"American Graffiti" turns 40

"American Graffiti" was released Aug. 11, 1973.
Universal Pictures

In 1972, a relatively unknown filmmaker named George Lucas began shooting a low-budget joyride comedy from a screenplay he had written.

The story was set in Modesto, Calif., during the late summer of 1962 and centered on a group of music-loving teens spending one last night together before heading off to college.

Met with disapproval from studio executives, Lucas titled the film "American Graffiti."

Told in a series of vignettes, "American Graffiti" featured a cast of actors who had not yet entered the spotlight at the time, including Ron Howard, Richard Dreyfuss and Harrison Ford. Aside from producer Francis Ford Coppola (who was just coming off the success of "The Godfather"), the only household names in the credits were the rock-n-roll stars featured on the film's soundtrack, which included more than 40 classic songs from the era.

With its somewhat unique premise and then-unknown cast, Universal Studios had such little faith in the film's potential that executives shelved it for six months after it was completed. When "American Graffiti" finally cruised into theaters on Aug. 11, 1973, the studio heads were proven wrong.

"American Graffiti" garnered five Oscar nominations in 1974, including a nod for best picture.

With a budget of a little over $777,000, Lucas' passion project eventually grossed $115 million-plus in theaters, while pulling in an additional $55 million in video rental sales throughout the years.

The film was deemed a box office smash upon release and its cast, along with Lucas, were launched into stardom.

In 1979, most of the cast members (with the notable exception of Dreyfus) reunited for "More American Graffiti," which was considered a disappointment among fans and critics. Lucas did not direct the sequel.

Four years after "Graffiti," Lucas became a bona fide Hollywood legend with the release of "Star Wars," one of the most successful films of all time. Five sequels followed, all under Lucas' supervision, and in 2012 Lucas sold the franchise to Disney for $4 billion.

Ford found huge success with Lucas' "Star Wars" franchise in the role of Han Solo, a character he is expected to reprise in the planned "Episode VII" sequel. At 71, Ford continues to stay busy with other upcoming roles in a reported fifth "Indiana Jones" installment, as well the "Expendables 3."

Howard also enjoyed a lucrative career in Hollywood. The year after "American Graffiti" was released, the former "Andy Griffith Show" child star was then cast as Richie Cunningham in the hit series, "Happy Days," which, like "Graffiti," also focused on nostalgia, teens, hot rods and a drive-in. Howard then went on to become a prominent director behind films including "Splash," "Apollo 13" and "A Beautiful Mind." Howard serves as the executive producer and narrator of the TV series, "Arrested Development."

Some of the other cast members from "Graffiti" have also been keeping busy over the years. Check out our photo gallery at the top of this story to see what other stars like Dreyfuss, Suzanne Somers and Candy Clark have been up to since they last ate at Mel's Drive-In.

Tell us: Are you a fan of "American Graffiti"?

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    Ken Lombardi is an entertainment reporter for CBS News. He has interviewed over 300 celebrities, including Clint Eastwood, Oprah Winfrey and Tom Hanks.