Paul Le Mat is still most known for the role of John Milner in “American Graffiti,” George Lucas’ 1973 coming-of-age classic about a group of 1960s California high school graduates, and it’s certainly not an unflattering way to be remembered. Milner is the oldest, coolest kid in the pack (which also included Ron Howard, Richard Dreyfuss and Charles Martin Smith, as the aptly named Toad). He’s tough in a noble way, in that he’s willing to stick up for friends. He’s a drag racer, a danger-seeker, and most importantly, the one that gets to drive the coolest car–a vintage yellow deuce coupe. But he has an undeniably tender side. When an obnoxious underage girl (Mackenzie Phillips) winds up riding shotgun in the Coupe, after a mix-up, they initially spar with each other (Le Mat gets the movie’s funniest line, when he calls Phillips a “grungy little twerp” for liking the Beach Boys). But by the end of the night, he’s treating her like his favorite little sister, giving her self-esteem a boost.
Nowadays, Le Mat spends most of his time at traveling car shows, displaying the very Coupe that he drove in the film, and signing autographs; he also sells autographed pictures and memorabilia from his personal web site. He is lucky to have played a part with such a lasting effect, and it gave him a signature style in movies. Back in his heyday, Le Mat was cast as similar drifters driving similarly cool cars in popular films like “Aloha Bobby and Rose” (1975). But there are richer, more complicated roles that should be just as celebrated, like his turn as the CB radio enthusiast in Jonathan Demme’s 1977 comedy “Citizen’s Band,” or as the hapless dreamer who stumbles his way, supposedly, into Howard Hughes’ will in Demme’s “Melvin and Howard” (based on the real-life Melvin Dummar).
Because those films weren’t box office hits, Le Mat has had a harder time finding roles in the last 25 or so years, but he has turned up here and there in prominent parts in a variety of television and feature-length films. Two of those films, “P.K. and the Kid,” an early Molly Ringwald vehicle (discussed previously on this blog), and the 1982 slasher flick “Death Valley,” starring a pre-”Christmas Story” Peter Billingsley, are not available on Netflix (click here for my entry on “Death Valley”).
Paul Le Mat agreed to a phone interview a few weeks ago to discuss those films and many others, as well as his experiences with writing books (available for purchase on Amazon, for Kindle) and following are excerpts from that interview:
Sam Weisberg: I noticed a pattern in a lot of your films that your characters are car enthusiasts. Are you in real life? I know you made that hot rod documentary, “Hot Rods Across America.”
Paul Le Mat: I made that with my friend. I produced it. It’s about these shows I’ve been doing around the country, some of them with the yellow car from “American Graffiti.” The guy that owns it lives in San Francisco and he takes it to classic car shows once in awhile. It’s for people that have street rods from before 1951, and hot rods, and muscle cars. I’ve attended these shows. I sell autographed pictures from “American Graffiti” and “Aloha Bobby and Rose.” Cindy Williams from “Graffiti” comes with me sometimes, and Candy Clark and Bo Hopkins from that movie, we were all just at a show in San Bernardino.
SW: What craze came first—acting or cars?
PLM: Well, I had a ’57 Chevy and a mechanic friend that helped me keep it running. But I didn’t have any money. These cars are expensive to keep running. After “American Graffiti” and “Aloha Bobby and Rose” I had some money—not a lot, because I didn’t get paid a lot—but I was able to get a couple of hot rods and race them. I went out to the drag strip and raced them for a quarter mile. My friend, [actor] Robert Carradine, he got out there with Paul Newman racing on the tracks professionally. I never did that. I was more interested in acting. But I do like driving cars. I wish there were more hot rod movies.
SW: Did you start acting before serving in Vietnam?
PLM: I started in high school, if you want to call that acting. I’d call it acting but I didn’t get paid. Then I was in the Navy and when I got out, I studied acting in college for awhile and then I went to New York to get more serious about it, and then I came to Los Angeles. I also was boxing for awhile.
SW: Is that why there’s a few natural-looking fight scenes in your films?
PLM: I guess so. I did win a few fights.
SW: Are you working on any other documentaries?
