Exclusive: Judge Reinhold’s Oral History of ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’

For the “Fast Times” 40th anniversary, star Judge Reinhold tells us how it all went down—from the mall to That Scene in the pool house
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In the summer of 1982, you could be forgiven for thinking Fast Times at Ridgemont High was going to be a raunch-com like Animal House (1978) and Porky’s (1981). Its poster featured a young Sean Penn as a goofy-looking dude with two buxom girls leaning suggestively over him.

It’s back in theaters Friday.

Into this cover of generic R-rated yuks, director Amy Heckerling and writer Cameron Crowe Trojan-horsed something weirder and more wonderful: A sprawling, shaggy comedy about the exquisite awkwardness of high school, now being rereleased to theaters for its 40th Anniversary on Friday.

It was infused with sex, but it didn’t depict the act as pervy, or horny young men as lovably date-rapey scamps; it also featured equally sex-obsessed female characters. In its modest 90-minute running time, it toggled between several different teenage groups and storylines, but its heart is freshman Stacy Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who’s trying to figure out sex and love, and her older brother, Brad (Judge Reinhold), whose final year of high school is turning into a shitshow.

Fast Times was, arguably, the birth of the modern teen coming-of-age film, and it caught critics by surprise. Apparently, they were not into being surprised. In the decades that followed, it’s been reassessed as a groundbreaking work, and occupies space on most top-comedies lists, including the American Film Institute’s. In 2005, it was added to the National Film Registry.

The movie’s packed with young actors at the start of their careers—Penn, Jason Leigh, Forest Whitaker, and Nicolas Cage in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nonspeaking part as a fast food cook. One of Heckerling’s leading men was Judge Reinhold, a 22-year-old from Virginia with a few TV credits and a small role in Stripes. As Brad, he introduced American audiences to a particular brand of gentle exasperation that would become his calling card in future comedy gems like Beverly Hills Cop and its sequels, and Ruthless People, not to mention a guest spot in Arrested Development’s third season and his stellar cameo as the close-talker on Seinfeld.

Fast Times made Reinhold one of the most famous faces in ‘80s comedy, not least for his role in one of the most-paused scenes in movie history: A sex fantasy about a girl (Phoebe Cates) interrupted when Cates’ character, Linda, catches Brad masturbating in the bathroom.

(Courtesy Judge Reinhold)

Now 65, Reinhold got on the phone with us from his New Mexico home to talk about being part of Heckerling’s crew, drinking with an underage Nic Cage, his love of ’70s movies and working with female directors and editors, and how the fledgling cast members coped with filming their more intimate scenes. “I’m excited about this,” he says. “I haven’t talked about it in a while. And, you know, everybody’s point of view evolves.”

How do you see Fast Times differently now?

I went through this stage of saying, “Oh, it’s just a teenage comedy.” But I don’t see it that way anymore. I see it as a comedy about young sexuality, and as something that’s really authentic. For people that don’t know, Cameron Crowe masqueraded as a senior in a Long Beach High School to write an expose for Rolling Stone. We were so excited, because we knew that a lot of the dialogue was almost verbatim transcribed. That thing with Damone, his rules about how to get laid—Cameron didn’t wear a wire, but he ran into the boys room and furiously wrote that down because it was so great.

 Brad Hamilton starts out as this popular guy—but he’s not at all the stereotypical ‘80s jock or prep.

Tonally, I thought I was in a ‘70s film. That’s what I was excited about. The movies that made me want to be in movies were ‘70s films, and there was a very close overlap in this movie with the people that worked on them, like our legendary producer, Art Linson.

And then Amy Heckerling brought this new sensibility, because this was her very first feature.

Everybody adored Amy because they loved her student film, Getting it Over With. Amy was a humorist. I guess she was kind of a sexual renegade, because she was able to see men and women without judgment. To see sexuality without judgment, and with humor. She thought, I think it’s safe to say, that human sexuality is very funny. It was a terrific, respectful collaboration between Cameron and Amy and Art. It was a really happy set. I’ll always remember Amy and Cameron laughing at the monitor, and feeling like a million bucks, because we were bringing it to life, and they liked it.

