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‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’: Look back at Sean Penn, more 35 years later

Sean Penn stole the show as shaggy surfer

Sean Penn stole the show as shaggy surfer Jeff Spicoli in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" Credit: AMC

Few teen movies have earned the widespread popular and critical acclaim of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” released in the summer of 1982. Based on Cameron Crowe’s true-but-fictionalized account of his year undercover at an unnamed Southern California high school — later revealed to be San Diego’s Clairemont High School — “Fast Times” captured the high jinks and heartbreak of teenage life with a rare truthfulness and poignancy. To celebrate its 35th anniversary, the film will screen in theaters nationwide July 30 and Aug. 2.

Directed by a pre-“Clueless” Amy Heckerling, “Fast Times” remains famous not just for its many memorable characters — shy Mark Ratner, perpetually stoned Jeff Spicoli, bombshell Linda Barrett — but for its troupe of youthful actors, some of whom grew up to become household names. Just as the movie provided a yearbook ending for its characters, here’s our look at how the cast members of “Fast Times” have fared.

Sean Penn

In only his second film role — following 1981’s “Taps” — Penn not only stole the show as shaggy surfer Spicoli but turned the character into a cultural archetype. Far from being pigeonholed, however, Penn emerged as his generation’s most serious thespian, earning Oscars for “Mystic River” and “Milk.” Other notable career developments include directing “Into the Wild,” marrying Madonna and interviewing the Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán.

Phoebe Cates

In the pantheon of teen-flick sexual fantasies, the image of a dripping-wet Cates popping open her bikini — to The Cars’ “Moving in Stereo” — has yet to be outdone. Cates followed “Fast Times” with a mixed bag of movies, from the so-so comedy “Private School” to the modern classic “Gremlins,” but she also found her future husband, actor Kevin Kline, while auditioning for 1983’s “The Big Chill.” The two married in 1989, and in 1994 Cates retired from acting to focus on raising their children.

Robert Romanus

After playing the slick ’n’ shady Mike Damone — lady-killer, ticket scalper and best-friend-betrayer — Romanus turned to television, where he played a recurring role on “Days of Our Lives” and guest-starred on a wide range of shows, from “Facts of Life” to “Will & Grace.” And yes, that’s Romanus playing Joan Jett’s folkie guitar teacher in 2010’s “The Runaways.”

Jennifer Jason Leigh

The daughter of actors Vic Morrow and Barbara Turner, Leigh drew rave reviews for her performance as Stacy Hamilton, a good girl in trouble. Leigh has played many a damaged female — notably in “Last Exit to Brooklyn” — but every few years she seems to stage a major comeback. Among her notable credits are Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts,” Alan Rudolph’s “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle” and Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight,” which earned her an Oscar nod.

Judge Reinhold

Born Edward but nicknamed “Judge” by his lawyer father, Reinhold landed his first major film role in “Fast Times” as Brad Hamilton, an unhip but stand-up guy. Reinhold later played Det. Billy Rosewood, a comedic foil to Eddie Murphy’s wisecracking Axel Foley, in all three “Beverly Hills Cop” comedies. He has continued to work in movies and television, showing up in “Seinfeld” (as an intrusive “close-talker” named Aaron) and “Arrested Development” (as himself).

Brian Backer

By the time Backer appeared as the nebbishy Mark “The Rat” Ratner in “Fast Times,” he’d already won a Tony Award in Woody Allen’s 1981 play “The Floating Light Bulb.” His acting credits since have included roles in the Tom Hanks vehicle “The Money Pit” and the vampire comedy “Vamps.” (As a side note, the man who inspired Backer’s character, Andy Rathbone, is the successful author of some 50 computer books, including 1992’s “Windows for Dummies.”)

Forest Whitaker

If there’s anything dated about “Fast Times,” it’s the somewhat stereotypical character of Charles Jefferson, a hulking football player. The 20-year-old who portrayed him, though, would become an entertainment-industry powerhouse, winning an Oscar for “The Last King of Scotland” (2006), producing the acclaimed drama “Fruitvale Station” (2013) and making his Broadway debut last year in Eugene O’Neill’s “Hughie.”

You could devote an entire graduate seminar to the colorful back stories and factoids of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” Here’s a quick crash-course on the movie’s secret history.

There’s no original score. If you never noticed that “Fast Times” uses prerecorded music from the Universal Studios library, that’s probably because you’ve been so focused on the excellent rock-pop soundtrack. Although director Amy Heckerling pushed for hip, young bands, producer Irving Azoff was a classic-rock mogul with a long list of friends — a push-pull that resulted in a wide-ranging mix of songs from The Cars, Led Zeppelin, the Go-Go’s and Jackson Browne.

It’s the film debut of Nicolas Cage. Although Cage auditioned for the role of Brad (snagged by Judge Reinhold), he wound up playing Brad’s unnamed co-worker at All-American Burger. Cage has said he was so cruelly mocked by other actors for being the nephew of Francis Ford Coppola that the experience led him to change his last name. Other notable cameos in “Fast Times” include Eric Stoltz, Anthony Edwards, rocker Nancy Wilson, filmmaker Martin Brest, and photographer Patty Springsteen (sister of rock icon Bruce).

It may be the first movie to use the word “gnarly.” John R. Leonetti, director of the horror film “Wish Upon,” was a member of the camera crew on “Fast Times” and recently told the website Collider about working on the memorable scene in which biology teacher Mr. Vargas (Vincent Schiavelli) shows a cadaver heart to his students. The script called for surfer-dude Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) to say, “Oh, gross,” but Leonetti blurted out, “No, that’s gnarly,” and inspired Penn to change the line. “I got ‘gnarly’ on the big screen for the first time in the history of the world,” Leonetti said. “So that’s my claim to fame.”

David Lynch was asked to direct. It’s tough to imagine, but Lynch — whose only feature credits at the time were the surrealist nightmare “Eraserhead” and the brooding biopic “The Elephant Man” — was indeed approached to direct this sunny Southern California teen flick. Lynch reportedly enjoyed the script, but ultimately passed. What the director of “Dune” and “Mulholland Drive” might have done with this material, we’ll never know.

Cameron Crowe’s signed book is offered for $1,000. Crowe’s book went out of print not long after the film’s release, making it something of a collector’s item. As of press time, Amazon was charging almost $70 for a copy, while eBay was offering one signed by Crowe for $1,000. “It’s the one thing that I still have the rights to, and I like that there’s one thing that’s not readily available,” Crowe told The Hollywood Reporter in 2011. “I have been approached about republishing, but I haven’t done it. I like it too much as a kind of bootleg.”


WHAT “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”

WHEN | WHERE 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. on July 30 and Aug. 2 at Farmingdale Multiplex Cinemas, Westbury 12, Stony Brook 17 and Island 16 Cinema De Lux in Holtsville.

INFO For advance tickets, go to

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