PLM: We did “Hot Rods Across America Part 1 and 2” and my associate did some footage for Part 3 but I don’t think we have enough film for that. My last film was “Cyborg Conquest” (2009). That had robots, not hot rods. This female biker gang led by Stacey Dash gets in a fight with my robots so I get in a fight with them. I’m the badguy.
SW: I read an old interview with you, from about 20 years ago, where you said you don’t like to play badguys or goodguys, you like to play characters that are in between. Is that still the case?
PLM: I prefer to play characters in between. But they don’t write too many of those. And nowadays movie parts are hard to come by. So I just take whatever I can. When they wanted me for “Cyborg Conquest” I just took it ‘cause I figured, “What the heck?” I can’t be choosy anymore.
SW: If you’re in three or four commonly syndicated movies, do they still bring in a lot of royalties through the decades?
PLM: I don’t get those. If you’re a big star you can make a deal for a percentage of the profits. I did that on “Melvin and Howard” but I didn’t get anything because it didn’t make any profit. You have to be in a hit movie. If you’re a star you can demand that. But the rest of us, we don’t make any money. “Cyborg Conquest,” I got $10,000 for that, but I didn’t get any percentage of the profits. Not that it’s made any [profit] anyway.
SW: What about ensemble movies like “American Graffiti”? That’s on TV quite often.
PLM: Yeah, but I got $3,600 for that job. And then George Lucas gave a point, one percentage point away to all ten of the actors. You get one-tenth of a percentage point, and that’s not gross. Over the years I’ve made probably $70,000 from it. But that’s all.
SW: Speaking of “Melvin and Howard,” when you were making that film, did you hang out with the real life Melvin Dummar?
PLM: Not really. I was afraid to spend much time with him, frankly, because I was worried that he was lying [about being in Howard Hughes' will]. And I didn’t want to know if he was lying because I was playing it like the opposite, as if it was all true. So I tried to stay away from him. Later, I got to know him and I became pretty well convinced he was telling the truth. He couldn’t convince anyone. But more and more things came out over the years [Note: for more details on why Dummar might have been truthful, read this news story from 2005].
SW: Did Dummar approve of the depiction?
PLM: Yeah, but he didn’t think I sang very good. He’s a singer and sometimes performs. I saw him at Salt Lake City about five years ago. He came to one of the car shows.
SW: It seems that your favorite movies you’ve worked on are “Melvin and Howard” and “American Graffiti.” Do you have a favorite line of dialogue?
PLM: There’s a lot of good lines in “American Graffiti” and I hear them at the car shows. It’s really a favorite of the crowd’s. They come up to the table and recite them, like I’ve never heard them before. I’ve made other movies, but if I don’t play a tough guy, my movies aren’t successful. “Citizen’s Band,” that was a good movie, it was on a bunch of Ten Best lists that year, but it didn’t make any money. “Strange Invaders,” that’s another one of my favorite films, but I didn’t play a tough guy. So the audience didn’t want to see it.
SW: That’s puzzling, because other than your role in “The Burning Bed” [1984 TV movie with Farrah Fawcett, in which Le Mat plays an abusive husband], I wouldn’t call any of your characters out-and-out tough guys. They get into fights but they’re usually fighting for a good reason, like backing up friends. Have fans specifically told you that they prefer you playing a tough guy?
PLM: Yeah, especially women. They like me playing a badguy.
SW: They couldn’t possibly mean a badguy like the one you play in “Burning Bed.”
PLM: No, they hate that. Women are actually mad at me when they get on that subject, because I played it so intensely. They hate the character’s behavior. They don’t want him to be that bad. You can’t go too far or you lose them.
SW: Why do you think people generally painted you as a tough guy?
PLM: They just want that special combination of being cool and a little tough and a little bad. If you don’t play that, they kind of just get bored. Not the critics—they loved “Melvin and Howard.” But just the general audience.
SW: How often did you pay attention to critics?
PLM: I read the reviews, even the negative stuff. Sometimes you can learn from that. If it’s too positive then you get a swell head.
SW: It seems that for most of your films that got badly reviewed, the critics didn’t blame you.
