When Lucasfilm was established in 1971, it was little more than a name on a legal document. But it was a name with a purpose. Filmmaker George Lucas was in need of a company to support his next project. Previously, he’d been involved with American Zoetrope, an independent studio established by Francis Ford Coppola and like-minded filmmakers to create their own works. Lucas made his first feature with Zoetrope, THX 1138, but soon after its release, the studio experienced a dire financial crisis. As Zoetrope faced an uncertain future, Lucas would go out on his own.
Incorporating Lucasfilm, Ltd. as an entity to carry his own independent films, the 27-year-old Lucas began work on his next feature. In the wake of THX’s bold vision of a futuristic society, it was Coppola who challenged Lucas to make something “warm and funny,” a story that entertained audiences as much as it inspired them to think. The material would come right out of Lucas’ adolescence in Modesto, his hometown in California’s Central Valley.
Collaborating on the screenplay with his friends Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, Lucas envisioned American Graffiti as a coming-of-age story that took place on a single evening in the late summer of 1962 (the year Lucas graduated from high school). Two friends, Steve (Ron Howard) and Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) have each been accepted to college back east, and are set to leave the next morning. One of them however, is hesitant about leaving their small town, while the other is anxious to go. Over the course of the evening, both characters are challenged to decide just what they are going to do.
Interwoven with the narratives about Steve and Curt are a number of humorous misadventures involving characters like Steve’s strong-willed girlfriend, Laurie (Cindy Williams), radio DJ Wolfman Jack (playing himself), the eager young Terry the Toad (Charles Martin Smith) and his new friend Debbie (Candy Clark), as well as the popular hot rodder John Milner (Paul Le Mat) and a teen who is wise beyond her years named Carol (Mackenzie Phillips). An antagonist in the form of a rival hot rodder named Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford) cruises the streets in search of Milner.