Director Amy Heckerling and Reinhold on the set. (Courtesy Judge Reinhold)

 You weren’t the only contender for the role of Brad.

They would have cast Nic Cage in a second, but he was 17 years old, and they would have had to switch to child actor hours. I lived upstairs from Amy. She brought me in, but she told me not to tell Art that we knew each other, because if Art knew that we were friends, he probably wouldn’t take me seriously. He later on said, “Yes, she was right. I would have blown you off.” I went in there knowing that they wanted [Cage] but they couldn’t use him. So he wasn’t a threat. I read a few times, it was nerve-racking, and it came down to the final day. Art looks at me, and he goes, “Look how old he is. He’s as old as Ed Asner.” Like, I’m in the room! I’m like, oh my god. This is going on right in front of me.

[The producer] looks at me, and he goes, “Look how old he is. He’s as old as Ed Asner.” Like, I’m in the room! I’m like, oh my god. This is going on right in front of me.

How old were you?

I was 22. I had some footage of me in an after-school thing. So that helped them a lot. I didn’t see my age as an obstacle, maybe because of arrested development or something. I didn’t feel like I was that much older.

What were you reading?

I think it was a scene with the guidance counselor. It didn’t make the movie, and rightfully so, because it’s kind of redundant—Brad recounts to the guidance counselor everything that happened to him, and it’s like a “give me a break” scene, and I’m so glad they didn’t use it. But Art said, “You’re the only person that didn’t feel sorry for himself when he read.” I understood the tone of the movie. I didn’t realize, like, the big picture, that we were doing this American cultural statement. I just thought Brad was very, very cool. I wrote really bold on the front page [of my script]: “Brad is living the worst year of his life.”

That was my guide. How was he going to get through that? Everything is falling apart, but you got to keep doing the best you can. So that’s what Art saw, I think, that I saw Brad as a survivor and not a defeatist.

Is that something that came naturally to you—are you an optimist?

I’m a humorist. Humor will never let me crash. I saw Brad as hapless, and I love hapless. It kind of defined whatever work I did. Alan Arkin was my comedy god. Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, these were my gods. I understood Brad, and this is what I’ll tell my daughter, when she eventually sees the bathroom scene. If you take it out of context, it’s kind of seedy, I guess, but I didn’t see it that way, and neither did Amy. We saw it as, What’s the worst thing that could happen to Brad? This is another thing that just devastates him. That’s what I’m going to tell her, you gotta see it in context.

Oh, that’s going to be a fun watch.

Yeah. Right. I’m not gonna be there. [laughs]

Critics wanted this to be a teen sex romp, and it wasn’t. Even Roger Ebert just really didn’t get it.

Roger Ebert was a fan of mine! He gave me thumbs up so many times. Siskel and Ebert were my guys, they always got me when other people didn’t. But I get where he was at, because he was looking for light comedy. And Amy was not going to back off from that dark humor thing, which I love, that Roger didn’t cotton to.

Pauline Kael liked the film. She called me “Judge Reinhold, the young man with the old man’s name.” She said I was “a very affable actor, a charming cross between James Stewart and Donald Duck.” I wouldn’t have blown my own horn without the capper, but that’s what it said. And obviously I know it by memory because I love it so much.

To be anointed by Pauline Kael!

Oh my god, yes.

So Sean Penn: how Method was his Spicoli, really?

All I knew about him was that he was from Malibu, his dad was a TV director, his mom was an actress, but he was a surfer. So I didn’t know where the actor ended and the character began. And he didn’t let on until the last thing we shot, which was the Mi-T-Mart scene. Then he dropped it some, and he was just the most erudite, articulate [laughs]—and the way he was talking to Amy… I just thought, wow, what a trip.

