An oral history of The Outsiders
Francis Ford Coppola was feeling depressed. After enjoying great success with The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather Part II, and Apocalypse Now, the Oscar-winning director found himself facing financial ruin in 1982 after his romantic drama One From the Heart sputtered at the box office. A much-needed distraction came by way of librarian Jo Ellen Misakian and her young students from Fresno, Calif., who had cooked up Coppola's next project for him: a big-screen adaptation of The Outsiders, the 1967 novel about rival teenage gangs, the poor Greasers, and the wealthy Socs, who came from opposite sides of their Oklahoma town.
FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA (director): I got this big fat letter from a library-class teacher saying that these children had read a book they adored, which was S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders. They had chosen me to direct it. The reason the letter was so fat was because it had pages and pages of kids' signatures. I read the book and was very touched by the sentiments — it said something that I believe to this day: Young people are more than qualified if you give them the opportunity to collaborate with us on a work of art. They more than come through.
S.E. (SUSAN) HINTON (author, special consultant): I wrote the book when I was 16 so I thought, "Oh boy, I get to fix everything that needs to be fixed!" I'd rewrite some dialogue and Francis would say, "Susie, is this in the book?" I'd say, "No, Francis, but it's better." He said, "No, we're doing this for the kids who love the book." That was my big problem working with him — he wanted to make it just like the book.
COPPOLA: I really took the prospect of directing a film that kids wanted to see as a refreshing return to my camp counselor days. So I went off to Tulsa.
Coppola, a huge proponent of open casting calls (that's how he discovered Abe Vigoda for The Godfather), welcomed just about every young Hollywood up-and-comer to audition. Some of the actors who eventually joined the cast, including Patrick Swayze (Darry Curtis), Matt Dillon (Dallas Winston), Rob Lowe (Sodapop Curtis), Tom Cruise (Steve Randle), and Emilio Estevez (Two-Bit Matthews), would later be described by New York magazine as founding members of the infamous Hollywood Brat Pack.
COPPOLA: The casting process was always very important to me to give people a chance to meet me, the director face to face, and not have to go through a casting director. I make it my business to shake everyone's hand and look them in the eye.
RALPH MACCHIO (Johnny Cade): Timothy Hutton, Sean Penn, Dennis Quaid, Mickey Rourke…it was a movie everybody wanted to be in. Leif Garrett was probably the most famous guy who walked in. Scott Baio came in one day.
COPPOLA: We had them all sit around in front of me, and I'd say, "Okay, you come down and read Sodapop." No one loves acting and actors more than actors. It was competitive. But it only spurred them on.
C. THOMAS HOWELL (Ponyboy Curtis): Francis would point to somebody and say, "now you go." It would be Val Kilmer.
LEIF GARRETT (Bob Sheldon): It was all day long, and it was a process of elimination. I really wanted to be Ponyboy, because that's the role. But I wasn't right for it. I'm not that greasy. I was a cocky teen idol at the time, going through crazy emotional stuff with my girlfriend, Nicollette Sheridan.
HOWELL: My father was a professional bull rider for 10 years and I was California state all-around champion in the junior rodeo. So my whole plan was to just be a real professional cowboy. So when I would go in and meet people like Francis Ford Coppola, I really just wanted to be with my horse. I wasn't a young actor being pushed by Hollywood stage parents into acting class. I mean, I was wearing a fricking Sesame Street shirt in my audition. Everybody there looked like John Stamos with dark hair and blue eyes and they were taller than me. I turned to my daddy and said, "I'm not going to get this. Let's just go."
DIANE LANE (Cherry Valance): I think I couldn't come to audition because I was filming a film with Kenny Rogers in Atlanta. Then I was going to Oklahoma to bring this amazing novel to the screen for a director of a caliber that I couldn't appreciate. I was 17.
COPPOLA: Diane Lane pretty much had the role from day one because of her beautiful work in A Little Romance.I knew she was the right one before we even met her.
