It was 35 years ago that Fast Times at Ridgemont High was released in theaters, which only happened because Sean Penn helped save the movie. While it’s now considered a classic, when it was released in 1982, Fast Times was an “irritating thorn” in Universal’s side, which could have seen the flick forgotten to time. But the movie had some silver lining, which was Sean Penn’s “Jeff Spicoli,” a character that saved the movie and saw it become a classic.
Some hard times led to those fast times
As reported by Variety, the truth was that it was “Hard Times” to get to those Fast Times, as the production had to overcome many obstacles to make it to cinemas – or even get released. Among those difficulties was the task of finding a director for the comedy.
Universal executive Thom Mount surprisingly recommended David Lynch, who had directed the seminal 1977 indie horror film Eraserhead about an odd man taking care of a deformed baby and earned an Oscar nomination for The Elephant Man, the acclaimed 1980 drama based on the true story of the physically deformed John Merrick who is rescued by a Victorian surgeon from a freak show.
The iconoclastic filmmaker drove up to Universal in his VW Beetle and took a meeting with Cameron Crowe [the screenwriter, who was adapting his own book]. “He had a very wry smile on his face as I sat talking with him,” noted Crowe. “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.
Some tasty waves and a cool buzz
It might be hard to believe, given its now cult status, but Fast Times only grossed a disappointing $27 million at the box office. But it’s lucky to have made it to the cinema, period. “They weren’t going to release it,” said Heckerling. Crowe credits Tanen for not scrapping the release,
What happened is somebody wrote a memo shortly before the movie was released. They wrote a letter to [Universal executives] Ned Tanen and Sid Sheinberg that said the future of the studio was in doubt if we are making movies like this high school movie.He stood up and said ‘I’m putting the movie out, but we’re cutting the theaters down to 200.’
But what happened is the weekend the movie came out, the kids who went to see it loved Sean Penn so much, 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. They started showing up.
The studio never caught up to the demand to see it. 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.