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'Breaking Away' was this actor's breakout role. Fans say it changed their lives, too

In 1979, critics and audiences alike were surprised when the film "Breaking Away," with its ostensibly goofy set-up — a young townie from Bloomington, Indiana, becomes obsessed with Italian cycling, and even passing as Italian himself — became one of the most lauded and beloved films of the year.

The film centers on Dave, the Italophile, and his working-class friends, known as "cutters," a word used to describe laborers who, for generations, have cut limestone in the local quarries. Idolizing Italy's cycling team, he pretends to be Italian — he teaches himself the language, belts out Italian songs at home, much to his father's annoyance), and woos a girl while posing as an exchange student. The story builds to a bike race, with this group of friends competing against more affluent Indiana University students in the same town.

But "Dave" was almost a bad Italian-American stereotype, says Dennis Christopher, the actor who brought the character to life.

"They dressed me up in skin-tight black pants, and a polyester shirt unbuttoned to my chest. They put gold chains around my neck. And they made my hair dark brown, and put it up in a pompadour," Christopher told an audience last month at the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville, Virginia, at a 40th anniversary screening of the movie.

Thankfully, he convinced the director he knew better how to play the role. "Breaking Away" took home an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, the Golden Globe for Best Film, and received many other nominations. Christopher — who himself is half-Italian but grew up in the United States — won the BAFTA Award for Most Promising Newcomer. The American Film Institute ranked "Breaking Away" as one of the most inspiring films of all time. It also featured two other actors who became big names in Hollywood: Dennis Quaid and Daniel Stern.

In the years since, the film's popularity has faded, but it remains a feel-good cult classic. At the Virginia Film Festival, it was greeted by a standing ovation and tears.

Christopher, who has appeared as a character actor in more than a dozen movies, including "Django Unchained," "It," and "Chariots of Fire," spoke with the PBS NewsHour after the screening. He discussed how he believes movies have lost their humanity over time, and why "Breaking Away" has touched so many.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Have you watched this movie in an audience before?

This is a pretty exuberant audience. I don't think anyone ever stood up before, except maybe to leave early. (laughter)

It's such a beautiful, beautiful, human film, and you were spectacular in it. There's so much I want to ask you, but I thought we could start by you telling me why you think Dave wants so badly to be Italian?

Well, it's the best! (laughter)

How old were you when you played Dave?

That's a trade secret. But I wasn't a boy, I can tell you that. That's a creation, that's not me. I had a bit of a career before this as a supporting guy, I was actually in a [Federico] Fellini film. I'd play these eclectic weirdo guy roles, as I was trying to figure out how to be a hippie and an actor at the same time.

I left another film I was working on to play this part. And when I got [to Indianapolis to play Dave] they dressed me up in skin-tight black pants, and a polyester shirt unbuttoned to my chest. They put gold chains around my neck. And they made my hair dark brown, and put it up in a pompadour.

This was their version of Italian.

Then they sent me out to shoot, and I'd never tried out the accent before in front of anybody because I missed the rehearsal, and I felt really uncomfortable. I couldn't even look at myself in the mirror. I couldn't understand why they hired me and what they wanted out of me when they changed me so radically.

I got up the next morning and went to the set. I had spent a sleepless night and called my agent asking to be out of the movie. And she said, "Are you kidding? This is a giant movie. You have to do this." I got out of the car and ran to the director, Peter Yates, who is British, and he embraced me and I burst into tears. I said: "I can't do this part, I don't know who this guy is, he seems like a cartoon to me, why would those other guys be my friend? The only thing missing is a trick-or-treat bag missing from my arm."

See, I'm half-Italian and I lived in Italy for a little while and even appeared in a Fellini movie —

You stumbled on that by accident, right?

Yeah, totally. I stumbled onto the filming on the street and walked right into the middle of the shot. I actually shut the picture down for awhile. Pigs, chickens, a parade down the street of weird people, had to all go back to one spot because of me. And then Fellini hired me to be in the movie. But that's a whole other story.

So anyway, then the Peter [Yates, the director] and the writer Steve [Tesich] came back to my hotel room to talk to me. And I said: "I'm half Italian, and I don't want to be in 'Saturday Night Live.'" I told them the reason Dave wants to be Italian is because he wants a family. He's trying to be Italian because he wants a family. You saw how reserved those people were in the film — his father and mother don't even embrace when they see each other. It's that Midwestern reserve kind of thing, at least that's how it was 40 years ago.

So Steve asked me: "Well, what about the big reveal when you tell [your girlfriend in the film], Catarina, that you're not Italian?" I said: "I can do that. I don't have to get out of drag to prove to her I'm a real person. I can do it with my voice, with my body." And they listened to me, I don't know why, but they did.

This was one of your relatively early films, yes?

Well, I'm trying to think when I stopped being a waiter (laughter). I was a character actor then, and I still am. I had done two pictures for Robert Altman before this, had worked for Fellini in Rome. I had a middle-class career as an actor. I left home when I was 17. It was not a good situation I grew up in, and I had to get out. I put myself through a year of college and then I thought, what the hell am I doing, I can't afford this. And I started acting, with my early experience in theater.

You said you wanted to a hippie or an actor — what was your attraction to that?