He asked me to do the most Method thing, which I happily obliged because I was fascinated. He said, “Scream your lines to me, yell your lines to me.” I guess it created this barrier of pot that he had to, like, hear through? I don’t know why he asked me to do it. And he really annoyed the girls. He ignored them in kind of a stoned stupor, and they didn’t think he was nice. Honestly, he wasn’t mean, it’s just—how would Spicoli be about around women? Maybe sexist. He just saw girls from Playboy magazine, you know? That’s Spicoli’s reference. So that was Sean’s reference.

[Sean Penn] really annoyed the girls. He ignored them in kind of a stoned stupor, and they didn’t think he was nice. Honestly, he wasn’t mean, it’s just—how would Spicoli be about around women? Maybe sexist. He just saw girls from Playboy magazine, you know? That’s Spicoli’s reference. So that was Sean’s reference.

Did people form friend groups based on the roles that they had? Was he hanging out with Eric Stoltz and Anthony Edwards—and you with Nic Cage?

Yeah. Nic was quiet, and didn’t let on what he had going on. At this point, he was pretty insecure. I had him in my living room, sharing a bottle of wine—I guess he was underage, whatever [laughs]—he said, “What do you think? You think I have a chance?” I didn’t know, the part was too small. You know, they gave him the part of [the fry cook]. He confided in me and said, “Don’t feel bad, I’m grateful that you got [the part of Brad], because I think it would have been too much for me at this point.” He was very open, but also there was this world that he lived in that he hadn’t kind of defined. But he was very, very original and unique, and we didn’t really know what to make of him, I think that’s safe to say.

He asked me, “What do you think about me as an actor?”

I said, “Hey man, I think you’re great,” but I didn’t really know. I did tell him one thing that he told me years later he never forgot. And I’m surprised that I knew this at my age. I said, “Whatever you do, don’t do it halfway. Don’t make a half choice. You got to go all the way with what you choose.”

Well, I think he really took that and ran with it.

Boy, did he ever! [laughs] I’m not saying that was a seminal moment for him, but he told me he never forgot it when we worked together years later. There was a lot going on with him that he didn’t share. He just came out of left field. Sometimes we were annoyed, and I feel badly about that.

Just because he was more of a weirdo than a lot of the cast?

Yeah. My clique was Carrie [Frazier, Heckerling’s assistant and Reinhold’s girlfriend], [actor] Scott Thomson, Amy. And [director] Marty Brest was in and out of the picture. He had done the NYU movie Hot Tomorrows, which was like a legendary student film. He was in the Fast Times morgue scene—he plays the guy with the glasses who’s chewing gum. This was going to foreshadow my career so profoundly, because he directed Beverly Hills Cop. And Stuart Cornfeld, who was in the movie—he played my boss at Captain Hook’s Fish and Chips. And the comic Taylor Negron—he plays the guy who brought the pizza in [to Mr. Hand’s classroom]. So that was all Amy’s interesting group that I was a part of, because everybody was hanging out at her apartment downstairs.

Jennifer Jason Leigh was one of the youngest people in the cast, right?

Yeah. But she had done a popular TV movie about bulimia, The Best Little Girl in the World, which is why she got billing over us.

Jennifer Jason Leigh and Judge (Courtesy Judge Reinhold)

You and she were in the abortion sequence, which is so striking now, because it’s still one of the only cinematic representations of abortion that normalizes it. How did Amy pull this off with a major studio?

Maybe this is conjecture on my part, but I think it’s true: Universal was all wrapped up with The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. They had a lot of money thrown into it, and they weren’t paying attention to us. There was actually some evidence that they had forgotten about us. So we didn’t have suits freaking out. We didn’t have that presence.

Anyway, the suits flipped out [when they saw it]. They said, “This is gone.” Somebody really high up said, “This movie is pornography, we’re not going to release it.” And then Art got them to agree to release it, but in a more limited way. And they were so sorry, because they never really caught up to that release. They could have opened wide and had a major hit. But that scene wouldn’t have ended up in the movie had we had more studio intervention or the typical studio presence. I’m sure Art had something to do with keeping it.

