‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’ Turns 40: Director, Stars on Concerns Over Sexuality and Its Surprise Success

·6 min read

Fast Times at Ridgemont Highs ascension to comedy classic was a slow process.

Amy Heckerling, who had only directed student work to that point, was set to helm an MGM project when it was scrapped amid an actors strike. During the hiatus, producer Art Linson introduced her to Cameron Crowe’s 1981 book, Fast Times at Ridgemont High: A True Story, which the young journalist wrote after spending a year undercover as a high school student.

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Linson asked Heckerling to direct Crowe’s screenplay, a fictionalization of real students that focused on Stacy Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a sophomore navigating social dynamics and early sexual experiences. The comedy launched the careers of future Oscar winners Sean Penn, as lovable stoner Jeff Spicoli, and Forest Whitaker, playing jock Charles Jefferson — not to mention a teenage Nicolas Cage, credited as Nicolas Coppola in a small role for his first film.

Heckerling praises Crowe’s brilliance and credits their bond for making the process a joyful one. “It was just such a pleasure — I can’t imagine any working experience ever being that good again,” she gushes to The Hollywood Reporter. “You just see him, and you’re happy, and you want to start doing things.”

Judge Reinhold, who played Stacy’s older brother, Brad, remembers the film’s team wanting to cast Cage in that role, but the future star was just 17, which would have limited his hours on set. With Cage out of the picture for Brad, Reinhold — a previous friend of Heckerling’s but still required to audition — was in the mix despite that he was 22 and looked older than a typical high school senior.

“I’m sitting in the room the last time I read, and Art says, ‘Look at him. He’s as old as Ed Asner,'” Reinhold recalls with a laugh. “And he goes, ‘OK, we can cast everybody in the senior class a little older.'” As for what helped him get the part, Reinhold says Linson told him, “You’re the only one that didn’t feel sorry for himself when you read.”

Phoebe Cates and Jennifer Jason Leigh in FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, 1982.
Phoebe Cates and Jennifer Jason Leigh in FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, 1982.

Heckerling realized early on that making her first feature came with a learning curve, including a moment during the casting process when she was blown away by a theatrical monologue Whitaker delivered in his audition. “I went, ‘Wow, that was great — you got the part if you want it,'” Heckerling says. “Then I looked out the window — I mean, he’s a big guy — and he was skipping across the parking lot to his car. And then everybody got mad at me because they go, ‘You’re not allowed to say that. We have to negotiate with their agents. That’s not how this works.’ And I had no idea how anything works.”

As far as working with Penn, the cast remembers him staying in character throughout production. “I didn’t get to know Sean — nobody got to know Sean because he was Spicoli the entire time,” Scott Thomson (who played Arnold) tells THR with a laugh. “I just kept thinking, ‘Where did they find him?'”

Judge Reinhold (right) in FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, 1982.
Judge Reinhold and Scott Thomson in FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, 1982.

Thomson shared a brief scene with Cage (playing “Brad’s Bud”) where Arnold connects with his burger-joint co-worker Brad. “I bravely sit down with [Brad] and his entourage, which Nick Cage was one of them, and Nick Cage ad-libs, ‘So Arnold, what do you think about green jello?’ because I had it on my tray,” Thomson says, cracking up. “I didn’t know how to react — I just stuttered.”

There have been rumors of famous names who were up for roles, and Heckerling is quick to dismiss most of these as conjecture. However, she also adds, “Going through boxes of crap in my house, and I don’t know if this is true, but there was a list of people that were coming in for casting one day, and one of the names was Michelle Pfeiffer.” Despite not having a memory of meeting with Pfeiffer for the film, the director continues, “If she was reading for Stacy, I know I wanted her to look like just a real girl, not glamorous, and it’s possible that Michelle might have looked too gorgeous. But I can’t imagine not remembering Michelle.”

Regardless of what might have been, the movie itself was clearly special — THR‘s review called Heckerling a “truly gifted director.” However, the film’s team remembers Universal Pictures forgoing a big marketing push due to a lack of known names and concerns over its depictions of sexuality.

Director Amy Heckerling works out a scene with Judge Reinhold on the set of FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, , 1982.
Director Amy Heckerling works out a scene with Judge Reinhold on the set of FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, 1982.

“We were really heartsick because somebody high up said, ‘This is pornography, and there’s no way that Universal’s going to release this movie,'” says Reinhold. “We didn’t see it as this horny high school movie at all. We saw it as having the opportunity to do something authentic that was based on the actual experiences of the kids that Cameron chronicled for that whole year.”

Indeed, Heckerling concurs that the studio did not have high hopes for the finished product. “They were going to put it on the shelf because they didn’t see how it would make any money,” she says. “They decided they would just open it in a few theaters on the West Coast, and they did that, and people kept coming back and knew all the dialogue. So then they quickly put it out in the rest of the country. There was no advertising beforehand — I was bummed out.”

The film landed a limited release on Aug. 13, 1982, and through ecstatic word of mouth, it cracked the year’s top 30 at the domestic box office with $27 million ($83 million today).

Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Brian Backer and Robert Romanus in FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, 1982.

“It’s the event that changed my life,” Robert Romanus (who played Mike Damone) tells THR of the film. When asked how often he hears from Fast Times fans, he replies, “Every day. One of the most amazing things to me is just how many legs this movie has.”

Heckerling, who later directed Look Who’s Talking and Clueless, says of the film’s intentions: “The whole theme, of even the title, is things are going too fast for young people. They shouldn’t have to worry so much about sex at such an early age.” She adds that she’s unsure whether Fast Times, in which Linda (Phoebe Cates) discusses losing her virginity at 13 and Stacy gets an abortion, would be made today. “We’re going backwards in so many ways.”

The Hollywood Reporter excerpt
THR said Ridgemont’s cast performed with a “delightfully devil-may-care sincerity.”

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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