PLM: Yeah, that’s fortunate. Like “P.K. and the Kid,” the critics didn’t like that—I don’t blame them—but they didn’t blame me for it.
SW: How was that experience? How did you get that part?
PLM: Well, Joe Roth, the producer, liked me. He knew me and so he recommended me for it, and I met the director and he liked me. I said, “I’m not really an arm wrestler” and they said “Don’t worry about it.” I got screwed on that deal because my opponent, Charles Halloran, was quite heavier than me, more muscly. It was stupid, it looked stupid. They have weight divisions just like boxing, and this guy was way heavier than me. He was a nice guy, but they cast that wrong. It looks dumb. Audiences aren’t as stupid as some people think they are. If they see something that doesn’t make sense, that’s too fake, they aren’t gonna like it. Audiences will go along with a lot of fake stuff–like look at the “Rocky” movies–as long as it’s not too fake.
SW: In spite of that, was it mostly a fun set? Did things go smoothly?
PLM: Yeah, it went smoothly. Molly [Ringwald] was fun to be around.
SW: She wasn’t a star yet. What I’ve heard is that the movie was released years later once she was a star. Is that the full picture?
PLM: She was a kid and it was before her successful John Hughes movies. I don’t know why it took awhile to come out. My guess is they didn’t know what they were doing and weren’t too excited about the end result. They don’t call and tell us [when a movie is being shelved].
SW: Is there a cult appreciation for the film?
PLM: Not that one. There is with this movie called “Into the Homeland.” [1987 TV film with Powers Boothe] I played a real badguy in that one, it’s kind of an unpleasant story. I’ve heard that mentioned at car shows. But that’s rare. Mostly, [the cult films] are “Citizen’s Band,” “Melvin and Howard,” “Strange Invaders” and “Puppetmaster.”
SW: What about “Death Valley”?
PLM: They showed that on TV a lot in the ‘80s. That’s kind of a scary movie. One movie that hardly anyone talks about is “More American Graffiti.” It was really unpopular. It just didn’t work, it didn’t have cruising in it, so it really wasn’t a car movie. And the stories in it were unpleasant. George Lucas didn’t direct it, so it didn’t have the same feeling. I did some movies that just vanished. I did a movie called “Wishman.” That just—pffft. It just disappeared.
SW: Was it fun making “More American Graffiti”?
PLM: Not really. I didn’t get to drive the Coupe much, and we weren’t cruising. The only fun part was that my character was attracted to this really beautiful Swedish or Icelandic girl. But we didn’t have enough time to develop scenes together. The movie had three other large segments that took place in different years in the ’60s, so my part was small. It just wasn’t any fun. It’s edited in a very confusing way, too. It jumps back and forth from different years. It tells all the stories in pieces instead of one story at a time.
SW: Is that and “Wishman” your two biggest personal disappointments?
SW: What happened with “Wishman”?
PLM: I can’t figure that out. It just didn’t work. It had a fun story, where I also played a nice guy—too nice. Audiences don’t care about that, that’s my theory. I can’t explain it. It just wasn’t meaningful. A comedy or Jackie Chan movie doesn’t have to mean much, but this did. And I made another movie, “Jimmy the Kid,” with Gary Coleman. And that didn’t make any money. But it was fun to make. I enjoyed working with Gary. But the elements that make up the comedy…if they’re not funny, then you don’t have an audience.
SW: Were there any tumultuous set stories that have become funnier over time?
PLM: Not really. Sometimes I made mistakes, where I insisted on having a conflict with the director and it didn’t help my reputation. Now I look back on some of these points where I did or didn’t want to do something a certain way, and I’m telling you, they don’t mean shit now. I got in trouble with the director for no good reason. And I’ve turned down parts, especially early in my career. I’ve since thought, “What is your problem? Make the movie! So what if it’s not some great work of art? Most movies aren’t.” And I’d lost money and status by not being in films that…like “The Rose,” with Bette Midler. There was a drunken boyfriend part and the director Mark Rydell wanted me to take it, and I said, “No, it’s disgusting.” Frederick Forrest played it, and I look back now and go “What is my problem? So what if it was an unpleasant role? It made money.”
SW: Was it fear of being typecast?