Anyway, the suits flipped out [when they saw it]. They said, “This is gone.” Somebody really high up said, “This movie is pornography, we’re not going to release it.”

So that stays in, but Damone’s full frontal nudity gets cut from the pool house scene.

Oh yeah. You see, that that points to Amy’s sensibility. She was like, no judgment. This is men and women exploring sexuality. I think Bobby Romanus was probably concerned about shrinkage. He was so freaked out about [shooting] it. Jennifer was very comfortable with the nudity. She was kind of a hippie. She was from California.

I think Bobby Romanus was probably concerned about shrinkage. He was so freaked out about [shooting] it. Jennifer was very comfortable with the nudity. She was kind of a hippie. She was from California.

Speaking of scenes that people freaked out about—did you have much trepidation about shooting That Scene?

Not until the day. That day, I had to face off with fear. We started out with me standing. And there was something kind of creepy about it. It was too something, too seedy. I don’t think a male director would have figured this out. Amy said, “Get on your knees,” and that made me more vulnerable. So I did that, and it was funny. It felt less creepy. I did a couple takes, and then I jumped up and ran out. Because I was so embarrassed. And Amy came after me. I wasn’t going to split, I just had to take a breath. We’re walking around the block and she goes, “Judge, it’s a love scene. Only it’s with yourself.” And we laughed so much. She was my bud, and that was like the best thing that she could have done.

When Ben Stiller came out with There’s Something about Mary, people said to me, “Boy, I bet you feel relieved, now you’re no longer the most famous masturbator in movies.” I never really felt that way! People take it out of the context of it being one of many humiliating things in Brad’s senior year, and it still makes me queasy. Because then it’s seedy, right? But it was comically hilarious. That’s why I needed to do it. I felt really good about doing it, until I had to do it.

Phoebe freaked herself out, she thought there were people up on the roof spying with cameras. So I felt really bad. When she comes up to me and we hug, I put my arm up. She was still exposed, but I just felt protective of her. And it’s turned into one of the most paused moments in movies.

Were you and Phoebe Cates friendly by that point? What was her feeling going into the pool scene?

She was delightful, and so upbeat, but that was a tough day for her. My Southern boy thing came out and I wanted to protect her. She had been in the desert island movie The Blue Lagoon, and she realized she didn’t want to be defined that way. She got cold feet, and Amy really had to give her a talking to. Amy said, “This is in the script, honey.” Phoebe freaked herself out, she thought there were people up on the roof spying with cameras. So I felt really bad. When she comes up to me and we hug, I put my arm up. She was still exposed, but I just felt protective of her. And it’s turned into one of the most paused moments in movies.

Originally, the film ended with the prom and me dancing with Linda. But then they decided to end with the Mi-T-Mart scene because it’s a bigger ending. More exciting. And I thought it was kind of sad and funny that Brad was working the night of the prom. Really smart of them.

In that Mi-T-Mart scene, the actor who played the robber, Jimmy Russo, came in and never dropped that violent edge. He scared the crap out of us the whole time. A wonderful actor. He played Axel’s friend who gets murdered at the beginning of Beverly Hills Cop.

Your All American Burger scene, where you yell at the customer—it’s such a classic nice guy meltdown.

Hamilton with Hamilton (Courtesy Judge Reinhold)

You can’t know how you’re going to be appreciated later in life from your career. But I’m a fast food icon. I have kids, to this day, tell me, “I daydream of that scene, I daydream of saying that, a hundred times a day, to people.” I knew it was a great scene, like the anti-heroes of the ‘70s. I felt like I was Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces.

One way I felt really spoiled was that Amy was a great audience. And Cameron. I went on to work with Marty, who was such a good audience, too. Making Beverly Hills Cop, when we’d cut, he’d run up and say “That was great!” But the only time he really broke up was when Bronson Pinchot came in and did Serge. Marty was sitting on the camera operator seat and jiggled the dolly so much they had to get him off it, because he was ruining takes.

You had some early experience working with female directors. Did you find them to be notably different than male directors?

