Fast Times at Ridgemont High
First a 1981 best-selling book about life in a Southern California beach-area high school, written by 23-year-old Cameron Crowe and published by Simon and Schuster, then an even bigger hit the following year as a Universal movie. Premier magazine called Fast Times "the quintessential high school film."
Although Fast Times has virtually no surfing, Jeff Spicoli, one of the ensemble characters, is a composite of the surfers Crowe met during his two-semester undercover "senior" year at Clairemont High in San Diego. "Most every morning," Crowe wrote, "Spicoli awoke before dawn, smoked three bowls of marijuana from a small steel bong, put on his wetsuit, and surfed before school."
While Spicoli was a funny presence in the book, 21-year-old actor Sean Penn, in his second film role, played the surfer to drawling and zoned-out comic perfection. "All I need," Spicoli points out in his most famous line, "are some tasty waves, a cool buzz, and I'm fine." Surf industry bluenoses were upset at what they perceived to be a gross injustice done to the sport's image. But most surfers reveled in Spicoli's daft genius—or at least recognized him as a completely familiar surf world archetype. Penn, who attended Santa Monica High School, in fact spent much of his teen years on the beach at Malibu, surfing and trouble-making. Penn reportedly stayed in character throughout the Fast Times shoot, and would only answer to "Spicoli."
Director Amy Heckerling (Clueless, Look Who's Talking) made her film debut with the R-rated Fast Times, and the cast included Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Anthony Edwards, Eric Stoltz, Forest Whitaker, and Ray Walston. Nicolas Cage, then going by Nicolas Coppola, also has a brief role. Fast Times was also helped by a best-selling soundtrack that included songs by Jackson Browne, Don Henley, the Go-Gos, Jimmy Buffett, Stevie Nicks, Graham Nash, and Donna Summer.
The New York Times called Fast Times a "jumbled but appealing teen-age comedy," and noted that while the film in general was well-cast, "the real scene stealer is Sean Penn, as a pink-eyed surfer named Jeff Spicoli who . . . thinks nothing of ordering a pizza delivered to his history classroom." The Fast Times reviews, however, were decidedly mixed. Film critic Roger Ebert called it a "scuz-pit of a movie."
Fast Times, a CBS sitcom starring Moon Unit Zappa, debuted in 1986 and lasted just seven episodes.
In 2002, Fast Times at Ridgemont High was #87 American Film Institute's "100 Funniest American Movies of All Time" list. In 2005, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." On Entertainment Weekly's 2012 list of the "50 Best High School Movies," Fast Times was runner-up, behind The Breakfast Club. In 2013, The Inertia website named Jeff Spicoli the 7th most influential surfer of all time. For Americans of a certain age, the film had became a touchstone. Appearing on Jimmy Kimmel live in 2015, President Obama was asked if he'd seen Fast Times. The President, who went to high school in Hawaii, replied, "I lived it, man. I didn't just see it," and added that the movie was "a classic."