Lookback: Breaking Away

From issue 11 • Words by Pat McGuire with images courtesy, Dennis Christopher

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It was summertime, and the livin’ was e-z. No homework, no teachers, no alarm clocks; just quarry-dippin’, hot-roddin’ and trips up to Terra Haute as far as the eye could see. And when September rolled around, instead of returning to the drag that was high school, it hits you like a ton of limestone: you’re 18! “Schoooool’s/out/for-ever!” There’s no more football practice, no need to get in shape; no more exams, prepping you for a higher education opportunity you don’t plan to take. You could grab the crew and cruise onto campus, checking out the newest crop of doe-eyed co-eds; or simply sit in the sun all day and melt into your own beautiful, worry-free oblivion. And for that first year, you’re taking a break; you might have to go punch the clock down at the A&P every once in awhile, but for the most part, you’re free, free at last!

But then that second summer creeps up. Mom and Dad are starting to ask questions. Someone in the crew is disappearing a little too often “to meet somebody.” Maybe one of you is even thinking about taking a college entrance exam, “just to see if he’d pass.” There’s no set schedule, there’s no certainty anymore; yeah, it was great not having a care in the world, but after a while doesn’t that start to feel like the world doesn’t care about you? In the immortal words of Daniel Stern’s beanpole-cynic Cyril: “When you’re 16 they call it sweet 16, and when you’re 18 you get to drink and vote and see dirty movies. What the hell do you get to do when you’re 19?”

Breaking Away was the 1979 story of four friends coming-of-age in the college town of Bloomington, Indiana during that fateful second summer. On paper, it was a buddy movie, a teen comedy, a feel-good summer story. But on the screen, it magnificently sprang to life, exploding with dynamic characters, sparkling art direction, and once-in-a-lifetime dialogue. It was the total film package, wrapped up tight and tied with a bow. Breaking Away covered all the bases: love, friendship, maturity, betrayal, testosterone, self-discovery, family, small-town Americana, and most memorably, a real-time fever-inducing bicycle race.

Oddly enough, the creative duo behind this definitive portrait of Midwestern America was a couple of out-of-towners: the British director/producer Peter Yates (of Bullitt fame), and Yugoslavian playwright Steve Tesich (who would win the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Breaking Away). But, as is often the case with visitors, their distance allowed them a unique perspective on Bloomington—a stone-cutting trade town with a college in its midst—and its most important commodity: its people.

The plot was simple. Dave Stohler, a regular Hoosier kid played by the ready-for-his-close-up Dennis Christopher, dreams of being an Italian with ace cycling skills and a hearty family. His buddies (the charming Jackie Earle Haley, the surly ex-jock Dennis Quaid, and Daniel Stern in his big screen debut) roll with it; they’re best friends, after all. His father (Paul Dooley’s tough-loving, pocket protector-toting used car salesman) predictably isn’t amused; Mom (Barbara Barrie, who was nominated for an Oscar for her role) thinks the nuclear family could learn a lot from the so-called “-Ini” culture. The gang of four “cutters” (the college set’s derogatory name for the quarry-loving locals) fight, feel and fraud their way through that final hurrah of their 19th summer, all the way to the grand finale: the Little 500 bicycle race and the all-important “to thine own self, be true” lesson that, sooner or later, each and every one of us faces.

Remembering our own salad days, I sat down with leading men Dennis Christopher and Paul Dooley to chat about making the film, their respective hairdos, and the legacy of Breaking Away, a landmark slice of Americana pie.

Memoirs of a Bambino:

Dennis Christopher
I know you lived in Italy for a few years before Breaking Away. Did that help you get you the part of Dave Stohler?  Peter Yates and Steve Tesich had seen this Robert Altman movie I was in, A Wedding, and Steve wrote the physicalization of a particular character in Breaking Away with me in mind. They called me in and said, ‘You’re going to play this here character and we’re going to have such a good time together.’ They didn’t give me anything, there was nothing to read … and it was the part of Cyril.

Daniel Stern’s part? Right—eventually. There were no scripts, just sides that people could audition from. Every half hour, three new guys would come in to read with me, and on the second day things got backed up. Groups kept coming in, but one time a Dave didn’t show, so they asked me, “Could you do both parts?” I’d done that Cyril part for a day and a half, so I had it down, and I could do the Dave Stohler part because I’d been hearing the same material for two days. And because I wasn’t glued to the page, I could actually do something real, make it conversational. So I did it and they started looking at me differently. After those two auditioners left, they asked me to read Dave’s part again. I picked that moment to tell them I was half Italian on my father’s side, and I had also spent a few years living and working in Italy. I had even done a movie with Fellini called Fellini’s Roma, but I don’t think I sprang that on them right away, I saved Fellini for backup.

