'American Graffiti:' True Stories About The First Ever Summer Blockbuster

By | March 26, 2019

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Ron Howard and Cindy Williams on the set of the film 'American Graffiti', 1973. (Photo by Universal Pictures/Getty Images)

The 1973 film American Graffiti is George Lucas's love letter to the 1950s and his home town of Modesto, California. Before he was a director, Lucas spent his nights drag racing through the streets of Northern California, and his nostalgia for his youth is on display in every frame of this film. Making American Graffiti, as George Lucas himself would tell you, was no easy task -- he didn't even really have a star to build the movie around, as Ron Howard was still best known as Opie from The Andy Griffith Show. Howard's co-stars Richard Dreyfuss, Cindy Williams, Harrison Ford and Mackenzie Phillips were hardly the household names they were soon to become. But when all was said and done, George Lucas's American Graffiti paved the way for Lucas’ next film, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

Keep reading to find out how the movie that helped turn George Lucas into a Hollywood heavyweight almost didn’t get made, and just what the cast and crew had to go through to put this story of growing up, leaving home, and rock and roll on screen.

'American Graffiti' Wasn’t Greenlit Until Francis Ford Coppola Came On Board

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Source: (universal pictures)

In hindsight, American Graffiti seems like a home run for a production studio. It’s a low budget film that focuses on (mostly) unknown actors and it doesn’t require any special effects. It’s an inexpensive movie with a nascent director, so why didn’t anyone want to make the picture? A script and a treatment for American Graffiti bounced between United Artists and Universal Studios for nearly a year before Francis Ford Coppola, fresh off directing The Godfather attached himself as a producer. After he came on board, Universal was game to pay for the film.

At the time, co-producer Gary Kurtz told The Hollywood Reporter

Almost every studio in town turned down the first draft screenplay after United Artists, which developed it, decided to pass. They couldn't visualize the movie from the script and no one had faith in us. Without Francis the movie would not have been made. Universal VP Ned Tanen was the driving force at the studio, which was flexible and cooperative throughout.