American Graffiti, the first film to be produced by George Lucas’ production company Lucasfilm, was a 1973 coming-of-age comedy-drama film set in Modesto, California, in 1962. The film has been described as a study of the cruising and early rock and roll scenes that were popular among Lucas’ age group during that pivotal period in American history. The movie’s plot is revealed through a series of vignettes that tell the tale of a group of teens and their adventures over the course of a single evening.
The film featured a star-studded cast that included the likes of Richard Dreyfuss, Cindy Williams, Ron Howard, Harrison Ford, and Suzanne Somers, although at the time, many of these actors were still just getting their footing in the film industry. Dreyfuss, for example, had only been in four films before landing his role as Curt Henderson in American Graffiti – two of these roles, he was uncredited for.
Harrison Ford had yet to appear in his most iconic roles. He wouldn’t become Han Solo for another four years, and Raiders of the Lost ark wouldn’t hit theaters until 1981. Before playing Bob Falfa in American Graffiti, Harrison had appeared in several TV shows such as the Virginian, The Mod Squad, and The FBI, and on the big screen, his experience was limited to just a few minor roles in films such as 1967s A Time For Killing and 1970s Going Straight.
Suzanne Somers was also very fresh into her acting career at the time. She had appeared in minor roles in the late 60s and early 70s, but her iconic appearance as the mysterious ‘Blonde in the white Thunderbird’ in American Graffiti ultimately helped launch her film and television career. If she hadn’t scored that role, there’s no telling what would have become of Somers’ career as an actress. That being said, when she made that brief, albeit unforgettable, appearance in American Graffiti, nobody really had a clue who she was.
In this video, we’ll be taking a closer look at George Lucas’ American Graffiti and how it helped launch the careers of several of it’s stars. We’ll also be discussing several little-known-facts about the film, including the history of that gorgeous 1956 Thunderbird that Somer’s famously was seen in. It’s almost surreal to think that nobody knew who Suzanne was at that point, but that makes her brief cameo in the film that much more intriguing. Join Facts Verse as we reveal how Fans Almost Didn’t Recognize Suzanne Somers in Graffiti.
She Barely Landed The Role
When Suzanne Somers was cast as the ‘Blonde in the Thunderbird’, she was living in Sausalito at the time, right across the bay from San Francisco. She learned of the role from Ann Brebner, George Lucas’ casting director, who informed her that Lucas was looking for a blonde.
At the time, Somers was still just a fresh-faced, inexperienced actress who was desperately trying to land her first significant breakthrough role. As we mentioned in the intro, she had already made appearances in several minor television and film roles, but she had yet managed to score any significant part, be it in films or television.
Suzanne had been born and raised in the San Francisco suburb of San Bruno, California. Neither of her parents were employed in the entertainment industry, and she herself wouldn’t discover that she wanted to be an actress until after attending San Francisco College for Women, a school run and operated by the Catholic Society of the Sacred Heart Order.
At 19, while still in school, Suzanne got married to a man named Bruce Somers. The couple had a son whom they named Bruce Jr. in November of 1965, but just three years later in 1968, that marriage ended.
That was a pivotal moment in Suzanne’s early years. After her first marriage fell apart, she shifted gears and reevaluated her career trajectory. In 1969, she became a prize model on the syndicated game show Anniversary Game. That’s where she met her future husband, Alan Hamel.
Around this time, she appeared in three films in bit parts – all uncredited, of course – including 1968s Bullitt, 1969s Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting, and 1970s Fools. From 1971 to 1973, she also enjoyed a minor role in the television series Mantrap.
So, by the time that she learned about the open casting call for American Graffiti, it’s not as if she was completely un experienced. She already was at least somewhat familiar with the behind-the-scenes processes behind creating a film or a TV show. That being said, she was not yet well-known and was will struggling to make ends meet.
In one interview that Somers gave years later, she revealed that after learning of the role from Brebner, she struggled to make it to the audition as she couldn’t even afford to pay the Golden Gate Bridge toll to get across the bay to San Francisco. The toll only cost fifty cents, but she didn’t even have that to spare.
But instead of becoming discouraged and giving up, Somers decided to just go anyway and see what happens. When crossing the bridge, she told the toll attendant that she had accidentally forgotten her cash back at home. The attendant responded by saying that they would allow her to pass if she left some kind of collateral. These days, they would have merely taken her license plate number and billed her through the mail– tacking on an extra fee in the process. But this was the early 70s, and things were very different.
Anyway, Somers shuffled through her purse and produced a tube of lipstick. After the toll attendent allowed her to use that lipstick as collateral, she learned that she could make it across the bridge so long as she brought extra sticks of lipstick with her. She claims that she continued to do this until she was able to pull herself out of poverty.