That’s quite an ace up your sleeve. So now they’re starting to think they’ve found their lead, this wannabe Italian kid … But I didn’t know which part the lead was. Peter and Steve made up their mind right then that I would be this Dave character, and they never looked back. The next day, they called my agent and made the deal for me to play Dave. But I’d only read three scenes; I didn’t know who this guy Dave was, so I went, ‘Oh no! Dave’s the fucking guy who shaves his legs; I don’t want to do it. Cyril’s the best character; this guy’s a buffoon, he sings opera!’

But you said all this without having looked at the script. There was no script to look at. My agent finally said, ‘No, the deal is to play Dave, and I can’t change it.’ She later revealed to me she had never worked on a movie contract before—she was really young too; we were both swimming in the big pond. Then the script appeared and my agent broke it to me that Dave was the fucking lead. I bugged a little bit, but I was on another job, so I couldn’t bug too much. I really felt I was primed and ready for this part.

They wanted to have a table reading, but they still hadn’t cast the part of the father. So I said, “I know a guy who played my father in A Wedding and he’s a fantastic actor,’ and I got them in touch with Paul Dooley, just to read at the sitting. And two minutes after he started, I don’t think they ever thought of getting anyone else. He was brilliant at the table; he’s even more brilliant in the movie—I guess his secret is that he’s just a fucking brilliant actor. The movie is a collection of people primed for their moment: the writer, the actors, the director, the art director—everyone. When people who are primed all meet in the same place at the same time, working toward the same goals, you’ve got good odds.

This film is definitely full of “breakout” performances, if you’ll pardon the pun. But there was also some star power in the marquee … Absolutely. I was so excited about working with Jackie Earle Haley. “Oh my God, he’s going to be in this movie? Jesus Christ!” Jackie was stoked too. And if you read his part, Moocher, nothing says that he’s not a buff guy. You would assume he was: he’s lifting weights and shit. But his part wasn’t physically described. So when we saw that they cast Jackie, you know, ‘Shorty,’ that’s when I first thought, ‘This movie is different. This is not just a kids’ movie about bicycle races. The director and the writer have a different slant on this.’ And that idea manifested itself in me, too.

The original title of the movie was Bambino, right? Right. Originally, they made my hair this really dark brown and swooped it back; they gave me pointed-toe boots, tight polyester pants, a polyester shirt with all these medallions around my neck, and all this dark makeup for this crazy Italian look. I protested, but everyone just said, ‘Oh, you look fabulous!’ We shot the cafeteria scene, the big fight, with me as this character, and afterwards they showed me Polaroids of it and I looked like one of those Lily Tomlin characters where she’d dress up as a man. I remember going to the hotel that night, absolutely exhausted, and looking at these fucking Polaroids and being inconsolable. I was out of my mind. I thought, ‘This is the end!’ They could have found me hung the next morning, I was so convinced it was wrong.

The next day I got up, I hadn’t slept, and I saw Peter in the lot, and it was like that commercial where people run in slow motion toward each other. He’s English and not prone to affection, but I hugged him and he hugged me back, and I burst into tears and said, ‘I can’t do it! I don’t know who he is.’ And Peter just said, ‘I know, I know. You go home and sleep, and in a few hours Steve and I are going to come over and we’ll talk.’ I went back to the hotel and went to bed.

So did they show up with the script and a big eraser? Not quite. Steve’s big hang-up was that if Dave didn’t look Italian, there wouldn’t be any change to make when it’s time to reveal himself to the girl. I kept thinking, ‘He’s got this curly blonde hair like in those Italian paintings. He’s just so fresh, it’s all about what’s in the heart of an Italian. If he’s getting dressed up to look like John Travolta just to get laid by this girl, his heart isn’t pure.’ All the other guys had figured out what kind of American boys they would be, but if Dave was in a Halloween costume all the time, shaving his legs and stuff, he’s going to look like an out-of-work drag queen; he wouldn’t be friends with these regular guys.

I can’t really picture Dennis Quaid’s Marlboro-saluting ex-quarterback being tight with a guy like that. I convinced them: ‘I’ll make the transformation, I’ll do it with my voice.’ Peter and Steve liked it, and they had people go back to my apartment in Hollywood to get things from my wardrobe, and that’s how Dave ended up looking the way he looks. This is a guy who wants to be Italian in his heart; he wants a big family. I still have some stills from the first day, looking like a Saturday Night Fever reject.

Do people still call you a “Cutter”? The way that people who love this movie speak to me is so great. That’s my little legacy: that people have that kind of reaction to a piece of work that will always be there. It started everything for me. The movie whips you up and gets you excited, gives you a little rush. But then underneath it all there’s this other satisfying, chewy center, that critics can gnaw on and that makes you remember your own coming of age. It was the American crossover movie; it was waiting to happen. And it was made by two people who weren’t even American.

