George Lucas before he was George Lucas
How did I meet George Lucas? This is the story of meeting and getting to know George Lucas on the set of American Graffiti. A warning, this is 5,000 words so you might want to print it or go offline to read it.
I was told I got a small part in a small film. (I named it American Graffiti during the shooting because it was outdoors and all over the place.) I was supposed to play a 12-year-old girl. Since it was so last minute George Lucas wanted someone young but with acting experience. I wasn’t young but I could look young and I had acting experience. I knew what a mark was and all the lingo that went along with filming, etc.
(There was a new pay-TV channel that showed short films whenever a film didn’t end on the hour. It was called HBO. HBO used to be a good station, believe it or not. I’d seen a short film called THX 1138 four times. I loved it. I thought it was the best film I’d ever seen. It was about a land where love was forbidden. I made it a point to remember the man’s name who wrote it and directed it. It was George Lucas.)
The person who drove me to the movie set began walking with me and said, “There’s the man you’ll be working for, his name is George Lucas, I think.”
“You think, or you know? Is it George Lucas?” I was thrilled and frightened at the same time.
The man looked down at a paper and said, “Yeah, that’s right. George Lucas.”
I stopped walking, I wanted to see this man. He looked young. He looked very good. I wanted to watch him for a while. I was curious to see how he interacted with people.
“Come on. What are you stopping for? We’re late. Your late. Keep walking.”
I started to walk again and when I got close enough to see him and hear him I had to stop again. The driver grabbed my arm and dragged me along.
When we got up to him, George said, “Are you shy? They said you’ve acted before. You can’t be shy if you want to be an actress.”
“I’ll leave you with him,” my driver said as he walked away.
I was speechless. This man was entirely too good-looking and too young to have written THX 1138.
“Are you George Lucas? Did you write and direct THX 1138? I love that film. That’s my favorite film.”
“Did someone tell you to say that? Flattery doesn’t hold any weight here.”
“No. I love that film.”
I thought he may have said, “I don’t believe you,” but I remember being very disheartened by his reaction.
“This resume can’t be right. You’re here now,” Lucas said as he threw my resume on the table. He picked up a copy of the script, “Here’s the script. I hope you’re a fast reader. Your late. You have to start right away.”
I got in the car with Milner (Paul Le Mat) and we began the scene. George called Cut. I was devastated, “Did I do something wrong? I can do it anyway you want.”
“No. You did just fine. Better than I’d hoped for. It’s just that… It’s just that I think you’re too pretty for the part. It said in your resume that you’d played boys. I thought you’d look different, that’s all.”
“Is that it then? Can I stay a while?” I asked hoping I could get to know this man a little better before I was asked to leave. So far he seemed distant and cold, but I didn’t believe that was him, I knew from THX there was much more to him.
Lucas wanted me to stay, though, and said he would write a part for me. He asked if I wouldn’t mind doing something with Charles Martin Smith, the boy who played Toad. I knew him as Ernie from Father Knows Best.
“If I can stay, I’ll play any part you want.”
Charlie remembered me from a few episodes of Father Knows Best I’d been on with him. Ron Howard remembered me because when we were 5 or so I played his girlfriend in the Music Man. I don’t know how they could tell it was me so many years later. George just laughed. He didn’t know what to make of me. He didn’t believe I’d seen his film. I think he really thought I was just being kind, and before Ron and Charlie recognized me he thought I was very young, under 18 and he didn’t want to be perceived as doing something inappropriate.
“You don’t have to act like that. You’ve got the part. It’ll take me a while to write something for you, but I will. Don’t worry, you can stay.”
I was thrilled. I was flabbergasted and thrilled.
Lucas hadn’t really paid attention to what I said. He didn’t know how great he was, he really didn’t. He’ll tell you that. I’ve heard him say it. He had no idea who he was, but I did. Some people don’t take compliments well, it’s a shame I think, and Lucas was one of those people. You can’t imagine how many people, how many great actors and actresses, Directors, even Einstein, I’ve had to tell, “Just say thank you.” They don’t know how to take a complement and that was the advice my mother always gave me. It works well and if you’re one of those people who don’t know what to say when someone compliments you, Just say “thank you.”
