Fast Times at Ridgemont High is a classic 80s film that we grew up loving. It was crass and it was rude, but it was also bold and honest about adolescence.
And of course, one scene in particular that has since become iconic – what 80s teenager doesn’t remember Phoebe Cates stepping out of the pool? Let’s take a look back at this classic film with some facts about Fast Times at Ridgemont High that you may not have known…
25. The film’s screenwriter went undercover in a high school to research the movie
Besides Say Anything…, Ridgemont High screenwriter Cameron Crowe is probably most well-known for Almost Famous, the film documenting a young music journalist’s rock and roll exploits as he followed a popular band around on tour. The movie was semi-autobiographical, as Crewe himself was a teenage music journalist who worked for Rolling Stone, and who experienced his own versions of many of the events in the movies.
However, in between following bands around and documenting his experiences, Crewe also spent a year laying low in a high school. Even though he was 22 at the time, Crowe still looked young enough to go undercover at Clairemont High School in San Diego for a whole year as a student. He reported on how the teens interacted with each other, how they spoke and what issues they prioritised, and his findings were soon turned into a book. That book was the inspiration for the screenplay of Fast Times At Ridgemont High, which goes some way in explaining why the dialogue and issues presented in the film all feel so realistic.
24. Producers originally wanted David Lynch to direct
Amy Heckerling ended up being the perfect director for Fast Times At Ridgemont High, since she had a real affinity for stories about high school and teenagers. She later proved this affinity by writing and directing Clueless, another teen hit that was praised for accurately portraying the slang and priorities of high schoolers of the time.
With that said, Heckerling was not the director that the studio originally wanted. They first asked a filmmaker with a very different reputation. As impossible and unlikely as it might sound, producers originally approached David Lynch to direct the project. Lynch turned the screenplay down on the grounds that it wasn’t really his kind of movie, which is hard to deny. Still, it’s both fun and a little bit scary to imagine what a David Lynch version of Fast Times would have looked like.
23. Director Amy Heckerling had never made a full-length movie before
When producers were choosing the perfect director for Fast Times At Ridgemont High, they seemed to go from one extreme to the other. After asking the very well-established and prolific David Lynch, they approached Amy Heckerling on the strength of one project alone. At the time that she was chosen to direct Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Heckerling had only written and directed one short film, called Getting It Over With.
The short film followed a teenage girl attempting to lose her virginity, and producers were impressed with the realistic and irreverent tone. They offered Heckerling the opportunity to direct her second-ever film and first-ever feature, simply because they liked her short so much. This gave her the opportunity to direct other projects in a similar vein, such as the Fast Times spin-off TV show and Clueless.
22. Sean Penn originally auditioned to play Brad
It’s hard to imagine Sean Penn playing anybody but the laidback Jeff Spicoli, but he originally auditioned to play the uptight Brad, the role that went to Judge Reinhold. However, casting directors looked at him and became immediately convinced that he would make the perfect Jeff, and it didn’t take long to convince him.
After a short conversation, Penn quickly agreed that it was the perfect part for him. In fact, he loved the character so much that he stayed in character at all times, even when he was just hanging around on-set. Whether he was between takes or not even shooting on set that day, he insisted that people referred to him as Spicoli, not Sean. Thankfully, there aren’t any interviews that suggest the cast and crew were annoyed by this, even though you might expect them to be.
21. The film had a ‘spiritual sequel’ which completely flopped
Fast Times At Ridgemont High made $27 million against a budget of $4-5 million, meaning it was a resounding success. As a result, Crowe was pretty confident in his idea to follow up the movie with a spiritual sequel called The Wild Life. The Wild Life had a similar tone but followed slightly older teenagers, with a cast that included Rick Moranis and Lea Thompson (of Back to the Future fame).
Unfortunately, it didn’t succeed on the level of Fast Times At Ridgemont High – with a higher budget of $6 million, it only made $11 million at the box office. The film had entirely different characters and cast members from Fast Times, but there was still a point of connection. That’s because The Wild Life starred Sean Penn’s brother Chris Penn, who had a hit with Footloose the same year.
20. The character of Jeff Spicoli single-handedly popularised Vans
Many teen movies end up having a huge impact on fashion, whether it’s the iconic goth looks of The Craft or the blazers and plaid skirts of everything from Heathers to Clueless. However, when you think of teen movies that inspired fashion trends, Fast Times At Ridgemont High probably isn’t the first film to spring to mind.
Despite this, the film is credited by shoemakers Vans as the single biggest force that popularised their brand and gave it mainstream appeal. According to the company, before the movie was released, the only people wearing slip-on Vans were skaters and surfers. And even though it was the 80s, that was still a small audience. This all changed after Sean Penn’s laidback Jeff Spicoli was seen to wear the shoes throughout Fast Times at Ridgemont High. This prompted viewers to buy pairs of their own, cementing Vans as a brand that any kind of teenager could wear.
