Finding Meaning in American Graffiti: To Write or Rite of Passage?

Part of the experience of moviegoing is private dreaming in the dark; but the best movies create a fragile community of dreamers.

That is why movie houses are still on occasion the true churches of the twentieth century. On the streets everyone is isolated, but sometimes when the lights go down in the theater, the current that races through the house overwhelms all differences, dissolves all barriers. “American Graffiti” connects with an audience in a way that few movies ever have.
—Stephen Farber, The New York Times.

American Graffiti (1973) is a coming-of-age film directed by George Lucas, and one of the most profitable blockbusters of the twentieth century.1 Set in Modesto, California in 1962 and shot entirely at night, the movie has been described as creating “a dream landscape; the cars glide through the darkness in a strange, hallucinatory parade” (Farber, 1973).

It contains four story lines of teenage angst and comedy. Can you imagine what the movie is about based on its title?

What Is Graffiti?

What exactly is “graffiti”? It’s the plural of graffito, a noun from mid-nineteenth century Italian, meaning drawing, writing, or scribbling on walls, usually in public places. It probably traces its etymology back to Vulgar Latin through Greek, meaning “to write.”

Ancient Graffiti
Ancient Graffiti

Graffiti is also an art term, a form of decoration in which designs are made by scratches through an outer layer of plaster or glazing to reveal a ground of a different color below.

While such art has been found in Pompeii and ancient Roman ruins, graffiti is currently a pejorative term because of its association with vandalism. Vandalizing public or private property, e.g., via toilet paper — or by drawing on buildings — is often perceived by teenage perpetrators as neither art nor unlawful behavior, but as a “rite of passage.”

In the title American Graffiti, however, the term graffiti also suggests “glib, funny, and immediate,” which correlates to the comic side of the film.

Producer Francis Ford Coppola, along with other big dogs involved, did not want Lucas’ title used, but George prevailed, and it was etched in stone — American Graffiti.

Who’s Who in this Movie?

The four distinct story lines in this film are all male-centered. The stories intertwine the lives and exploits of Curt (Richard Dreyfuss), Steve (Ron Howard), John (Paul LeMat), and Toad (Charles Martin Smith) and coincide to advance the plot and outcome.

Harrison Ford in American Graffiti as Bob Falfa
Harrison Ford as Bob Falfa

Other stars in this venerable movie include:

  • Harrison Ford — our beloved Han Solo from later Star Wars movies (Lucas, 1977; Kershner, 1980; Marquand, 1983; Abrams, 2015);
  • Candy Clark, who earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for this, only her second film;
  • Cindy Williams of later “Laverne and Shirley” fame (Ganz, Marshall & Rothman, 1976);
  • Mackenzie Phillips who went on to “One Day at a Time” (Blake, Lear & Manings, 1975); and,
  • the iconic Wolfman Jack.

Following the production of American Graffiti, all the actors continued to work in the film industry and each has led an interesting life. Paul LeMat, hot-rod, smooth-talking John in the movie, honored with service medals in Vietnam, became a boxer. He was married with three children, then divorced. As of 2008, his former wife, Suzanne dePasse, is the only African-American woman nominated for a screenplay Oscar.

Ron Howard (Steve, in love with Laurie — Cindy Williams) starred in “The Andy Griffith Show,” “Happy Days,” and others. He is now a film director and father of Bryce Dallas Howard, who played the role of bitchy “Hilley” in the movie The Help (Taylor, 2011).

Richard Dreyfuss
Richard Dreyfuss as Curt

Richard Dreyfuss, who played the role of thoughtful and intellectual Curt, is quoted as saying (“Richard Dreyfuss biography,” 1990),

People who commit adultery must die. Everyone knows that. Any movie tells you that.

Dreyfuss has been married three times and has three children. He has starred in major films including The Goodbye Girl, Jaws, and Mr. Holland’s Opus. He was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War and is frank and open about his past drug use. He is a Civil War re-enactor and lives in San Diego.

Wolfman Jack for President
Wolfman Jack for President

Wolfman Jack plays himself in American Graffiti. A Brooklynite named Robert Weston Smith, Wolfman was the son of an Episcopalian editor of “Financial World,” and became a disc jockey and manager of radio stations — some in Mexico that broadcast across the US border.

Smith died of a heart attack in North Carolina at age 57. He had one wife, Lou, whom he adored. Lucas liked Smith, and thus gave him part of the profits from the movie. Smith said he was grateful for those royalties from American Graffiti, which benefited the “Wolfman and Wolfwoman.”


1 There was a sequel to the movie titled More American Graffiti (Norton, 1979), which was a box-office disappointment (Lombardi, 2013). “MORE American Graffiti is grotesquely misconceived, so much so that it nearly eradicates fond memories of the original” (Maslin, 1979).


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One thought on “Finding Meaning in American Graffiti: To Write or Rite of Passage?”

  1. Very interesting update on the “yet to be” stars who were in the movie. Including Wolfman Jack was part of Lucas’ genius. Wasn’t this the “American Pie” movie?

    Nice synopsis.

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