“Can I stay here? I mean right here, with you? I just want to watch you work,” I asked him. I wanted to size him up, to see if I could get past the shell. I’ll tell you, I’m pretty sure, right from the get-go, I flirted like a madwoman.
“If you’re quiet and you don’t bother me, you can stay wherever you want,” he answered. So I stayed right there with him for the rest of the film.
Mackenzie and John Philips were on the sidelines watching the filming. I guess they lived in the area or something. I said, “What about that girl?” We went over, I told John I was a fan of his music and did he think his daughter would like to be in the film. John remembered me from ghost-writing California Dreamin’ with him. George had me coach Mackenzie a bit because he wanted her to do the part exactly the way I had done it. Right out of the gate she was great – problem solved.
Luckily, after a short while George said it was all right for me to talk, I guess I’d been really quiet for a while. I wanted to know everything about him, I desperately wanted to get to know him because, even then I thought I would probably want to marry him. I was young but I had dated a lot of boys and I knew what I wanted. I’d made a rule for myself, I didn’t look boys in the eye because, and this is going to sound very conceited, but it seemed to me boys would say, “I love you,” very quickly. They probably just wanted to get into my pants but I never knew what to do or say when they said that, so I just wouldn’t look them in the eye and that seemed to work well for me. But with Lucas, I made sure I looked him in the eye.
Once I got him talking I found I was right, he could talk about anything. We talked about things we liked and things we didn’t like. We both liked and disliked the same things. I told him about my philosophies and thoughts about life, art, organized religion, music, politics, the way we treat one another, and I found out he felt the same way. I talked while he wrote and that didn’t seem to bother him. I know it bothers me when someone talks to me when I’m trying to write. I wasn’t the type of girl who just yammers on about nothing. I’m quiet when I need to be, actually I’m quiet most of the time, but not with George. I tried to be quiet, I did, but I was so captivated by him that it was hard to shut up. He found out I could draw and he found that fascinating and said he tried to draw because he liked art so much but he wasn’t happy with the way things looked. I told him it takes time and practice, like anything else. He didn’t think he enjoyed drawing well enough to put in the amount of time and practice it would take to get him to where he’d be happy with something he created. His father used to ridicule him when he drew and it took the joy out of it for him.
We talked about our hobbies like music, science and math, we talked a lot about physics and astrophysics – a hobby interest we both had. I may have told him that when I was little I used to be in a group of kids who shot off rockets. We were both surprised to find someone interested in both art and science and we both remarked how uncommon that was. It was clear we were two very unusual people, but unusual in the same way. Now this calmer, gentler George Lucas was the very special man I knew he would be. Better, even.
I had become Assistant Director. George said, “As long as your gonna hang around here, I might as well put you to work.”
One of the things I loved about THX 1138 was the way people kept moving in and out of the scene. It’s something you rarely see in a movie, any movie, and even nowadays. So when Lucas asked me to set up the scene where the kids are in the street talking, I set it up so that Toad would run up to them and tell them if they see Milner, to tell him Harrison (I can’t remember Harrison’s character’s name) is looking for him.
Lucas came over and said, “This is great, now all I have to do is start shooting. No, wait, we are missing one you forgot Charlie.”
“No, Charlie’s across the street, what he has to say is a non sequitur. I wanted him to come into this the scene like you did in THX.”
“No. That was wrong. My professors told me not to ever do that again. They almost failed me.” That was the second time I heard George make the noise that he makes when he gets very upset. It sounds like he’s swallowing air, and then he gulps. It’s the sound of frustration, sorrow and pain.
By that time I knew that THX 1138 was Lucas’s senior project. How could his professors do that to him, I thought. How could they have been so cruel? The good for nothing know-nothings! They were just teaching him what they were taught without looking at the movie at all. What mindless jerks! Krum bums – the lot of them. They learned not to do that, so they almost failed George Lucas for being an innovative thinker. And they dragged him down, I could tell by the noise he just had made. They knocked the legs right out from under him, and they got him to change his thinking about the best part of his film. George Lucas had been abused into believing authority figures. He was denied his freedom of thought. He believed his teachers, and like his father ridiculing his art, they made him change for the worse.
