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Hey bud! 25 years later, ‘Fast Times’ still cool

This summer marks the 25 anniversary of one of the greatest teen films of all time, one that gave us this life-altering dating advice and a couple of dozen other nuggets about life as a Southern California teen circa 1982. By Stuart Levine
/ Source: contributor

“When it comes to making out, whenever possible, put on side one of ‘Led Zeppelin 4.’”

Yes, this summer marks the 25th anniversary of one of the greatest teen films of all time, one that gave us this life-altering dating advice and a couple of dozen other nuggets about life as a Southern California teen circa 1982.

“Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” a movie that could’ve easily been tossed as a throwaway adolescent romp and nothing more, became a cinematic treasure.

Working at a movie theater in 1982 where “Fast Times” was playing, I’d probably seen it over 100 times (what do you think employees do when the movies are playing?). And when it aired a few weeks ago on cable, I watched it again for the first time in over a dozen years, with the lines falling off my tongue as easily they did back in the day.

If you don’t believe me about its relevance in movie history, just know that two years ago “Fast Times” was entered in the national film registry of the Library of Congress, alongside “The Sting” and “The French Connection,” which were also submitted that year. To think Jeff Spicoli has a place in there with Popeye Doyle is, as Spicoli would say, totally righteous, dude.

Before the film came out, however, “Fast Times” being listed among the most influential movies of all time wasn’t exactly the pervasive thinking among the filmmakers.

“When it first opened, test screenings didn’t go very well,” recalled director Amy Heckerling. “And the studio said to take this out and that out. Luckily, (producer) Art Linson said, ‘F--- them if they can’t take a joke.’ I didn’t expect it to do very well.”

Revisiting an ’80s masterpiece
For those who’ve never seen this ’80s masterpiece — or haven’t watched in a few decades — “Fast Times” covers the truths of hanging out at the mall, trying to find a boyfriend and the behind-the-scenes torment of working the grill at All-American Burger. Here’s a basic refresher course on all things “Fast Times.”

Rolling Stone writer Cameron Crowe, 22, posed undercover as a student at Clairemont High School (outside San Diego), capturing the cliques of the senior class in exquisite detail.

There was surfer dude Spicoli (Sean Penn), who orders a pizza in the middle of history class, raising the ire of curmudgeonly Mr. Hand (Ray Walston); Mark Ratner, a shy and decent lad who works as assistant to the assistant manager at the local multiplex in the summer but has a year-round crush on Stacy Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh); Stacy’s friend Linda (Phoebe Cates), who is involved in a long-distance relationship with an older man; and ticket scalper Mike Damone (Robert Romanus), the Rat’s best bud who makes a play for Stacy that temporarily poisons the guys’ friendship.

From an acting front, “Fast Times” launched several careers. In the cast are an astounding three Oscar winners: Penn, Forest Whitaker, who has a small role as the school’s top football player, and Nicolas Cage, who is only in one scene and credited as Nicolas Coppola. Leigh would see her resume expand with successful turns in films such as “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle” (for which was nominated for a Golden Globe), “Miami Blues” and “Single White Female.”

Two years after “Fast Times,” Judge Reinhold became a household name because of the “Beverly Hills Cop” franchise and Phoebe Cates co-starred in “Gremlins” but cut short her acting career after marrying Kevin Kline.

‘It’s kind of unbelievable’Romanus’ career never took off the way many of his castmates did, yet he holds no grudges or regrets. Today, with three kids and teaching at an elementary school in the same San Fernando Valley where the movie was filmed, Romanus looks back with fond memories.

“I only have good feelings for ‘Fast Times,’” says Romanus, whose character gave us the quote at the top of this story, as well as other gems such as, when encouraging his pal to ask Stacy out on a date: “Rat, if she can’t smell your qualifications then who needs her, right?”

“When we all did it, most of us thought it would come out in the summer and then go away. It made me recognizable and, still today, people come up to me. It makes my kids laugh when someone passes by me and says, ‘Damone.’ And my kids ask, ‘Who’s Damone?’ It’s amazing that this film has passed through so many generations. It’s kind of unbelievable.”

Romanus is quick to credit the film’s longevity to director Heckerling, who would go on to write direct another beloved teen flick, “Clueless.”

“The success of the film falls on her shoulders,” he said. “She did a great job.”

Heckerling looks back at the film, and believes it resonates well because it balanced the frivolity of some characters with the serious tone and adolescent angst of others.

“I wanted it to be a realistic movie, not just a slob comedy,” she recalled. “It was true to what was going on at the time, and yet entertaining. It was a balancing act between the heavy stuff and the goofy stuff.”

For all the laughs, “Fast Times” tackled tough issues and offered up a few “Knocked Up”-like scenes that seem tame now but were fairly scandalous at the time. Stacy, only 15 at the time, becomes pregnant and decides to have an abortion; also, Brad begins fantasizing about swimsuit-clad Linda and is caught masturbating in the bathroom.

‘He was Spicoli the whole time’Penn came into “Fast Times” right on the heels of “Taps,” and although he played surfer Spicoli as a guy without a care in the world, he took the role as a pot-smoking, Vans-wearing high school flunky with the utmost professionalism. Once arriving on set, he went into full Spicoli mode and stayed in character all day long, even during breaks in shooting.

“I watched Sean do a scene and then I’d go home and knew I had to work harder,” Romanus recalled. “He was Spicoli the whole time. We used to study together. I knew he’d be special as soon as I saw him. There were a lot of good actors on the set but his character was pretty stunning.”

Added Heckerling: “He had just done ‘Taps’ and that was unfortunate because he had a haircut so he had to wear a wig. Everyone knew (he was special).”

And then there’s the music. Crowe, who grew up a child of ’70s rock and roll, has references in the film to Springsteen (Brad wears a Jersey Devil T-shirt), Cheap Trick (“the magic of Robin Zander,” as Damone describes the band), posters of Elvis Costello adorn a bedroom wall, and then there’s the girls in school who dress up exactly like Pat Benatar.

If box office was the key factor to determine cinematic value, “Fast Times” would’ve been forgotten long ago. Filmed at the Sherman Oaks Galleria during nighttime hours and Van Nuys High School on a budget of only $4.5 million, the film went on to earn $27 million. That was fairly impressive in 1982 for a teen movie with an unrecognizable cast but, compared to the current summer where success is solely based on tickets sold and many films that gross under $100 million are deemed disappointing, the film might be considered a loser.

That would be a shame, considering how much “Fast Times” has stayed with us over these past 25 years. It survives not because we laugh at those kids, but because they remind us of a time when high school, unlike today, wasn’t about the pressure to get into the right college or making career contacts, but where we made our imprint as teens of our generation.

And, more importantly, a final chance for Spicoli to catch that perfect wave.

Stuart Levine is an assistant managing editor at Variety. He can be reached at .