Although Candy Clark has appeared in dozens of movies and TV-series episodes, she’s still best-known for one thing: her Oscar-nominated turn as Debbie, the sweet, slightly ditzy blonde who goes cruising with Terry the Toad in American Graffiti.
The movie, released in 1973, is set in 1962 — which, coincidentally, is about the time that Clark was attending what was then Fort Worth Technical High School, now known as Trimble Technical High School. And, yes, Clark had her own version of American Graffiti during her teen years in east Fort Worth.
“I just did most of the same things the kids did in the movie,” Clark says. “Cruising around from Carlson’s Drive-In to Lone Star Drive-In and back. ’Round and ’round, back and forth. That would be the whole evening. Just looking for action, a party, smoking a cigarette, sipping on some illegal liquor.”
This Friday and Saturday, Clark will return to her Tech stomping grounds as part of a celebration of the 40th anniversary of Graffiti. At 9 a.m. Friday, the school will present “A Conversation With Candy Clark” in the school auditorium as part of its Green B. Trimble Distinguished Lecturer Series. Fort Worth Weekly’s Jeff Prince, who profiled Clark this summer, will moderate the discussion.
“This whole thing has kind of mushroomed out of a little casual remark I made for Fort Worth Weekly about Tech High and my experience there,” Clark says with a chuckle. “They were doing an article on Tech, and from that it ballooned into a feature article [on me], and now it’s ballooned into Candy Clark Day.”
From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, the school will present the Central City Fall Festival & Classic Car Show, a tribute to Graffiti, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Director George Lucas’ movie recalled his youth in Modesto, Calif., by telling the stories of several young people on the cusp of adulthood during one eventful night on the streets of a small Northern California town.
As for Clark’s own teen years, Tech didn’t have feeder schools, so students who went there after elementary and junior high made the choice to go there. Clark says she had to take a long bus ride there from her east Fort Worth home, but her grades weren’t good enough for Arlington Heights or Paschal High, so she went the Tech route.
But she says that Tech’s reputation for being a tough place in the early ’60s is exaggerated.
“We were the first [Fort Worth] high school to integrate,” Clark says. “I don’t remember any problems when the school first integrated. Nobody carried guns or anything back then. I think the most that they would have was a pocketknife. I don’t remember a lot of fistfights. I remember more fistfights in maybe junior high than high school.”
Get a job
One of Graffiti’s subplots involves a young man named Curt (played by Richard Dreyfuss) who is having doubts about his plans to leave the small town he knows so well. Clark was also young when she left Fort Worth, but although she retains a fondness for the city, she had none of Curt’s ambivalence.
When a boss she and a friend had on a North Texas modeling job said, “If you’re ever in New York, look me up!” Clark and her friend took him at his word and decided to visit. Her friend wound up not going, but Clark bought a youth-fare ticket from TWA for $40 and headed to New York.
“I was going to stay for, like, a week,” she says. “I took the red-eye, leaving at midnight and arriving in New York at dawn. I was sitting by the window, and I saw New York City from the air, and I said to myself, ‘I’m never going back to Texas.’ I moved to New York from the air.”
She got a job at a YWCA and pursued a modeling career. That led to work as an extra, which led to meeting Fred Roos, who had cast many ’60s TV shows before getting into feature films. Roos cast Clark in Fat City, a boxing drama directed by John Huston and starring a young Jeff Bridges (whom Clark dated for a couple of years), and then in Graffiti.
Roos’ casting of the film was prescient: Graffiti not only helped launch the careers of Clark and Dreyfuss, but also Charles Martin Smith (who played Terry the Toad), Paul Le Mat, Cindy Williams, Mackenzie Phillips, Harrison Ford and others, and helped Ron Howard make the transition from “Opie” on The Andy Griffith Show to more grown-up roles.
“I wanted to be in it so bad, because I knew that world,” Clark says. “I knew Debbie, I knew all those characters. If you had a little bit of money and you had a car, you could maybe [date] a Debbie. It just required a small amount of change and a car.”
The movie was unusual at the time because of the rhythms Lucas and his editors (including his then-wife, Marcia) used for the interwoven stories -- and for the wall-to-wall use of late ‘50s and early ‘60s songs on the soundtrack. Movies such as The Graduate and Easy Rider has used pop music, but Graffiti was virtually a musical in which people other than the actors did the singing.
“It’s really kind of the first time that was ever accomplished,” Clark says. “George Lucas got all 41 songs for $40,000. You could not do that today. At that point, those musicians’ and those singers’ with were kind of over with, because it was the ’70s, and a whole different sound had come in with the Rolling Stones and the Beatles and the psychedelic era. What’s really funny about shooting that film is that we were looking back in time, but we were only looking back like 10 years. And it was so different!”