I wanted to be a hippie so bad. I was born at the tail end of the 1950s. It seemed like freedom to me. They were talking about things no one else was talking about, doing things others weren't. I know it seems silly in retrospect, but we did stop a war. (applause) And we did make people think about things they didn't think about before. So it wasn't a total waste of time.

Do you think movies can do something similar, in terms of shifting people's perspectives? Why do you think this film resonated the way it did?

Yeah for sure. But it just doesn't seem like there's a mingling between entertainment and learning anymore. There's so much in this movie that you don't have to get or learn to still be entertained and involved. But there is this lesson in it about class struggle, and you never see stories like that anymore. There's a story about how the father and mother grow closer together through this eccentric child. And there's a story about how all the male characters are examples of male doubt at this particular time in their lives.

Every character in the film has a beginning and an end — an arc. Nowadays they just stuff characters in the movies, they say one line, they upset the cart, and then they leave and you never see that character again. There doesn't seem to be the kind of respect for the script and the revelation of the characters as there was during the 1970s and the 1980s in film.

You feel like that's gone away to a certain extent.

It's so hard to get a picture done nowadays. It's not that I don't think superhero movies today aren't cinema (laughter), but there is something that's different now. This film is about humanity, and today the most important films are about political scandals and problems and trying to figure out through the cinema what is happening behind the scenes. I don't see movies anymore that are just centered on people, and the so-called small problems that we all have.

I miss that intimacy in pictures nowadays. I think TV has taken the place where you can get intimate with characters and you know they're going to show up next week. But it's hard to get invested in film these days. I don't even know who's killing who half the time.

So many of the themes in "Breaking Away" seem so current today. When you talked about the struggle with masculinity that the boys felt, the class struggle in the town, the difficult father-son relationship. What was the reaction like at the time to any of those themes? Did any of it surprise you?

You know, there were two films that broke the mold at the time, and it was us and "My Bodyguard." It's a great movie if you get a chance to see it. A small little human film.

And the critics embraced it, too. Pauline Kael embraced it. When the movie came out all the reviews were from the top critics. Made a lot of money for the amount of money they put into it. And so they realized these kinds of movies about young people could be profitable. "My Bodyguard" came out and "Breaking Away" came out and after that there was a whole slew of them — "The Breakfast Club," all the Molly Ringwald films, and "Airplane!" It was the first time studios realized they could make adult movies from young people. They've been doing so ever since.

So as films have changed over time, how has your process changed? How is it different now, if at all?

I'm smarter now and can see facets I couldn't see before. I don't think I really understood the class struggle in this movie when we shot it and it was made. Later on you see the work that Paul [Dooley] is doing, who plays the father in the film, for example even when he touches the stone of the bench when he sits down — [the limestone that he himself used to work with]. There are so many touchstones in this movie to reality. Like Jackie Earle Haley, [who plays Dave's friend "Mooch"], always looks when he leaves the room. He's always looking over his shoulder like something bad is about to happen. Those kind of things.

You know Dennis Quaid, [who plays Dave's friend "Mike" in the film], and I were so serious about being good actors back then. Sometimes that seriousness weighs you down a little bit. But I think when you're young and exuberant, it's good to be weighed down a little bit. And I think when you're older, it's good to give up a little bit.

Audience members also asked Christopher some questions.

I've been thinking about inspiration lately. When this film came out I watched it a couple of times. I watched it again today, and it was just as thrilling and inspiring as the beginning. You said some of your early family life was difficult. What is it about you that could inspire other people? Because I think that film had a lot to do with you.

I've seen a lot of people transition and pass away. I've been the gatekeeper of many of those things. That inspires me. I'm just not going to give up on anything. And I think it's important we all don't.

Also, so many things have been taken from us and been replaced by things we're supposed to buy. We used to have intuition, we used to have instinct, we used to have a moral code, even if it was just personal. I'm not talking about religion, I'm talking about something else. We used to have that going. Now we eat crappy food, we breathe crappy air, we drink crappy water. I just don't get it. But I'm not going to give up.

Right, but I just think there's something about you that exudes excitement, thrill and inspiration.

Well, I was lucky enough to get a job that I love to do. And that's so hard — to find that. I mean, I'm poor a lot. But I still love the work that I get to do when I do it. My bad start was kind of like an education. Struggle is a really good teacher, pain is a really good teacher. You can curse it or you can let it into your life and find out what's really going on behind it. You find out an awful lot about yourself when bad things happen. Bad things are really a form of evolution — or of surrender.

Did you realize the impact this movie was going to have on biking in America? This is the movie that got me into biking.

I did this movie 40 years ago, and it wasn't very remunerative, but I've been greeted with goodwill from all kinds of people that this movie affected ever since and I don't even know them. I mean how boss is that? (laughter)

Who gets to do a job for three months and it follows you the rest of your life? It's just amazing to have that introduction to the world. It's been a wonderful ride. I've heard so many stories about a woman who opened a bike shop to get out of an abusive relationship, men who left the corporate world to start cycling, people who found teaching, whatever it is, it's changed a lot of people's lives and made them take stock of what they're doing. I don't know how that happened, but boy am I glad that it did.

Correction: Screenwriter Steve Steve Tesich's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this article. PBS NewsHour regrets the error.

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