Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Spicoli: Sean Penn's Breakout Role

Guest contributor Kate Voss celebrates Sean Penn's birthday by taking a look at his most iconic character.

We all knew a Jeff Spicoli at one point in our lifetime — the guy who is there but not really there: the loveable stoner. Spicoli, from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the definition of a surfer pot-head, was masterfully created by the acting heavyweight Sean Penn. This 1982 coming-of-age comedy created the blueprint for future stoner films to come.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High, written by Cameron Crowe, was an adaptation of a book about the real-life experiences Crowe had while undercover at a San Diego high school while he was writing for Playboy Magazine. The film follows the lives of a handful of high school students throughout one school year, and all the characters in the film were based off of real people Crowe came in contact with.

Directed by Amy Heckerling (who seems to really understand how to represent teenagers, also working on films such as Clueless), Fast Times created a historical piece of cinema that documents the life of teenagers growing up in the early '80s. The film touched on everything from smoking weed, to feuds with teachers, to sex and romance, capturing the small details of school, relationships and work. Early on, critics wrote off the film as just another sex comedy, but today it is regarded as one of the all-time classic high school films. In fact, in 2005, the film was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress for the US National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

In the film, we are introduced to Stacy Hamilton, a sophomore working at a pizza place with her sexually experienced friend Linda Barrett, Mark “Rat” Ratner, a sophomore who works in the movie theatre, ticket scalper Mike Damone, Stacy's dorky older brother Brad, and his girlfriend Lisa.

But the characters who take the lead are the perma-stoned Jeff Spicoli, and Mr. Hand, the history teacher who thinks everyone is high on drugs.

We are first introduced to Spicoli during Mr. Hand's American History class where Spicoli walks in late and says “This is U.S. History, I see the globe right there,” calls Mr. Hand “a dick” and gets sent to the principal’s office. He is an unemployed senior, stoner surfer dude. Penn perfected and portrayed one of the first “California Stoner Surfer Dude” characters that are so commonly seen in film today (think Brink, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, and even the turtle in Finding Nemo).

Another great Spicoli scene in the movie is when he orders a pizza during the middle of Mr. Hand's class, and when asked what he’s doing, says “Learning about Cuba, and having some food,” in his thick and chill California accent.

This film was Penn’s true breakout role. For the part, it’s been reported that Penn became Spicoli — he only responded to the name Spicoli on set, and had the name on his dressing room get changed to his character's name. Penn even worked really hard to maintain his character's rocky relationship with Ray Walston (Mr. Hand), by finding means of aggravating him off-camera.

So, what started as a comedic look into the lives of high school students ended up becoming the framework for future “stoner high school” movies to come, influencing movies such as Pineapple Express, Dude Where’s My Car, Super Troopers, Half Baked, Harold and Kumar, Big Lebowski, and Dazed and Confused.

Author Bio: Kate Voss is a freelance film and entertainment writer for, covering everything from tv dramas to horror flicks. She lives and works in Chicago and loves the band Broken Social Scene and the tv show How I Met Your Mother.

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