MICHELLE MEYRINK (Marcia, Cherry's friend): When I was 11, we were in the Dominican Republic for three years and I hung around the hotel when they filmed The Godfather Part II. I was into Paper Moon so I reenacted it for Francis. When I was 18, I wrote to Francis. I auditioned for the role of Cherry and got Marcia. I graduated high school in Abbotsford, BC outside of Vancouver. So I basically went from that to a hotel with all these guys that I had only seen only in teen magazines. It was a huge adjustment.
Filming took place on location in Tulsa. To help deepen the rift between the two gangs, Coppola gave the actors playing Socs better rooms, better transportation, and even higher per diems than the working-class Greasers. But the young cast — with the exception of Macchio, who preferred to keep to himself so he could focus on his role — still liked to hang together off-screen.
MACCHIO: I worked very hard and was maybe a little too serious.
LANE: I just remember there were lots of pranks going on. You know, like flaming dog poop. I mean, it's like wrangling kittens, trying to get a bunch of teenagers to be in a movie together.
GARRETT: We used to have rumbles in the lobby. Tom Cruise and I used to a box in the area by the elevators. I do remember it was a dry county. We had to have bottle socks! That tells a little bit about my personal debauchery.
MEYRINK: I remember Rob Lowe braiding my hair. It was just so unusual. I never had a guy braid my hair before. Everyone would gather in Patrick Swayze's room and talk about their roles. I remember going out to a nightclub and suddenly people realized that Matt Dillon was there, and the room went crazy. Guys wanted to beat him up because all the girls liked him. Tom Cruise was very serious, very focused. I remember that right after he had gotten Risky Business, I had an audition and I was nervous. I told him I didn't know whether [she should mention her small role in The Outsiders]. He said, "Just lie. Tell them you had this major role. If you get the part, it doesn't matter. They won't care."
HINTON: I had a lot of fun. I was the boys' den mother. I just took care of them. Francis asked for my opinion. I didn't volunteer one. I've heard him saying that's what he likes about Susie. She always has an opinion, if you ask her it.
COPPOLA: I found Susie Hinton to be a delightful person who was enthusiastic and loved being around the process. She loved those boys that were playing her characters. She became very much a part of the inner sanctum.
Coppola strove for realism, so Howell and Macchio — whose characters go on the lam after Johnny fatally stabs a Soc — really did cut each other's hair with a knife in a memorable scene. Even spur-of-the-moment accidents on set ended up making it into the movie.
MACCHIO: Tommy could not wait for his chance to get back at me for cutting his hair. It hurt. Even though the knife was sharp, it's still not scissors. There's a reason why when you get a haircut, they don't pull out a switchblade.
HOWELL: There's a moment at the beginning of the movie when we're at the drive-in theater and Matt Dillon leans back in his chair and falls. I turn and laugh right into the camera. I thought they would cut, right? Well, of course, Francis doesn't, because those are the moments that he searches for.
LANE: We were lucky nobody broke character.
HOWELL: There's another beautiful moment when we're in the church and we're hiding for the first time. On the second or third take, they're pushing a dolly across this decrepit church and the grip falls through the floor and makes a noise. I turn and stare right at him. And in that moment, I turned back to Johnny and [said], "Are you awake? I think there's a monster outside," because I don't know how to ad-lib. I'm 14! And [Johnny] goes, "It's okay," and puts my coat around me or something. Well, Coppola uses that take and cuts to a little raccoon that's breaking off a piece of wood at the church. That's what I learned from Francis at a young age — to hunt for those accidents. Francis took me aside and said "never break, no matter what happens." It was the greatest acting lesson I ever received ever in my life, to this day. He said, "I don't care if a herd of buffalo is running through the middle of the set. When I'm working with Marlon Brando, he would just turn and say, 'look at the pretty buffalo' and continue with his dialogue."
