‘American Graffiti’ star Candy Clark to make Fort Worth homecoming

Posted Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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A Conversation With Candy Clark • 9 a.m. Friday • Trimble Technical High School Auditorium 1003 W. Cannon St., Fort Worth Central City Fall Festival and Classic Car Show • 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday • Trimble Tech • Car registration $10, 9:30 a.m.-1 p.m. • Car show info: 817-815-2575

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Although Candy Clark has appeared in dozens of movies and TV-series episodes, she’s still best-known for one thing: her Oscar-nominated turn as Debbie, the sweet, slightly ditzy blonde who goes cruising with Terry the Toad in American Graffiti.

The movie, released in 1973, is set in 1962 — which, coincidentally, is about the time that Clark was attending what was then Fort Worth Technical High School, now known as Trimble Technical High School. And, yes, Clark had her own version of American Graffiti during her teen years in east Fort Worth.

“I just did most of the same things the kids did in the movie,” Clark says. “Cruising around from Carlson’s Drive-In to Lone Star Drive-In and back. ’Round and ’round, back and forth. That would be the whole evening. Just looking for action, a party, smoking a cigarette, sipping on some illegal liquor.”

Friday and Saturday, Clark will return to her Tech stomping grounds as part of a celebration of the 40th anniversary of Graffiti. At 9 a.m. Friday, the school will present “A Conversation With Candy Clark” in the school auditorium as part of its Green B. Trimble Distinguished Lecturer Series.

From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, the school will present the Central City Fall Festival & Classic Car Show, a tribute to Graffiti, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Director George Lucas’ movie recalled his youth in Modesto, Calif., by telling the stories of several young people on the cusp of adulthood during one eventful night on the streets of a small Northern California town.

As for Clark’s own teen years, Tech didn’t have feeder schools, so students who went there after elementary and junior high made the choice to go there. Clark says she had to take a long bus ride there from her east Fort Worth home, but her grades weren’t good enough for Arlington Heights or Paschal, so she went the Tech route.

But, she says, Tech’s reputation for being a tough place in the early ’60s is exaggerated.

“We were the first [Fort Worth] high school to integrate,” Clark says. “I don’t remember any problems when the school first integrated. Nobody carried guns or anything back then. I think the most that they would have was a pocketknife. I don’t remember a lot of fistfights. I remember more fistfights in maybe junior high than high school.”

Get a job

One of Graffiti’s subplots involves a young man named Curt (played by Richard Dreyfuss) who is having doubts about his plans to leave the small town he knows so well. Clark was also young when she left Fort Worth, but although she retains a fondness for the city, she had none of Curt’s ambivalence.

When a boss she and a friend had on a North Texas modeling job said, “If you’re ever in New York, look me up!” Clark and her friend took him at his word and decided to visit. Her friend wound up not going, but Clark bought a youth-fare ticket from TWA for $40 and headed to New York.

“I was going to stay for, like, a week,” she says. “I took the red-eye, leaving at midnight and arriving in New York at dawn. I was sitting by the window, and I saw New York City from the air, and I said to myself, ‘I’m never going back to Texas.’ I moved to New York from the air.”

She got a job at a YWCA and pursued a modeling career. That led to work as an extra, which led to meeting Fred Roos, who had cast many ’60s TV shows before getting into feature films. Roos cast Clark in Fat City, a boxing drama directed by John Huston and starring a young Jeff Bridges (whom Clark dated for a couple of years), and then in Graffiti.

Roos’ casting of the film was prescient: Graffiti not only helped launch the careers of Clark and Dreyfuss, but also Charles Martin Smith (who played Terry the Toad), Paul Le Mat, Cindy Williams, Mackenzie Phillips, Harrison Ford and others, and helped Ron Howard make the transition from “Opie” on The Andy Griffith Show to more grown-up roles.

“I wanted to be in it so bad, because I knew that world,” Clark says. “I knew Debbie, I knew all those characters. If you had a little bit of money and you had a car, you could maybe [date] a Debbie. It just required a small amount of change and a car.”

Little Deuce Coupe

According to Skywalking, Dale Pollock’s biography of George Lucas, more than 400 cars popular in the ’50s and ’60s were rounded up for the film, which has added to its popularity among hot-rod aficionados — and their children.

The Saturday car show in Fort Worth is seeking to emulate that with 24 classes of cars, including not just pre-’50s, ’50s and ’60s cars, but cars up to the present day, as well as low-riders, traditional hot rods, street rods, trucks, motorcycles and other rides. And anyone with a car they want to show off is welcome to participate.

“There are probably thousands of the old hot-rod clones out there,” Clark says, referring to the yellow Deuce Coupe that Le Mat’s character drives in the film. “Sometimes the guy who owns the old hot rod will bring it to a show, and people are taking pictures of it, they want to know all about it. It’s as big a star as the rest of us actors.”

Clark has done many car shows, sometimes with other Graffiti stars such as Bo Hopkins, who plays a gang member in the film. But it was nearly a quarter-century after the film’s release that Clark found out about the hot-rod culture. And she, the other actors and Lucas have discovered that Graffiti has a following as passionate as the one for his next film, Star Wars.

“It’s got a huge fan base that’s only getting bigger,” Clark says. “Bo and I just got back from French Camp, Calif., and a fan came up and he started crying, seeing us. Weeping. To have that kind of effect on the people that love that film, I had to hug him. He was just falling apart, seeing us in person, he loved the film so much.”

She’s so fine

Clark continues to act — according to the Internet Movie Database, her most recent appearance was in a 2012 Criminal Minds episode. Her ’70s filmography is especially strong, with appearances in such respected sleepers and cult films as 1976’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (with David Bowie) , 1977’s Handle With Care (a CB-era comedy-drama that also starred Le Mat) and the 1978 version of The Big Sleep (with Robert Mitchum).

But she doesn’t mind being known as Debbie from American Graffiti.

“I cultivate that,” she says. “I make that happen. I make it my trademark, my jewel in my crown. Believe me, I see a little gold mine there, and a lot of actors don’t have something like this, that they can go out and sign autographs and make people happy. I wish all actors had a classic movie that they could be known for and just be forever in the public eye.”

Robert Philpot, 817-390-7872 Twitter: @rphilpot

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