PLM: No, it was just that I didn’t like the part. There was a movie with Henry Winkler, “Heroes,” they really wanted me to play this part. It was a fairly small role, as a stock car racer, and my manager at the time talked me out of it. Winkler was the Fonz and I was John Milner. Tough guys and all. And my manager said, “You’re gonna come off second best here! I don’t want you playing second fiddle to the Fonz.” But I saw the movie recently and thought, “I could have played that part. It was successful.”
SW: Haven’t the Demme movies taken on a big following by now? Didn’t things pick up with the DVD market?
PLM: They have a following but they didn’t make money. Now, “The Burning Bed,” that was a huge TV success. I think it was the highest rated Movie of the Week that year, and the second highest in history at the time. But that part turns people off. That was bad luck, that didn’t help me. I didn’t get a lot of work based on that.
SW: I feel like so many actors have played abusive husbands. It’s often their third or fourth role.
PLM: I think it was just so realistic. You can play nasty guys, like the Joker, and they’re worse than the character I played ‘cause they’re killing a whole bunch of people. But it’s not realistic enough to touch people in a negative way. Women will come right out and tell me, “I hate you.” One guy told me that he couldn’t watch me in other things after he saw that.
SW: I’m surprised that that reaction doesn’t come out more in praise, because the acting is so convincing.
PLM: Well, I won a [Golden Globe] award for it and that was good. But it didn’t help me get cast. People were kind of looking at me like there was something wrong with me. Especially women. They looked at me like I was a criminal. They thought I was like that character.
SW: Do you think part of your general trouble to get parts had less to do with the roles you played or the roles you turned down, and more just the industry changing between the 1970s and 80s?
PLM: Well, the industry changed a lot, but also I got older. Most parts are for guys in their twenties. So there’s just fewer jobs out there and just as many actors trying to get them. It’s harder for my agent to find me something. I go in for auditions and the room is full of old actors sitting there. (laughs)
SW: Do you have any films in the works right now?
PLM: There’s a guy I’m meeting with soon, it’s not completely financed yet, but he’s making a movie about the story—I would play Marcus Winslow, who is James Dean’s cousin. It’s set in modern day. But there really isn’t anything coming from the studios.
SW: Who are you close with besides the actors you mentioned?
PLM: I was pretty good friends with Harrison Ford, but he just stopped returning my phone calls. He became rich. I used to hang out with him. I used to try to get him jobs. Can you believe it? I asked him, during the ‘90s, if he could help me get a job in one of his movies. He said “I’ll keep my eyes open, Paul.” But he doesn’t realize that all he has to do is snap his fingers and he could at least get me into an audition.
SW: Is there any ideal director you want to work with?
PLM: That’s so funny, I haven’t thought about that in so long, in those terms. I guess I’m not choosy anymore. I’d still like to work with some people I worked in the past with. George Lucas and Jonathan Demme. I suppose the ideal one would be Spielberg. And then Ron Howard. I used to want to work with Quentin Tarantino, but his movies are so violent, I’m turned off by that.
SW: What was it like working on “Death Valley”? That’s a pretty gory movie.
PLM: Yeah, that was a little bit too violent for me. But my scenes were OK. Catherine Hicks was fun to work with.
SW: Did you just want to try the horror genre, for “Death Valley”?
PLM: Yeah, I guess I did have that feeling. I can’t really remember too much. I liked the idea of the guy trying to get back together with his old girlfriend and then being stuck out in the desert and dealing with danger. It’s more the danger that I think I respond to in stories than the actual violence. Even a war movie, I wouldn’t mind doing that if there was a sense of danger, rather than people getting mowed down all over the place. I love Hitchcock’s movies.
SW: Was it cool working with Peter Billingsley?
PLM: Yeah, he was funny. Kids are fun to work with.
SW: I think he’s directing now.
PLM: Maybe he’ll give me a job! My agent talked to Charles Martin Smith [from "American Graffiti"] about a month ago. He’s in Canada now and he has been for years, directing independent films and television movies. And he said the greatest thing, he said “Paul’s too young for that part!” And I’ll take that rejection any day.
SW: How often do you watch your old movies?