19. There was a very short-lived television spin-off
When a movie does well at the box office, it’s not unusual for the studio to consider making a spinoff TV show, to keep the hype going as well as bring in new fans. Sometimes these shows become acclaimed and loved in their own right, but often they fall into relative obscurity. Unfortunately, it became clear pretty quickly that the Fast Times At Ridgemont High spinoff TV show Fast Times would fall into the second category.
Despite the show being directed by Amy Heckerling, the director of the movie, a lot of things were lost in translation. For example, most of the movie’s cast did not return to participate in the TV show – certainly none of the core cast members. Not only that, but the TV show was required to be much cleaner and more family-friendly, so it lost a lot of the realistic dialogue and themes that made the film so beloved.
18. Many cast members were hired just because they knew the writer and director
Fast Times At Ridgemont High didn’t have a minuscule budget, but it was by no means a blockbuster either. That might explain why the cast had kind of a family atmosphere, with everyone knowing each other and being hired as a favour to someone else. As well as the soundtrack being comprised of bands managed by one of the film’s producers, many of the cast members either personally knew screenwriter Cameron Crewe or director Amy Heckerling.
Most obviously, Judge Reinhold, who plays Brad, was Heckerling’s upstairs neighbour, and Heckerling’s ex-husband fronts the band at the high school dance. Not only that, but another of Heckerling’s ex-boyfriends plays the teacher who accompanies the teens on the biology trip. Even the girl in the car who laughs at Brad’s pirate costume – a minor part if ever we saw one – was Nancy Wilson, the Heart guitarist and Crowe’s then-girlfriend.
17. A male nude scene was cut so the film could get an R-rating
Fast Times At Ridgemont High was so successful precisely because it was real, and didn’t shy away from the goofy or uncomfortable aspects of being a high school student back in the 80s. With that said, the first version of the movie was significantly edgier than the one that ended up in cinemas, thanks to one particular scene that got cut.
The scene in question revolved around Mike, played by Robert Romanus, appearing in a full-frontal nude sequence. The scene was supposed to be funny rather than sexy or alluring, but it still would have landed the film with an X rating, so it had to be dropped. There are no interviews that suggest whether Romanus was relieved or disappointed that the scene didn’t make it into the final film. There’s also no record of test audiences seeing the scene or how they might have responded to it. Then again, we’ve all had that nightmare where we turn up at school without pants.
16. Brian Backer and Jennifer Jason Leigh were roommates during filming
We’ve already established that while a few of the actors in Fast Times At Ridgemont High were the kids of more established performers, most were right at the start of their careers. This meant that, with a few exceptions, they didn’t exactly have money to burn while shooting the film. In particular, Brian Backer was struggling with funds at the time, and the movie’s shooting location was a long way from his home.
Rather than let him pay to stay in a hotel near the set or have huge commutes, one of the cast member’s family let him stay with them. Backer ended up staying with the family of Jennifer Jason Leigh for the entire duration of the film shoot. The two actors became much closer as a result and remained friends once the project was over.
15. Nicolas Cage lied about his age to get on the movie
It’s a cliché at this point to say that high schoolers are often played by actors who look far too old to be attending any sort of classes. Fast Times At Ridgemont High is definitely not the worst offender when it comes to casting super aged-up high school students, as most of the actors are at least close to the right age.
However, the movie did make sure that most of the actors were over 18, even if they were playing younger teenagers. This was due to labour rules, which say that there is a limit on the kinds of work and the amount of work that actors under 18 could do. Nicolas Cage knew this, and lied about his age during his audition, in order to avoid being given a smaller part due to being 17. The producers did eventually find out his real age, but he was still cast and given a relatively significant part in the film.
14. Nicolas Cage bragged about his uncle being Francis Ford Coppola on the set
We’ve already established that many of the actors cast in Fast Times At Ridgemont High were the children of other successful people in the entertainment industry. With that said, as far as family pedigree goes, Nicolas Cage definitely had a leg up on the rest of the cast. That’s because Cage’s uncle was prolific and legendary filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, and Cage didn’t hide that fact at all. (The actor went on to appear in a number of his uncle’s films, including Rumble Fish and Peggy Sue Got Married.)
At that point, he hadn’t even changed his name, and was simply going by Nicolas Coppola both professionally and personally. According to his castmates, Cage would constantly namedrop his uncle and brag about how influential and talented his family were. The other people in the cast apparently got very sick of this, and soon began to avoid him as much as possible onset.
