By CHRIS HARRIS
A classic is a classic — whether it’s a car or a film, you know it when you see it.
“There’s only a few classics that are made,” said Candy Clark, star of the film “American Graffiti” which is celebrating the 40th anniversary of its 1973 release this year. “You don’t go out making a classic, but a classic is in a class by itself. It’s hard to explain how you get to be a classic, but there’s only a few.”
She could just as easily be talking about the nostalgia-induced automobiles present at every Somernites Cruise event. Instead, she was reflecting on the coming-of-age tale set in car-crazy 1962 California, which garnered her an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress — a film the Somerset crowd was treated to a free outdoor viewing of on Friday night as the prelude to a packed July Somernites Cruise.
“We’re in the best 100 films of all time,” said Clark. “’The Wizard of Oz’ is there, ‘Gone With the Wind,’ and so is ‘American Graffiti.’ It’s in rare company. A lot of actors don’t have something like that, and we will always have roles in ‘American Graffiti.’ It’s on film, it’s forever. As long as people watch films, ‘American Graffiti’ will be there.”
Clark and her “Graffiti” co-stars Bo Hopkins, a prolific Hollywood character actor for nearly 50 years, and Cindy Williams, perhaps best known for her role on the sitcom “Laverne and Shirley” — spun off from “Happy Days,” which was buoyed by the popularity of the similarly nostalgic “Graffiti” — appeared at a one-of-a-kind question-and-answer session Friday night before the outdoor screening on the wall of the Citizens National Bank building, the company which sponsored the event.
It made for the biggest Friday night “Block Party” the Cruise has ever had, and drew scores of people just to hear the stars share their memories and thoughts about the movie so associated with car culture — as Clark put it, “I love cars and I love ‘American Graffiti.’
Hopkins, with a slow drawl, was still quick as a whip, quipping about the cast drag-racing on the set “only when we were drunk” — before adding with a smile that he was only joking. The South Carolina native has experience in this part of Kentucky, having done some of his early acting work at the Pioneer Playhouse in Danville (he credits the iconic Playhouse founder Col. Eben Henson with noticing him and giving him a chance to act in a play there after initially doing oddjobs around the place), and is the type to sit and share Hollywood war stories, casually throwing out giant industry names like “Bill Holden” and “Peckinpah” during the course of conversation.
Among the famous actors still getting their start in “Graffiti” were Harrison Ford, Richard Dreyfuss and even Ron Howard, with whom Hopkins had previously worked on “The Andy Griffith Show” — to say nothing of eventual “Star Wars” creator George Lucas, the film’s director.
“We were all in the same boat — we were all learning,” said Hopkins. “We weren’t worried about cars or nothin’ like that. We were worried about getting into character and getting the lines down.
“It was a great experience,” he added. “What we all learned from (“Graffiti”) was being humble. Over the years, you never forget where you came from. Some actors do, but that’s up to them.”
Williams described “Graffiti” as a film with “something for everyone,” full of characters that prove relatable to people over the years. Many remember the “Best Picture” nominee as the movie they saw on a date with their-now spouse or some other personal milestone, and could see themselves in the personalities on-screen.
“Even while we were doing it, before we knew what the future held in store for this fabulous film — we just thought we were doing a motorcycle and car movie — it was a blessing to get that job,” she said. “It was before George Lucas was George Lucas and everyone else was who they are now. ... You look back and think, ‘Wow! Who would have thunk it?’ It’s a great thrill to be a part of it now still, and it was a great thrill when we were doing the movie.”
The stars were equally impressed by Somerset as the sort of perfect little slice of Americana that “Graffiti” represents to so many people. Downtown Somerset Development Corporation executive director Gib Gosser drove them in — Williams quipped that he’s the “newest cast member” for the “Graffiti” film.
“(The town is) fantastic,” said Williams. “We got here at sunset. How poetic. The town is so pretty. It seems like a place that would be wonderful to live in. A wonderful, friendly town.”
The stars — and the cars from the movie, highly recognizable in their own right — were present Friday and Saturday at Somernites Cruise. The July event marked a busy edition of the Cruise — 924 cars had pulled in as of 4:30 p.m. Saturday afternoon, with 174 cars in the “show and shine” area for Chevy Camaros and Pontiac Firebirds, the month’s featured automobile.
“The weather has turned into a really sunny, nice day with a gentle breeze,” said Cruise team member Mark Hansford, “so it’s definitely the kind of day you want to come out and go to the show.”
The warm weather also provided a great opportunity for Nashville-area resident Tom Edwards to bring his highly unique wooden car to the Cruise. One of only three such cars in existence, the 1924 Hispano-Suiza Tulip Wood Torpedo. It’s all made out of mahogany, and was raced 790 miles between Paris, France to Rome, Italy back in the “Roaring ‘20s.”
“It was in a collection and I acquired the collection some years in the past,” said Edwards. “The guys in Somerset wanted me to bring it up sometime and this to my understanding would be a dry day. We don’t get it out very often.”
Another exciting part of the day: the unveiling of the August “ultimate door prize” vehicle, a red 1989 Mustang convertible.
Hansford noted the presence of a lot of Cruise first-timers, a lot of families, and a “’50s-’60s vibe” this weekend — all right in tune with the special evening that took place in downtown Somerset Friday evening with the stars of one of the biggest classic car movies ever.
“There were 619 cars at the Block Party, probably 500-600 people to watch the movie,” he said. “Nothing but super-positive feedback. Everyone really enjoyed it. A movie celebrating its 40th anniversary got a round of applause at the end of it. Nobody left; everybody stayed ‘til the very end.”
Now that’s staying power — the true sign of any classic.