My first significant role was for Lee Grant, the great director and actress. I came in, I read, she goes, “You’re it, I love you. Let’s do it.” I feel like there’s a transparency that I have with female directors that I don’t have with guys. Guys can be very task-oriented and they want to conquer the hill and everything, and women care more about the quality of, like, how to get to the hill.

Also, Verna Fields, one of the great Hollywood unsung heroes, supervised the editing for Fast Times. Amy was blown away. Verna had edited El Cid in ‘61, she did Paper Moon. She did American Graffiti in ’73. Fast Times was one of her last movies. At that age I didn’t I think that it was a novelty or an anomaly to be working with these women. And I had to make this big adjustment later, because I was really spoiled.

You moved into this kind of masculine world of the Beverly Hills Cop movies. And the genius Ruthless People.

Well, that was the Zucker brothers. Three guys, the Airplane! guys. That was the only time that I read a script and said, yeah. If we just get out of the way, this is going to be a hit, because it came in so strong. That was the strongest script I’ve ever read, comically.

What were your thoughts on the celebrity-studded 2020 table read of Fast Times?

This was the best moment: Morgan Freeman was narrating the script. And he says: “BRAD IS JACKING OFF.” That was, like, one of the great laughs ever. Brad Pitt, although not as attractive as I am—he was really beaten down. He was too beaten down.

I didn’t get [Shia LaBeouf’s] Spicoli, I didn’t get what he was doing. Sean just likes anything that’s anarchist, so he got a kick out of that. But he was was doing, like, performance art.

He was milking it.
And I didn’t get [Shia LaBeouf’s] Spicoli, I didn’t get what he was doing. Sean just likes anything that’s anarchist, so he got a kick out of that. But he was was doing, like, performance art. But then, I did love The Peanut Butter Falcon. That’s one of my favorite movies of the last five years.

After exploding at a customer, Brad took a fish fry job, and someone captured Reinhold in costume on a Polaroid. (Courtesy Judge Reinhold)

There are some actors who are so good in certain parts that it feels almost forgivable that they’re awful in other ways.

I don’t think anybody wants to be that way. They don’t stop themselves where they should.

I mean, I know that territory. You gotta rein yourself in, you know? I had an alpha male thing that was rough for me. I had some mix-ups. You know, when your own personal baggage is interfering and you don’t even know you’re the last one to realize it. That’s something that I’ve had to reckon with.

So what are you up to these days?

[In January] I’m doing Laughter on the 23rd Floor, which I think is Neil Simon’s funniest play. It’s in my wife’s hometown, Little Rock. The play is based on Your Show of Shows, Sid Caesar’s 1950s variety show. It’s what Saturday Night Live came out of. I’m going to play the Sid Caesar role, Max Prince. Sid was wild, and emotionally unstable, which is fun, and wildly funny.

Is there anything else you want to say about the Fast Times era?

Looking back now, I wish… There were a lot of things, a lot of chances, I had that didn’t happen for one reason or another, just crazy circumstance. I kept on with the comedies and kind of resented the fact that I didn’t get a chance to do more Stella Adler, trained actor stuff, you know. But looking back, I realize that what they’ve done for people, what they actively do for people, is something that you really appreciate it when you’re a little older.

Dramatic movies can give you insight and move you, but comedies bring people together. When people talk to me about comedies I was in, they say where they were, they say who they were with. I was walking down Central Park West once, just across from the park, and this lady walked up to me and said, “My father just died two weeks ago, and we had just watched Beverly Hills Cop together. It’s the last time he laughed.” She said, “Thank you.”

I started to cry a little too, and the two of us were laughing and crying at the same time. Comedies are like emotional first responders.

[Editor’s note: A reader has pointed out that Reinhold misidentified the Phoebe Cates desert island picture as The Blue Lagoon. The Blue Lagoon (1980) starred Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins. Phoebe Cates, meanwhile, was the lead in 1982’s Paradise opposite 8 is Enough star and constant Scott Baio 1980s sidekick, Willie Ames. LAMag apologizes for any confusion — I.S.]


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