PLM: I don’t that much, not within the last couple of decades. Sometimes there’s an “American Graffiti” screening at an event, and I try to get out before the movie is finished. Not that I don’t love the movie but I’m a little tired of watching of it. There’s a lot out there to see. I watch Humphrey Bogart movies over and over again. There’s some movies I really like and there’s some I never want to see again, like “The Departed.” It’s just not my taste. It’s mean-spirited. Even “The Dark Knight,” there was something so mean-spirited about it. I’d rather see a movie—you know that actress Zizi Zhang, she did “Memoirs of a Geisha” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “House of Flying Daggers” and “2046.” I could just watch those all the time. I love her and I love that style. There’s violence in them, too, but not disgusting violence. And there’s a love story in it and I appreciate that.
SW: “Aloha, Bobby and Rose” is the closest thing to a conventional love story you’ve ever done. Does that movie still have a loyal following?
PLM: The fans like the red Camaro I drove. The same guy that owns the yellow Coupe from “American Graffiti” owns that red Camaro. It’s got a lot of good music in it, too. It was a hit. Right after that, there were two movies I turned down. “White Line Fever,” that went to Jan Michael Vincent. They wanted that type of rebel guy, but I didn’t want to do that. And “Moving Violation,” with Stephen McHattie, about a guy coming into a small town and getting mixed up. I didn’t like the ending. The character freaks out and breaks into an armory and shoots up a whole bunch of people, and that was too crazy. And I turned down a movie that really vanished, with Joe Don Baker, about a guy racing four-wheelers ["Checkered Flag or Crash" (1977)]. Maybe I should have done it. But I sure wasn’t out for the money. I’ve never been greedy—or not even that, I just haven’t been ambitious to make a lot of money. I guess it’s the writer in me. I just wanted a regular life and to do something artistic, write some books.
SW: And you have time to do these hobbies. Any car shows coming up?
PLM: Yeah, I have someone that sets them up for me. They’re all over the country. I wrote some books that are on Amazon Kindle. People think they’re good, but there’s so many books on Kindle that people aren’t going to look for them [independently]. The first books are about my experiences as a boxer. They’re fiction but heavily influenced by my experiences. Another one is about a young actor in Hollywood trying to make it, that goes back to the beginning and how I felt back then. And two of them are mysteries. You’ve gotta do a murder-mystery if you want to be a writer. One is called “Don’t Get Me Started” and it’s supposed to be like Raymond Chandler film noir 1940s movies.
SW: How hard is it to get those books published?
PLM: I’ve kind of given up. I had an agent send my book to the main book publishers and none of them were interested. I’m not hurt by that, I’m actually pretty confident. I know my books are good but it’s not what they’re looking for. These days the books are all about serial killers and forensic scientists and people getting slashed and murdered and shot. My books are more literary, if I can say so myself. (chuckles) I’m not comparing them to Hemingway or anything.
SW: So you have that, the car shows, the autographed memorabilia web site and the acting. Am I leaving anything out?
PLM: There’s this other site that sells those hot rod DVDs. TimeMax Cinema. But those don’t sell like we hoped they would. It’s really a blessing with that John Milner part. It just keeps going. The parents show it to the kids and the kids get excited. It’s a ripple. I’m not gonna complain about the part. I just wish I could get more acting jobs. (chuckles).
SW: It seems, for what it’s worth, that interesting projects come your way relatively often.
PLM: I keep my spirits up. I get a little depressed sometimes, when my agent isn’t calling me and no one’s hiring me and I gotta do these car shows. I’m tired of doing them. I’ve been doing them for years. The people are very flattering and complimentary and car people are wonderful…but I’m tired of it. I’m just shaking hands and answering questions about “American Graffiti.”
SW: Just for the purposes of Hidden Films, are there any particularly interesting or funny anecdotes about the making of “P.K. and the Kid” or “Death Valley”?
PLM: Well, for “P.K.,” there was a scene that they cut out where Molly Ringwald was swimming in a tub of wine. I walk up to her and go “What are you doing?!” and she’s laughing, and then she dives into this vat. And I guess they decided that was a bit much for an underage kid. I was sorry, ‘cause that was a funny scene.