Jackie Earle Haley, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Christopher, and Daniel Stern reassemble the cutters

October 05, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT

It was a scorching August day when the stars of the 1979 film Breaking Away reunited at a velodrome in Los Angeles, but that didn’t stop Dennis Quaid from jumping on his bike and doing some laps. That’s the kind of power this beloved coming-of-age sports movie — about a teenage Midwestern misfit who dreams of becoming a world-class cycling champion, much to his father’s consternation — still packs after more than 30 years. And the behind-the-scenes tale of how this low-budget movie with no huge stars (which was originally titled Bambino) managed to become a sleeper hit and earn five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, is an uplifting underdog story in its own right. Seeing one another again more than three decades later, the movie’s cast picked up just where they’d left off — especially the four actors who played the townie friends called ”cutters” in reference to their working-class limestone-cutter dads. ”The camaraderie was right back in place,” says Dennis Christopher. ”We’re all aware of how people love this movie and hold it in their hearts. But what was nice for us was remembering the love we had for each other.”

Dennis Christopher (Dave Stoller)

Christopher still owns one of the original Masi racing bikes his character rides in Breaking Away and brought it with him to EW’s reunion shoot. ”I had it restored, and it’s been stuck up on the wall as an art piece for these many years,” he says. Christopher spent many a rear-end-numbing hour on the bike during the making of the film in Bloomington, Ind. — though a few of the shots in the movie are actually of his double, Garry Rybar, an accomplished cyclist. ”When you see massive calves, that’s not me,” Christopher says. ”When it cuts back to skinny calves, then you know it’s me.” The actor’s Golden Globe-nominated performance as the cycling-obsessed small-town teen gave his career a boost, but in the wake of the film’s success, he chose to veer from the conventional leading-man path (his next starring role was as a serial killer in the 1980 horror film Fade to Black). ”The cult of celebrity turned me off, and when the opportunities came along to play different characters, that’s what I went for,” says the 56-year-old, who went on to work in TV and smaller movies. As it turns out, Christopher had a big fan all along in Quentin Tarantino, who cast him as a lawyer in the upcoming Western Django Unchained. ”Quentin said, ‘I’ve seen every movie you’ve ever done the week that it’s opened.’ I said, ‘Really? You saw Dead Women in Lingerie?’ He said, ‘With a title like that, how could I not?”’

Dennis Quaid (Mike)

Quaid had no idea that landing the supporting role of an embittered former high school quarterback in Breaking Away would end up being a pivotal moment in his career. ”You have to understand — I just wanted a job back then,” he says. ”It wasn’t like now, where people ask me, ‘How do you choose your roles?’ I was struggling at that point.” The 58-year-old actor, currently starring on the CBS drama Vegas, still sounds stunned when he thinks back on the acclaim that greeted what he’d thought was just a tiny, under-the-radar film. ”When it came out, I remember driving to a theater in Westwood with my brother [Randy] and his girlfriend, and there was a line around the block. I was like, ‘How did all these people know about this movie?’ It was shocking!”

Jackie Earle Haley (Moocher)

Haley initially went in to read for the lead role of Dave, but director Peter Yates decided to cast him as Moocher, a brooding teen with an explosive temper. That temper was on full display in a scene in which Moocher quits a job at a car wash after the boss calls him Shorty, and smashes the time clock with his fist. ”That was a great scene,” says Haley, 51, who will next play the Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens in Steven Spielberg’s period epic Lincoln. ”So many people can identify with that — not necessarily that they’ve done it, but they’ve wanted to.”

Daniel Stern (Cyril)

When Yates (who died last year) cast him as the lanky oddball Cyril, Stern was unaware of what was in store for him. ”I was a theater rat, and this was my first movie,” he says. ”At the read-through, I remember stuffing my pockets with free food because I was a starving actor.” On the Breaking Away set, Stern, 56 — who will return to his theater roots in January in The Other Place on Broadway — learned something important from watching Haley, who’d vaulted to teen stardom three years earlier as bad boy Kelly Leak in The Bad News Bears. ”Girls would be out on the street waving at Jackie,” Stern says. ”I was like, ‘Oh, that’s what we’re doing here: trying to get the girls to wave at us!”’

Paul Dooley (Ray Stoller)

The cantankerous, closed-minded father who’s bewildered by his son’s love of cycling was the first of many screen dads Dooley would play — including, most memorably, Molly Ringwald’s father in Sixteen Candles. ”I’ve probably played about 40 fathers since Breaking Away,” says the actor, 84, who recently wrapped work on an independent drama called Xander Cohen. The role hit close to home for Dooley. ”It reminded me so much of my own father: withholding, forbidding, repressed.” The moment when Ray finally hugs his weeping son struck an especially deep chord: ”The embrace was really me hugging myself.”

Barbara Barrie (Evelyn Stoller)

When she first read the part of Dave’s kindhearted mom, Barrie didn’t have a clear fix on her character’s relationship with her son. ”I called the director and said, ‘There’s no scene between the mother and the boy. We don’t even say, Do you want breakfast?”’ says the actress, 81, who most recently appeared on the HBO series Enlightened. Screenwriter Steve Tesich (who died in 1996) wrote a new scene in which Evelyn reveals to her restless son that she secretly keeps her passport in her purse at all times — and thanks in no small part to that touching moment, Barrie earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. (Tesich later won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar.) ”We had no idea this movie was going to become what it became,” Barrie says. ”But it had so much humanity. It’s a movie about American life: about the haves and have-nots, about the idea that you can do anything if you try hard enough.”

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