire” and “Almost Famous,” Cameron Crowe is known as one of the major pop-song-soundtrack compilers in the film business. But his influence was only faintly felt on “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” with the music proving something of a battle ground at the time. Producer Irving Azoff had been the manager of The Eagles, and the plan was originally for a soundtrack of classic ’70s rock artists, including them. Heckerling objected, however, later telling writer Nicholas Jarecki (who just directed “Arbitrage“) for his book “Breaking In,” “I guess a lot of people like that stuff, but being young as I was at the time, I really wanted a new edgy eighties music soundtrack. I wanted Fear, Oingo Boingo, The Go-Gos, The Talking Heads, and the Dead Kennedys. I was one of those obnoxious teenagers that thought that the music I liked was great and everything else sucked. Getting that Oingo Boingo song (‘Goodbye Goodbye’) in the film was a big fight. But I had to make some compromises and put in some songs that I didn’t like at all.” (Oingo Boingo, who featured future composer giant Danny Elfman, would later write the theme tune for the “Fast Times” TV series). As a result, The Eagles members Don Henley, Don Felder, Timothy B. Schmit and Joe Walsh all contributed solo tracks, while Sammy Hagar, Stevie Nicks, Jackson Browne and Jimmy Buffett all had songs on the soundtrack. Donna Summer contributed a track, “Highway Runner,” but Geffen Records shelved the album it came from, and the record wouldn’t see the light of day for another 15 years, while Crowe asked pal Todd Rundgren to write a song, “Attitude,” but it didn’t make the film, emerging later on curios collection Demos & Lost Albums in 2001. Some of the film’s most memorable tracks, including The Cars‘ “Moving In Stereo,” Tom Petty And The Hearbreakers‘ “American Girl” and Led Zeppelin‘s “Kashmir” were featured in the film, but didn’t make the soundtrack. Nevertheless, the record was a hit, making it to 54 on the Billboard album chart.