Music soundtracks are added after scenes are filmed, to avoid conflicts with the dialogue. But Lucas was prepared -- Clark says that in the script, he had the titles of the songs written down during scenes, with notations such as “ Green Onions is playing on the radio.” “So he already had picked in his mind what he wanted to be the background song for each scene,” she says, “and he just went out and got those songs.”
The movie filmed at night in a 28-day shoot, with Lucas and his crew having to wait till well after sunset to stop filming and to stop filming before sunrise. It takes place during the summer, but in the Northern California locations where it was shot, summer can be pretty cold.
“We shot in Petaluma, but that’s up in the Bay area, very foggy, very cold,” Clark says. “It was not comfortable. If you’ve ever worked a night shift -- I don’t know how people do it year after year. And we did 28 nights, and your whole body and your whole system gets messed up. And when you’re trying to get sleep, the rest of the world is up and making noise.”
The cast stayed at a family-oriented Holiday Inn -- with kids screaming and splashing in the pool and car doors slamming in the parking lot while the actors were trying to rest. And then there were the times when the motel would simply run out of hot water.
“But most of it was a lot of fun, being with all those young actors,” Clark says. “A bunch of us hanging out, having lunch together. We had time for each other. But our work day started around 6 p.m. and went to 6 a.m.”
Although the movie is set in the early ‘60s and was released in the early ‘70s, Clark says that modern teens who see the movie relate to it because of the teen characters and the now much-more-familiar actors.
“And it was just a simpler time,” Clark says. “A lot of young people have told me that they wish they were born at that time, because the kids interacted better, and everyone had a car. There was just more fun and more freedom. A lot of kids today, their parents are warning them of danger around every few feet.”
Little Deuce Coupe
According to Skywalking, Dale Pollock’s biography of George Lucas, more than 400 cars popular in the ’50s and ’60s were rounded up for the film, which has added to its popularity among hot-rod aficionados — and their children.
The Saturday car show in Fort Worth is seeking to emulate that with 24 classes of cars, including not just pre-’50s, ’50s and ’60s cars, but cars up to the present day, as well as low-riders, traditional hot rods, street rods, trucks, motorcycles and other rides. And anyone with a car they want to show off is welcome to participate.
“There are probably thousands of the old hot-rod clones out there,” Clark says, referring to the yellow Deuce Coupe that Le Mat’s character drives in the film. “Sometimes the guy who owns the old hot rod will bring it to a show, and people are taking pictures of it, they want to know all about it. It’s as big a star as the rest of us actors.”
Clark has done many car shows, sometimes with other Graffiti stars such as Bo Hopkins, who plays a gang member in the film. But it was nearly a quarter-century after the film’s release that Clark found out about the hot-rod culture. And she, the other actors and Lucas have discovered that Graffiti has a following as passionate as the one for his next film, Star Wars.
“It’s got a huge fan base that’s only getting bigger,” Clark says. “Bo and I just got back from French Camp, Calif., and a fan came up and he started crying, seeing us. Weeping. To have that kind of effect on the people that love that film, I had to hug him. He was just falling apart, seeing us in person, he loved the film so much.”
And Star Wars may be known for famous fans such as Stephen Colbert and Kevin Smith, but Graffiti has famous fans of its own.
“I met [rock guitarist] Jeff Beck at a hot-rod show,” Clark says. “He’s seen it three thousand times. He built a car! He’s one of the superfans. I’ve met people with Debbie tattooed on their arms, with the carhops tattooed on their leg.”
She’s so fine
Clark continues to act — according to the Internet Movie Database, her most recent appearance was in a 2012 Criminal Minds episode. Her ’70s filmography is especially strong, with appearances in such respected sleepers and cult films as 1976’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (with David Bowie) , 1977’s Handle With Care (a CB-era comedy-drama that also starred Le Mat) and the 1978 version of The Big Sleep (with Robert Mitchum).
But she doesn’t mind being known as Debbie from American Graffiti.
“I cultivate that,” she says. “I make that happen. I make it my trademark, my jewel in my crown. Believe me, I see a little gold mine there, and a lot of actors don’t have something like this, that they can go out and sign autographs and make people happy. I wish all actors had a classic movie that they could be known for and just be forever in the public eye.”
UPDATE: Clark will be at the Fort Worth City Council Meeting at 10 a.m. Tuesday (Oct. 22) and at the Fort Worth school district board meeting at 5:30 p.m. to receive special recognition for her film career and the 40th Anniversary of American Graffiti.