Hoosier Daddy:

Paul Dooley
So Dennis Christopher is taking credit for getting you in the movie … [Laughs] Well, if he says so. My agent represented both Peter Yates and Steve Tesich; that’s what I heard was the connection—but I’m sure Dennis helped. They considered two other people who, to me, seemed very wrong for it. One was Henry Gibson; Henry’s vaguely effeminate, in many of the roles he played anyways, and the father was certainly not an effeminate person. Art Carney was the other guy; Art would have been very good, but a guy like Art carries with him a bit of an albatross: his fame. Every time you see him you have to work to forget that.

Is Breaking Away your albatross? No, it doesn’t happen in movies nearly as much as television. But you know, sometimes your very image typecasts you. It might have happened anyways, but I’ve been a father ever since. Desperate Housewives, Sixteen Candles, Dream On …. Christopher Guest lets me do other things, but even in Larry David’s show I’m his father-in-law. But I don’t complain.

And neither do we. How did you seal the deal once they called you in? I was doing a film for Robert Altman called A Perfect Couple, the fourth movie I ever made. I went and met Peter Yates and Steve Tesich; they gave me the script and I looked at it in the outer office. I knew after about seven or eight pages that I could be this guy in my sleep; it was my dad, basically. My father was very much like him—turns out everyone’s father was—the Midwestern sexually repressed working man. And I could see how well-written the character was. So Peter came out and said, ‘I’m sorry but we’ve just been called out. We’re doing a table reading tonight and we’d like you to come back, if you don’t mind.’ So I went to the table reading with everyone who was cast in the film. My audition consisted not just of reading three or four pages; I got to do every scene in the movie my character is in, and have the real people reading lines around me.

Did you know they’d been cast already? I didn’t, but it was sort of clear. I saw Dennis, and I didn’t know the others, but it looked pretty far along. And I knew after doing a few scenes that I was going to get the part. I could feel it.

So did you even need to prepare, since you knew the character so well? I went out there two days early to listen to the Indiana accent. I hung around the feed store and the pool hall, just listening, and I found that it wasn’t so different from the West Virginian accent I grew up with. If you move your mouth a lot when you speak, it makes you vulnerable—you might let out some emotion—but if you keep it small or don’t move it at all when you speak, no one’s going to know what you’re feeling. And the folks where I grew up, a lot of the men were like ventriloquists: the less they moved, the better. Very clenched. There’s a great line in The Odd Couple—I was in the original Odd Couple on Broadway—Oscar says, ‘Felix, you’re the only man I know with clenched hair.’ And I used that mentality for my character in Breaking Away.

What were the main strengths of this film? The writing. The writing is so important. Not to be immodest, but I think I was a huge contribution. I’ve been offered these movies ever since—I’ve done maybe 35 of them, some of them independent, some more mainstream—but I have a feeling that when people hire me to be the dad, they have this notion, “He’ll do for us what he did for Breaking Away.” But the writing created Raymond Stohler; it created Evelyn; it created Cyril. Every character was a great character. And Dennis Quaid set the template for his whole career as the guy who is just vaguely unhappy, a little bit surly with this chip on his shoulder. He’s always got that edge, like there’s something else going on underneath.

“Every year there’s gonna be a new quarterback, and every year it’s not gonna be me.” Brilliant screenplay. Jackie Earle Haley says to the girl, ‘I’ll walk with you; I was going that way anyhow;’ they go dutch on a three-dollar marriage license. It’s brilliant writing. The character comes out in subtext; there were no jokes, per se. It was all character humor.

And what a great character you created: the Italian-hating used car salesman. I took Italian for eight semesters and even earned a minor in it, and I played the guy who hates the Italians. My wife and I will go to an Italian restaurant and she’s kidding me because I want to read the dishes out loud. ‘There’s no -Ini food on this menu, is there?’

Anti-Italian humor written by a Yugoslavian, directed by a Brit, acted out by an Italian-loving American. It’s nuts how a guy who spent his youngest years in Yugoslavia can see these American characters. An Englishman and a Yugoslavian observe the Midwest better than Midwesterners. It was a joy to work on and a joy to watch. I walk into a room now, and almost the first thing these young directors say is, ‘You were great in Breaking Away.’ Or the phone will ring and it’ll be a friend: ‘It’s on. Channel 12.’ I don’t always turn it on, but if I’m relaxing and flipping, what else am I going to turn to? It’s like a greatest hits. I can never get enough of the greatest hits.

This appeared in FILTER magazine when Pat was the Editor-in-chief. We’d like to thank Dennis Christopher for allowing us to use the images.

From issue 11.

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