GARRETT: It was a long couple of nights [when Coppola shot Bob's death scene by the fountain]. Francis was in his Airstream with a hot tub, a gourmet kitchen, his wines, and a bunch of monitors. He was nice and warm. Meanwhile, I'm laying on the ground soaking wet going "dude, let's go." He says, "can you not shake as much please?" I'm like, "I've got hypothermia."
Released on March 25, 1983, The Outsiders ultimately grossed $25 million at the box office, a decent return on a modest budget. It clocked in at just 90 minutes. Coppola says several pivotal scenes were left on the cutting room floor due to "time restraints" imposed by the studio. Fans immediately noticed the absence of one of the novel's more intimate moments, when Sodapop (Rob Lowe) embraces his brother Ponyboy in their shared bed. That's what compelled Coppola to restore 22 more minutes and release The Outsiders: The Complete Novel in 2005. (Lowe declined to comment for this article.)
COPPOLA: At the time it was not a friendly relationship with the then-regime that ran Warner Bros.
HINTON: I was horrified. Francis got so many letters from kids saying, "Why did you leave out this part?" Poor Rob Lowe must have thought [his performance] was horrible. It depressed him for a long time.
MACCHIO: A big part of his third-act monologue was cut.
LANE: I think [Warner Bros.] was concerned about not having one extra showing of the movie in theaters.
COPPOLA: In those days, I was a little bit leery myself of such a beautiful boy like Sodapop in bed, hugging his brother. It was only later when I took the film to be shown to my granddaughter's class that I realized the kids knew the book better than the film expressed. Where is the scene with Sodapop in bed with Ponyboy where they talk about what it's like to be in love? All those scenes that I was a little frightened of? I understood that I was naive in my views. The subject that we're speaking of is more complicated but beautiful, more human. So I happily put back some of the scenes. I, as well as everybody else in the world, had a lot to learn about the beauty and complexity of the human heart.
MACCHIO: My brother and I are a couple of years apart. There was some form of affectionate comfort. I did not find that scene out of the realm of reality.
HOWELL: I don't know what this stuff means, but I get kids all the time asking, "Do you ship Ponyboy and Johnny? Are they gay?" How do you answer that? And why does it even matter? These kids are hurting. They're trying to figure out who they are.
HINTON: In 1966, guys were not concerned about showing each other affection.
COPPOLA I continue to listen to young people and their opinions, so the complete version of the novel is for them.
A new 4K restoration of The Outsiders: The Complete Novel was released in theaters in September and is streaming now on HBO Max.
COPPOLA: I felt [the original cut] was a little too sweet and saccharine for my taste, partly because of the music. I told my father [composer Carmine Coppola] that he could have a score like Gone With the Wind, and he went to town. Although I must say that the song from Stevie Wonder, Stay Gold, is absolutely beautiful. But I wanted to make a little more variation to the music, to have music the Greasers were listening to like early Elvis Presley, not only lush score. I did that in the new version. I think the music helps to balance the sweetness of the movie with a little more of the grittiness of the Greasers.
MACCHIO: It's great for the fans. You just get more footage of all these actors who had such great trajectories in their careers over the next thirtysomething years.
LANE: I'm grateful for the message of the movie, which is basically the reason why it was petitioned by the students for Francis to direct. That was very good taste on their part.
GARRETT: There are two things that I'm very proud of in my life. One is being inducted into the cowboy hall of fame for a movie-of-the-week I did for NBC called Peter Lundy and the Medicine Hat Stallion. The other is The Outsiders.
HINTON: This is one of the rare cases of the book selling a movie because teachers teach it every year. There's a new audience every year because at the end of the class, a lot of times they show the movie.
HOWELL: I see so many Stay Gold tattoos. It's the most beautiful fan moment for me when I meet women who are in their 40s and I watch them turn into their 13-year-old selves when they talk about The Outsiders. It's still a very important part of my life.
A version of this story appears in Entertainment Weekly's January issue. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.