Where Have You Gone, John Milner?

In late June 1972, I had just gotten out of school and was preparing for my summer, replete with ball playing, bike riding and a monster mix of kick the can, capture the flag and my all-time favorite hybrid ringolevio. (Yeah, just think of a game of tag with higher stakes, one that relies on close teamwork and an almost-military-like strategy.)

Little did I know, though, that beginning on June 26 of that early summer, one of the greatest movies ever made was ready to begin filming out in Northern California.

Flash forward to the following summer, August 1973. As my beloved NY Mets were playing their way back into contention (ultimately – and quite improbably – ending up in the World Series), the first of two 1970’s gas crises was just beginning to materialize.

Film, like TV, literature and any form of entertainment really, is pretty subjective. And I get that pure poetry to some can be as pedestrian as it gets for others; a classic film, episodic series or TV special just won’t resonate with everybody.

In my humble opinion, though, every now and again, there is an exception. And fifty years ago to the day, 11 August, 1973, American Graffiti had its premier.

When it comes to differences across generations, my younger daughter, Sam, has managed to offer me some perspective. “Yeah, Dad, I know I have to be on my cell phone a lot,” she’ll muse. “But sometimes I wish it was the 1980s, and then maybe I wouldn’t always have to be.”

Funny how that works, huh? Inevitably, the grass just always seems to be greener in one way or another.

For me, I’ve always been fascinated by the generation in front of me, all the stuff I feel like I missed. I never got to enjoy regular visits to a local diner or malt shop, and I missed the era of jumping into the car and just cruising up and down the main strip of town.

Thanks to my aunt, though (yes, the very same girl who managed to make it out to Kennedy Airport to welcome the Beatles to the U.S. back in February 1964), I always had a great love for the radio.

So, while I may not have had a chance to drive up and down the block, in search of general trouble and other adventures, I did learn the words to just about every pop song, starting with tunes from the late 1950s.

One thing about oldies radio, there are just so many “oldies,” right? And thanks to a strong memory for lyrics plus the fact that so many of those erstwhile hits were simply played to death, that was the part of the generational crossover I got to enjoy.

And when American Graffiti hit theaters five decades ago, I may not have known it then, but my chance to be part of everything I thought I’d missed was all there waiting.

For those of you who’ve read some of my past musings, you know I’ve tried to see as many different places as I can. But I’ve really been an East Coast guy my whole life.

So, part of the allure of the film was to see a snapshot of the lives of my West Coast counterparts, amidst the backdrop of a quiet Northern California town, during one of the last nights of Summer 1962. (And on a historical, but sad note, the film chronicled that night in 1962, portending what must have felt very much like the beginning of the end of innocence. A little more than one year later, then-President John F. Kennedy was killed in Dallas, TX, while riding in his motorcade.)

American Graffiti is largely the masterpiece it is because of the overall cohesive nature of the story, creating that instant connection to a bygone era. Close your eyes a moment, and imagine all those cars, driving up and down that main drag in that tiny Northern California town, with every car radio seemingly tuned to the same station. It’s as clever as any film technique I’ve ever seen, brilliantly showcasing all of the music of the era in the process.

As for the characters, all of whom spend much of the movie driving from one place to another, each offers us a bit of ourselves – characters that make you think/say things like, “Man, he/she reminds me of someone I once knew.” Or “That song reminds me of exactly where I was on the same summer night that I walked into a party at a friend’s.” Or more personal still, “That reminds me of myself. Jesus…that’s me.”

Sure, a memorable story requires an equally compelling task, and the film’s auteur George Lucas gives us everything we need to feel like we are right there with them.

Terry “The Toad” Fields (Charlie Martin Smith)

Most everyone knows a “Toad,” I guess. Yeah, he’s that guy on the periphery, someone who most everyone likes, but who sometimes ends up as the butt of jokes. Terry the toad, though, is a resourceful sort, and we quickly find ourselves rooting for him. (NOTE: Though a far cry from the original classic, a half-dozen years later, a sequel, More American Graffiti, featured Toad as both survivalist and reluctant hero, the co-pilot of a medevac helicopter during the Vietnam War.)

Debby Dunham (Candy Clark)

Good-time girl Debby happens upon Toad early on in the story. Initially enamored by the look and power of Toad’s 1958 Chevy Impala (leant to him for safe keeping, with more on that later), like many of us, Debby quickly discovers that she’s quite fond of Terry the toad. And the circumstances they find themselves in throughout much of the night simply add to the story’s mass appeal.

Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss)

Nice guy Curt is about to have the night of his young life. He just doesn’t know it yet. Likeable, but a bit shy, the idealistic honor student has big plans to attend college back East. The only problem? Curt has begun to doubt himself, worried that he’s not naturally competitive enough to start a new life elsewhere. Thanks to an odd string of events, highlighted by the virtual dismemberment of a police car and including a strange connection with a nameless beauty, Curt soon finds his stride.

Girl in the white T-Bird (Suzanne Somers)

Speaking of nameless beauties, don’t miss Suzanne Somers in one of her early roles. (Take my word for it. You’ll never stop at a traffic light quite the same way ever again.)

Carol (McKenzie Phillips)

Teeny bopper Carol wills her way into her big sister’s car, only to realize that big sis doesn’t really want her around. Things change for the hopeful Carol, though, when a misunderstanding leads to a meeting with John Milner. (Yes, much more on him later.)

Steve Bolander (Ron Howard)

A few years before his iconic turn as young Richie Cunningham on “Happy Days,” Ron Howard played ‘Graffiti’s alpha male. Former high school class president, future a-list college student and rightful owner of that aforementioned 1958 Chevy Impala, the sky seems to be the limit for Steve. But that last night of summer is a long one, and he finds himself reevaluating all of his choices.

Laurie Henderson (Cindy Williams, 1947-2023)

Sweet Laurie, head cheerleader at Dewey High, Steve Bolander’s girl and Curt’s kid sister, surprises us repeatedly throughout that one long night. (Note: Keep an eye out for a future “movie star,” driving the hot rod that whisks Laurie away, just as dawn is breaking.)

Joe the Pharaoh (Bo Hopkins, 1938-2022)

Now what’s it ‘gonna take to make a solid citizen like Curt Henderson cross over to the other side of the line? Meet Joe, the leader of a local gang called The Pharaohs. Initially accused of scratching a fellow gang member’s car, Curt soon finds himself riding through town against his will, alongside Joe and his two faithful sidekicks. As the night wears on, though, thanks to Joe’s tutelage and Curt’s unexpected savior faire, a type of “thinking man’s hood” is suddenly born.

John Milner (Paul Le Mat)

And then there’s John Milner, who every girl wanted to be with and every guy wanted to be. The throwback, drag racing crusader, driving a souped-up 1932 Ford Standard Coupe is perhaps the film’s most intriguing character. For all of his bluster and tough-guy ways, Milner seems a lot more like a cross between James Dean with a conscience and some incarnation of the Lone Ranger. Fleshed out brilliantly by longtime character actor Paul Le Mat, Milner’s surprising warmth and sensitivity go well beyond his rough exterior. In fact, if you’re looking for what we might paradoxically call a “benevolent bad boy,” feel free to stop looking. This is your guy.

Thanks as always, gang, for giving up your time for me. If you have yet to see American Graffiti, I hope you will treat yourself. And if it has been a while, please think about a repeat viewing. Yeah, 50 years is a long time, but I’ll bet dollars to donuts that this classic will just keep its engine revving.

In the meantime, hang onto summer as long as you can, my friends.


@Copyright 2023 by John L. Fischer



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