The tales of the pranks and shenanigans that went on at the Excelsior Hotel in Tulsa, Okla., during the production of influential teen drama “The Outsiders,” which celebrates its 35th anniversary on March 25, are stuff of legend.
Francis Ford Coppola directed the adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s 1967 young adult novel, which revolves around the class conflict between the poor high school kids called “Greasers” and the wealthy students (“Socs”) in Tulsa in 1965.
“Mostly I was the victim of the pranks,” recalled C. Thomas Howell, who was just 15 when he played the main role-and the film’s narrator, Ponyboy Curtis.
“I was the one working all the time,” he noted.
So, while he was on the set, his costars including Matt Dillon, Rob Lowe, Tom Cruise, and Patrick Swayze played and schemed, even forging relationships with the hotel staff to obtain room keys.
“I remember one early morning, probably having worked all night,” Howell said. “I stumbled into my hotel room ready to go to sleep and literally everything in my hotel room, from a penny to my bed, had been turned upside down.”
Then there was the time after working 17 hours straight, Howell was looking forward to a nice hot shower only to turn on the faucet “to get into the shower and somebody pointed [the shower head] out so it hit me right in the face with cold water before I could get into the shower.”
Diane Lane, who played Cherry, a sweet Soc who was the object of Ponyboy’s affections, was thrilled to be included in the pranks.
Well, sort of.
She noted in an email interview, “It was frightening to see and realize many violations of psyche and boundaries such as honey all over my toilet seat, something terrorizing written with my lipstick in the mirror, Vaseline on every door handle, and just when you think it’s safe and you can finally sleep that night, your bed is short-sheeted!”
“I never had siblings or went to summer camp, so for me it was a bonding experience,” she added. “Is that what they mean by trauma-bonding? Hahaha.”
Ralph Macchio, who played the tragic greaser Johnny Cade, was a little too focused on trying to get his part right to participate in a lot of the craziness. “Maybe I could have loosened up a bit with some of the fun times,” he said. “I’m not saying I was closed in a closet and never came out ‘til the camera was ready. That’s not the case, but I certainly was not the spearhead person of the wild and crazy times.”
“I stayed out of the hotel,” noted Susan Hinton, who wrote “The Outsiders” between the ages of 15 and 16 under the name S.E. Hinton. “I wasn’t about to try and control what’s going on in the hotel.”
The movie wasn’t all fun and games. In fact, it seems to have been a life-changing experience for many involved.
Such as for Jo Ellen Misakian, who was a librarian at the small K-8 Lone Star School in Fresno, Calif., when she sent Coppola a letter and petition in 1980.
“The boys weren’t reading as much as I’d have liked,” said Misakian, who is now retired. “But when I could get someone to read, this is the book they would read. And one of the teachers said to me she thought it would make a good movie. I wanted, of course, to call attention to the library so I decided that maybe I would do a petition.”
Eventually, the petition had over 300 signatures. Misakian decided to send it to Coppola after reading a glowing review of 1979’s “The Black Stallion,” based on Walter Farley’s classic children’s book, which had been produced by Coppola. “The critique said that Coppola followed the story really well.”
Thankfully, the local Fresno library gave her Coppola’s New York address.
Because he had received so much mail at the Zoetrope Studios in Hollywood, the filmmaker never would have noticed the letter. But since far less mail was delivered in his New York office, Coppola read the note when he was in town and gave it to his producer Fred Roos to check out.
“I had sent a paperback version of the book as well,” Misakian said. “I knew that they wouldn’t go buy it, so I had to have it handy for them.”
Roos stuck the letter and book in his briefcase and ended up reading on a coast-to-coast flight. And he soon realized that the school was right — “The Outsiders” would make a great movie.
“Fred sent me a letter,” Misakian said. “I got so excited. So I called the principal right away and he went ballistic.”
Though there was a premiere with several cast members at the school, Misakian and her students never met Coppola. But he thanked them at the end of “The Outsiders.”
“This film is dedicated to the people who first suggested that it be made … Librarian Jo Ellen Misakian and the students of the Lone Star School in Fresno, California.”
“The Outsiders,” which was produced for $10 million, came at the right time for Coppola because Zoetrope was trying to stay a step ahead of bankruptcy due to a massive bank debt and the swelling budget of his poorly received 1981 musical “One From the Heart.”
“It was chaos incorporated time at Zoetrope, like fighting a war,” Coppola said in a 1983 New York Times interview. “I used to be a great camp counselor, and the idea of being with half a dozen kids in the country and making a movie seemed like being a camp counselor again. I’d forget my troubles and have some laughs again.”
Instead of having a regular casting call, Coppola opted to put all the actors “in one room watching each other audition,” said the 56-year-old Macchio. “It’s brutal because you’re becoming self-conscious of any choices because you’re watching reactions based on other actors and watching the filmmakers and how they respond because you’re all trying to get the job. For Francis, it was about mixing and matching the ensemble, saying ‘Dennis Quaid,you read this, and Rob Lowe, you read that.”’
Macchio recalled raising his hand to read one of Johnny’s monologues from the novel because he desperately wanted to play that part.
“I think we all feel the outsider at some point,” said Macchio, who loved the novel when he read it in middle school. “Even though we lead very different lives, family lives, I sort of connected with the guy who was the one that was the protected, the smallest of the group, the sympathetic character having to defend himself and found comfort in his friends.”
After he got the role, Coppola gave him $5 to live on for one day so he could further understand Johnny’s life. And just as Johnny does in “The Outsiders,” he spent the night sleeping in the park using newspapers as his blanket.
“It wasn’t comfortable,” he said. “But for a guy growing up in pretty-well-adjusted Long Island suburban lifestyle, it was a terrific acting exercise.”
Coppola also videotaped the entire film over a two-week period before he began shooting.
“It was a great learning tool because Francis was able to screen it and show us things that he thought were good and things that could be better,” recalled Howell.
Lane, 53, also loved the experience because “it cut us all down to size,” she said. “We got to sit on the floor together and watch our best efforts on the screen. I doubt I was the only one who saw mostly room for improvement: more emotional courage, less safety against ‘looking uncool.’ Had we not gotten to do and watch that embryonic, school play version, Francis would not have gotten as much trust from us as he got.”
Hinton, now 69, was in her early 30s when “The Outsiders” was filmed. And according to Howell, she quickly became the den mother of the greasers.
“I was looking out for them on the set,” said Hinton, who appears as a nurse in the scene where Dillon is in the hospital. “I had their back. I was close to all of them, Tommy especially. He was such a baby. He was 15. I didn’t feel like Patrick’s mother, he was 25. But I did the rest of them.”
Coppola had her on the set during the videotape rehearsals and the filming. “They always set my chair up next to Francis,” she said.
“He and I wrote the screenplay together, no matter what it says on the credits,” Hinton noted.
Both Macchio and Howell frequently visit students who have read the book in schools.
“I just went a couple of weeks ago,” Macchio said. “I went to the school and talked about the book. They had all of these presentations, whether it was poetry, readings, dances, or video, influenced by the film about bullying back in the day versus bullying now and just social classic differences, and how they love these characters.”
“It’s one of my favorite things I do,” said Howell, who is still very close to Lowe and Macchio. “I’ll come in to speak to them after the screening of the film. It affects these kids so deeply still.”
And Howell still gets lover letters from “13-year-old girls sobbing for Ponyboy, only to sob harder when they realize he’s 51 years old!”