When Somers made her way to the audition, she intially felt very overwhelmed. As she looked around the room full of auditioning hopefuls, she noticed that just about every blonde in town had showed up vying to land the role of the blonde in the Thunderbird. Feeling a bit insecure, she thought that she wasn’t nearly as beautiful as some of the women who were also competing for the part.
At one point, she decided to leave, thinking that there was no possible way that she was going to land the role, but a casting agent stopped her before she made it to the door and informed her that George Lucas had singled her out in particular and wanted to meet her. He had apparently seen one of her headshots and thought that she looked the part for the role.
Somers was a bit surprised by this news but decided to stick around just in case. After being brought in front of George Lucas, whom she described as being slumped behind his desk when she walked into the room, Lucas asked her one question, “Can you drive”.
Somers replied by saying that she could, in fact, drive and then George merely said “Okay’. And that was that. Somers, then left the audition thinking that she had just wasted her time. But when she arrived back at her apartment, the phone was ringing. When she picked up the receiver, it was Brebner, who promptly informed her that she had been cast as the blonde in the Thunderbird.
As anyone who has ever seen American Graffiti before knows, Somers role in the film was very brief. In fact, even after she was cast, Somers still didn’t realize just how much of an impact that role would have on her career. To her, it was just a cameo in a film that she didn’t even recognize as being that good. The impact that the film would ultimately have on society and culture evaded her at the time.
It was only after Johnny Carson announced on his popular talk show that ‘everyone was looking for who the mysterious blonde in the Thunderbird’, that she realized just how big of an impact the film had and how her appearance in it would shape her future.
American Graffiti hit theaters on August 11, 1973, in the US. It was met with widespread critical acclaim and was even nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. While the film was produced on a budget of just $777,000, it went on to earn an estimated return of more than $200 million in box-office and home video sales, making it one of the most profitable films of all time.
It was so influential that the Library of Congress designated it a film of ‘cultural, historical or aesthetic significance’ in 1995, selecting it for preservation in the National Film Registry.
The 1956 Thunderbird
A man named Clay Daily purchased the 1956 Thunderbird seen in American Graffiti for his wife in 1964 at a used Ford dealership in San Bernadino, California. It was originally painted red and already had 55,000 miles on the odometer. Several years later, the Dailys moved to Petaluma, where much of American Graffiti was filmed. That’s when the T-bird received it’s white paint job.
In 1972, Mrs. Daily had parked the car in downtown Petaluma while she was out running errands. When she got back to the car, it had a piece of brown paper bag tucked in the windshield. Someone had written a note on the bag asking if the owner of the vehicle would like to have it appear in a movie.
The author of the note had left a phone number to call if there was any interest in this proposal. The Daily’s brushed it off as a joke, but on a whim, they decided to call anyway. Much to their surprise, the phone number directed them to Lucas Films, and they wanted to use their car in their upcoming film American Graffiti.
The Daily’s ended up agreeing to the studio’s terms, and the T-Bird wound up appearing in the film. All of the nighttime shots were filmed in downtown Petaluma, so the Daily’s were actually able to watch a few of them.
The Daily’s and the T-Bird made an appearance at the San Bernadino Route 66 Rendezvous in 1998 on the 25th anniversary of the movie’s release. In 1999, the Daily’s were invited to be guests on the Leeza daytime talk show. Suzanne Somers was also a guest, and halfway through the episode, Leeza asked the Daily’s to stand up in the audience. She then asked if Suzanne recognized them. Somers, replied by saying that she didn’t think so.
Leeza then told Somers that the Daily’s knew her and that they had a surprise for her. The audience was then asked to go outside of the studio. That’s when Suzanne’s husband, Alan Hamel, drove up in the Thunderbird.
Somers was really surprised since she hadn’t seen the T-Bird since the film was made.
In the summer of 2005, Somers made her Broadway debut in the one-woman show, The Blonde in the Thunderbird. The production was made up of a collection of stories about Suzanne’s life and career. Unfortunately, the show was canceled in less than a week after receiving poor reviews and failing to impress at the box office.
It’s always fascinating to look back at the early days of successful actors’ and actresses’ careers. Before most stars made it big, they usually experienced a period in which they seriously doubted that they would achieve their goals.
In Suzanne Somer’s case, she had no idea that a relatively minor role in a film about California’s teen nightlife scene in the early ‘60s would have such a significant impact on not only her career, but that of her co-stars as well.
Nobody recognized her when she pulled up to that stoplight behind the wheel of that flashy Thunderbird, but everyone who had seen the film, desperately wanted to know who she was. In just a matter of a few short years, everyone in the Western world knew Somer’s name, and she would go on to have a thriving career on TV, in films, as a best-selling author, and as an entrepreneur.
With that, we’ll go ahead and wrap this video up. But before you go, we’d love to hear your take on things. When you first saw American Graffiti, were you as enamored with the Blonde in the Thunderbird as everyone else, and did you know that up until that point, no one really knew who Suzanne Somers was? Let us know in the comments.