13. The cast got their own back on Cage
With that said, as much as Cage got on the nerves of his castmates with his constant bragging, they did find a way to get back at him. After a few weeks of listening to him say that his family connections would be his fast track to the top, they allegedly started following him around and quoting lines from Apocalypse Now.
In particular, they started misquoting Robert Duvall’s famous line in the movie, saying ‘I love the smell of Nicolas in the morning’ instead. Apocalypse Now was of course directed by Cage’s famous uncle, though at press time we’re unable to confirm that whether Nicolas smelled good or bad – or, indeed, like napalm, morning or otherwise. Their hazing worked, as Cage was famously miserable on set, and he adopted the stage name Nicolas Cage shortly after filming wrapped up. As you’ll know, he did eventually find major success under his pseudonym, so he clearly has his former castmates to thank!
12. The studio didn’t think the film would make any money
They might not be as record-breaking as a superhero movies set in an integrated extended universe, but movies aimed at teenagers have always been a pretty safe bet at the box office. From horror movies all the way to fluffy romantic comedies, films with a teen cast that deal with the issues of high school drama and relationships have always had a guaranteed audience.
With that in mind, it’s pretty baffling that studio executives believed that Fast Times At Ridgemont High would completely flop. They had so little faith in the project that they almost gave it a straight-to-video release to avoid the potential embarrassment of a bad box office altogether. In the end, they really didn’t have to worry, since the movie more than made back its budget. However, they were right to be concerned about the concept’s appeal, since both the spiritual sequel movie and the spinoff TV show both failed to attract an audience.
11. The film starred a bunch of future Oscar winners
You might not think it from the film’s humble origins and often crass tone, but Fast Times has a cast who would go on to have pretty starry reputations. In fact, those reputations would get so starry as to be rewarded with Hollywood’s highest accolade: the Oscars. Specifically, three of the core cast of the movie went on to win an Academy Award for Best Actor: Sean Penn, Forest Whitaker and Nicolas Cage all achieved that honour.
Sean Penn has been nominated for Best Actor five times in all and has won twice, for Mystic River in 2004 and Milk in 2009. Forest Whitaker won the Best Actor Oscar on his very first nomination, for The Last King of Scotland in 2007. Nicolas Cage has two nominations and one win to his name, for Leaving Las Vegas in 1996.
10. Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston recently recreated the movie on Zoom for charity
In 2020, Dane Cook assembled an all-star cast for a read-through of Fast Times on a Zoom call. Morgan Freeman acted as the narrator, while Shia LaBeouf took the role of Spicoli with relish. Julia Roberts, Matthew McConaughey, Sean Penn and Henry Golding also joined Cook’s cast. However, perhaps the most surprising element of this re-enactment was the reunion of former partners Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt.
Pitt and Aniston played Brad and Linda in the read-through, at one point re-enacting the film’s famous pool scene. The duo divorced in 2005, but reportedly maintain a strong friendship and were spotted together at the SAG Awards earlier in 2020.
9. Some big names almost starred
The cast of Fast Times At Ridgemont High was relatively unknown at the time, even if many of them did have famous family names to lend them notoriety. With that said, plenty of already-established actors auditioned to be in the cast, they simply lost out when it came to actually getting the roles. For example, several prolific actresses auditioned for the parts of Linda and Stacy, from Michelle Pfeiffer and Elisabeth Shue to Carrie Fisher.
There was also serious competition when it came to the male parts, with Matthew Broderick and Ralph Macchio both attempting to get in on the project. It must have been pretty terrifying for the less-established actors to know they were going up against such formidable names. Imagine their satisfaction getting the parts, knowing they had beaten out some of the biggest names in their industry!
8. Phoebe Cates didn’t want to film the dream scene
Even the most seasoned actors tend to say that nude scenes are pretty uncomfortable, and not their favourite thing to do even if they have become pretty rote and unfrightening. So it’s not surprising that Pheobe Cates was a little apprehensive about filming her own topless scene. However, Cates wasn’t actually nervous about being topless on film, as she had done extensive nudity in her previous project, Paradise.
Instead, she was nervous about the shooting location for the scene, which was a private home in West Hills. Given that the scene was filmed in a private neighbourhood, Cates was concerned that neighbours would be watching from their windows. It was the idea that she was being spied on while filming that made her uncomfortable, not the nudity itself.
7. Cates’ look of shock in that scene was real
By far the most infamous scene in Fast Times At Ridgemont High is the one in which Linda walks in on Brad masturbating. The scene was obviously scripted, but you would be forgiven for thinking that it was improvised, given that Phoebe Cates look of shock is seriously realistic. They managed to achieve such a candid look of shock and disgust by not telling Cates exactly how the scene would be filmed.