“Well your professors are wrong! That movie was great! Don’t let them bully you like that, they’re not even gonna grade this. What do you care what some stupid professors say anyway? You’re better than them.”
“How do you know. How can you say I’m better than they are?”
I told Lucas to tell me the names of his teachers and I didn’t know either of their names and I told him I pay attention to stuff like that, directors and writers who I like, as much as I do to actors I like, maybe more. I told Lucas I never heard of them, but I’d heard of him. “Don’t you know – that happens all the time? Who was Michelangelo’s teacher? Who was Leonardo da Vinci’s teacher?” Lucas shrugged. “See, you’ve never heard of their teachers, but you’ve heard of them. I know who they are because I learned who they were in art history, but you know, they’re only famous for being the teachers of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, not for their work, because their work wasn’t all that great. Your work was great! And they’re idiots, blind idiots for not being able to see that! Don’t let them drag you down. You can stop listening to them now, you’ve graduated.”
“Don’t call my teachers idiots,” Lucas said softly.
I went on, “So you’re better than they are. I’ve never seen scenes like that, and I want you to put one like that in this movie. At least one, this is the perfect one.”
Ron Howard came over and said “Hey guys, it’s cold out here, let’s get this show on the road, were standing over here freezing while you two were talking about art.”
Lucas shook his head and said, “We’ll try it one time your way. One time.”
Lucas rolled the scene and I knew enough to read ahead in the script because I had spent my summers in grammar school assistant directing for Alfred Hitchcock. I learned a lot from him. So I motioned for Charlie to come, and he half ran across the street, I thought he’d get there and wait for his line, but as it turned out, he got there just in time to deliver his line. The scene came out just great. It left Mr. Lucas scratching his head. “Better than they are, huh? What are you a magician or something?” I think he liked it.
After it was clear that Lucas had written my part, he continued writing. He was directing and writing the whole time we were shooting. I asked him what he was writing about and he told me he was working on another movie. I found it interesting that he could direct one movie while writing another. I asked him what the movie was about. He said, “Oh, you might not be interested. It’s science fiction.”
I didn’t remember at the time but I had worked on 2001 – a Space Odyssey; and Star Trek. “Oh no, I like science fiction. Funny huh, a girl who likes science fiction. What’s it about?”
“I’m not sure yet,” he laughed, “but I want to try to make the best science fiction movie ever made.”
“Don’t try.” He looked puzzled like he thought I thought he couldn’t do it, so I quickly added, “Do. Don’t try – do. Do make the best science fiction movie ever made. You can do it, I know you can. You have greatness in you and if anyone can do it, you can. THX 1138 is science fiction, isn’t it, and that was great.” I knew there were many iffy science fiction movies to date and I was sure Lucas could easily out do any of them. 2001 was probably one of the best, but THX 1138 was better. Lucas just looked at me and laughed.
I explained that, “If you say you’ll try, then you leave yourself a little wiggle room, you leave yourself an out. If you only try then you may not succeed and you feel like that’s okay. But if you say you will, then you have to, because you’ve made a promise to yourself that you will. So say you will make the best science fiction movie and you will.”
I helped Lucas throughout the rest of American Graffiti. I added a few scenes and assistant directed a few others. I coached Cindy quite a bit. There was a scene where Harrison said something while sitting in his car with his girlfriend and Lucas said, “I feel like she should say something here. Like the girl should say something, but I don’t know what.”
“Ain’t he neat? She should say, ‘Ain’t he neat?’ I think that’s what a girl like that would say,” I told him.
As we walked away from a car I told Lucas that was what I thought when I watched him work, I thought – Ain’t he neat? Not in those words exactly, but that’s how I felt. He seemed happy. I was happy he was happy. When I first met him I thought he was entirely too sad and serious for such a young man. (I think he was only 28.)
There was a scene where my character, Debbie, gets her hair mussed when she hides in the bushes. When the scene was over, Lucas said he wanted to fix my hair because he wanted to touch me. I was glad he said that, but I asked him not to fix my hair, I told him I wouldn’t be able to feel it anyway because it was a wig. I told him I didn’t like it in movies when someone has their hair fixed and there was no time for them to fix it. It was one of those little things that bothered me in movies. So he left it. When my scenes were over I took the wig off and asked him to fix my hair and I liked the way he looked at me. (Just FYI: I had brown hair, kind of short, Cindy Williams and I looked a lot alike. If you watch the terrible movie ‘Dinner with Schmucks,’ I’m the French girl – Paul Rudd’s roommate. [I still looked young for my age.] That’s the only movie I can remember being in where I didn’t have on prosthetics, makeup and a wig. ) The whole time while we were filming he never made a pass at me or asked me out.