As a result, when she walked in on Judge Reinhold miming the (ahem) actions of his character, her reaction was totally genuine. It’s not surprising that she looked completely horrified, as it was probably an image that stuck with her long after shooting was over. As well as being arguably Cates’ best remembered movie moment, Judge Reinhold admits people have reminded him of the scene more often than he’d like over the years.
6. Heckerling wanted to make a movie you’d like to live in
Amy Heckerling wanted to make her directorial debut unconventional – and decided it would have an informal feeling to it. What’s more, she wanted her movie’s world to be the kind of place the audience would like to live in. Speaking to the Director’s Guild of America in 2009, Heckerling noted that she had plenty of creative freedom to pursue this, because “Universal had bigger fish to fry.”
She said she keen for Fast Times to emulate 1973’s American Graffiti, a comedy about the summer before college starts for a group of high-school friends. “That felt like a movie about young people that, if you woke up and found yourself living in the movie, you’d be happy,” Heckerling said. “I wanted that kind of feel.” She also recalled that the film was shot in a great hurry, and she didn’t get too caught up in on screen details.
5. Bruce Springsteen’s sister makes her film debut in Fast Times
Born in New Jersey in 1962, Pamela Colleen Springsteen is one of two sisters to rock legend Bruce Springsteen. She began acting at a young age, and found her film debut in Fast Times, playing the cheerleader Dina. This role helped her to secure her best known character: the serial killer Angela Baker, of horror movie series Sleepaway Camp.
Her other film appearances include Reckless, Modern Girls, Dixie Lanes and Scenes from the Goldmine. For a while, Springsteen was engaged to Sean Penn, who co-starred with her in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Unfortunately, as with most of Penn’s romantic entanglements, it wasn’t to last. Springsteen eventually walked away from her acting career to become a successful photographer in Los Angeles.
4. Mark ‘The Rat’ Ratner was based on a teen Andy Rathbone, who became a real ‘geek god’
Cameron Crowe carried out the research for his original novel at Clairemont High School, San Diego. There, he met Andy Rathbone, who struck him as the perfect muse for the character Mark Ratner Ratner is Mike’s gentle and younger best friend, who works as an usher at the local cinema. Rathbone himself later rose to fame as a tech guru, authoring many of the ‘for Dummies’ books.
In 1995, People Weekly magazine noted Rathbone’s connection to the film in an article entitled ‘Geek God’. Rathbone has written around 50 books in total, and has also written for PC World and ComputerWorld.
3. Forest Whittaker had only just started making movies
Forest Whittaker secured his first two movies in 1982 – Tag: The Assassination Game, released in April, and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which came out in August. His character is Charles Jefferson, the school’s star football player, whose car is wrecked by the joyriding Spicoli. At his own Los Angeles high school, Whittaker played football and won a football scholarship to California State Polytechnic University.
However, he suffered a back injury that interfered with his playing, and he chose to switch subjects, focusing instead on music. He later studied Opera and Drama at the University of Southern California, as well as war studies at New York University. Whittaker’s role as a dictator in 2006’s The Last King of Scotland won him an Academy Award, BAFTA Award, Golden Globe Award, National Board of Review Award and Screen Actors Guild Award.
2. Several cast members were born into showbusiness
Though Fast Times was definitely Sean Penn’s big break, he wasn’t exactly unfamiliar with the world of Hollywood before he got the part. Penn was the son of famous actress Eileen Ryan and TV director Leo Penn, so he had essentially grown up in the entertainment industry. He wasn’t the only second-generation performer in the cast either, as both Jennifer Jason Leigh and Phoebe Cates had showbiz roots.
For example, Leigh, who played Stacy, was the daughter of TV star Vic Morrow. As for Cates, who plays the knowledgable and worldly Linda, her father was the Broadway and TV producer Joseph Cates. The casting directors didn’t intentionally cast second-generation performers, but it gave much of the cast a shared experience to draw on.
1. The movie has no instrumental score
Lots of movies have supplemented a traditional instrumental score with popular music, whether it’s nostalgic classic rock or current pop hits. Most of the movies that do this, such as The Guardians of the Galaxy movies or Suicide Squad, also use an instrumental score, to fill in the blanks and create a more cohesive tone overall.
Fast Times is unique in that it features only a soundtrack and has no instrumental score of any kind. This was the decision of Irving Azoff, who thought that the soundtrack-only approach would make the movie seem more grounded in the world of the teenage characters. It helped that Azoff wasn’t only a producer – he was also a manager who managed the careers of performers like The Eagles and Stevie Nicks. He was able to convince the acts he managed to record original songs for the movie, using his influence in the industry to bring in acts that director Amy Heckerling loved, such as the Go-Gos.