When the movie wrapped he asked if I was going to the wrap party and I said I didn’t know when my ride was coming for me. I told him I was sad the movie was over because I wouldn’t get to see him again. That was way flirtier than I had ever been with anyone, and it made me uncomfortable to say it, but it had to be said.
Lucas said, “I’ve been thinking about that. About all of it. I’ve been thinking about how well we get along together and how we like the same things, and we’re both into art and science, and I know I’m older than you but I can tell you that never happens. Never. Not even with guys. I don’t know anyone who’s interested in both. And I really like you, I like the way you make me feel, like I could do anything. I like that you believe in me more than I believe in myself. So I’ve been thinking.” He stopped.
I waited. “What have you been thinking?” I really wanted to know, Lucas was a hard man to read. I thought I made him happy, but he really hadn’t been clear about that. “Do you want to see me again? Because I’d like that.”
“Oh Jesus yes. Yes I’d like to see you again. That’s what I’ve been thinking.” He stopped again and this time I didn’t know what to say so I just waited. “I’m thinking I should ask you to marry me,” he said finally. I waited. Nothing.
“You think you should ask me to marry you? When were you thinking of doing that?” This really blew my mind, it was totally unexpected. I thought he would ask me out, or something. That’s what I was hoping for. “Did you want to ask me out? Do you want to find out if we get along?”
“Oh, we get along, we get along great. I get along with you better than anyone. I know we get along. I don’t want to date you, I don’t want to take that chance, I don’t want anyone else to ask you.”
I waited some more. He didn’t want to take what chance, the chance I won’t like him if we dated? He was making me a little nervous, maybe because he was so nervous, I didn’t know.
“I want to be the one who asks you. I think if I wait, even another minute someone else will come along, that’s what I’m afraid of. Will you marry me? I think we’ll be great together. I know we’ll be great together. What do you think?”
“Can I think about it?”
“Yeah. Well, yeah sure, you can think about it,” he hesitated. “Oh God, tell me why you’re thinking about it? Are you thinking about how to say no to me?”
What I was thinking was – why didn’t I just say yes? That’s what I wanted all along, I just didn’t expect it quite like this. It wouldn’t win a prize for most romantic proposal on record, that’s for sure, it was a confusing proposal but the case he made for getting married was right. I knew he was right, there was nobody like him, and there would never be anybody like us. We would be great together. I knew he was right.
George was looking at the dust he was pushing around with his loafers. “So if you’re thinking about how to say no to me, just do it, just say no right now.”
“No, I was thinking I should say yes.”
“Yes. That’s your answer. I’ve thought about it long enough, and yes, George Lucas, I will marry you.”
He looked up at me and I was beaming and nodding yes. “Yes,” I said again. “We should kiss or something, don’t you think?”
I walked over to him and kissed him for a long time until Ron Howard came over. “Are you guys kissing because the movie wrapped? Can I get one?”
“Too late, we’re engaged,” I told Ron.
“You dog! George, you dog! I thought there was something going on between you two. You dog!” Ron said again punching George in the arm. Cindy came over and Ron told her the news and she and I jumped up and down holding arms.
“When did this happen?”
“It just happened. Just now. He just asked me now and I said yes,” I told them.
George talked with the boys and I talked with Cindy. Mackenzie came over and said, “Man, I miss everything.”
Lucas kept looking over to me and I could feel he was so happy that I was so happy. My happiness meant everything to him, as his did to me. I knew then that we could each make ourselves happy by making the other one happy, and that’s as it should be. I knew I had the perfect man.
My driver came, he wouldn’t let me stay for the wrap party. He told Lucas I would call him, but, of course I never did. I was tortured and given amnesia, only the memory of that kiss remained, that kiss and his leather shoes in the dust. George was eventually told I was dead.