The Last American Hero (1973)

PG | 95 or 100-101 mins | Biography, Drama | 1973

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HISTORY

The film is loosely based on two Tom Wolfe articles about Junior Johnson that originally appeared in Esquire magazine: “Clean Fun at Riverhead," (date undetermined), and "The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson: Yes!," (Mar 1965). Both articles were included in his book The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby , published in 1965. Johnson, whose full name is Robert G. Johnson, was a mechanical genius who became an anti-Establishment folk hero in 1963 when he earned $100,000 driving his own car in stock car races.
       The pressbook discloses that star Jeff Bridges had never been in a stock car before filming, and that director Lamont Johnson coached him from the floor of the car as he drove with the pro drivers. Johnson also played a small, uncredited role as the motel desk clerk. The character of “Marge Dennison,” played by Valerie Perrine, was a composite character based on the many female track followers. The Last American Hero was the first feature film photographed by George Silano, who previously had worked on documentaries, mostly for television.
       According to the production notes, the primary location for shooting, and the film’s base of operation was Charlotte, NC, with one week of pre-production footage shot at stock car and demolition derby races at Hickory and Concord, NC and Martinsville, VA. Other locations included the Manger Motor Inn, where the company was headquartered, the Union-Jefferson tower, Concord jail and the Bailey farm in Mount Holly, representing Junior’s family home. An item in Var stated that Twentieth-Century-Fox conducted an intensive publicity campaign in the southeast United States that included promotional ... More Less

The film is loosely based on two Tom Wolfe articles about Junior Johnson that originally appeared in Esquire magazine: “Clean Fun at Riverhead," (date undetermined), and "The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson: Yes!," (Mar 1965). Both articles were included in his book The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby , published in 1965. Johnson, whose full name is Robert G. Johnson, was a mechanical genius who became an anti-Establishment folk hero in 1963 when he earned $100,000 driving his own car in stock car races.
       The pressbook discloses that star Jeff Bridges had never been in a stock car before filming, and that director Lamont Johnson coached him from the floor of the car as he drove with the pro drivers. Johnson also played a small, uncredited role as the motel desk clerk. The character of “Marge Dennison,” played by Valerie Perrine, was a composite character based on the many female track followers. The Last American Hero was the first feature film photographed by George Silano, who previously had worked on documentaries, mostly for television.
       According to the production notes, the primary location for shooting, and the film’s base of operation was Charlotte, NC, with one week of pre-production footage shot at stock car and demolition derby races at Hickory and Concord, NC and Martinsville, VA. Other locations included the Manger Motor Inn, where the company was headquartered, the Union-Jefferson tower, Concord jail and the Bailey farm in Mount Holly, representing Junior’s family home. An item in Var stated that Twentieth-Century-Fox conducted an intensive publicity campaign in the southeast United States that included promotional posters co-sponsored with an oil company in 10,500 gas stations.
       A 27 Apr 1973 DV article reported on a controversy about the writing credits for the film. William Kerby, who contributed four key scenes to Bill Roberts’ screenplay, was refused a credit by the WGA and, despite the support of Johnson and Bridges, who attempted to appear before an arbitration committee, Roberts received sole credit. A 17 Oct 1973 Var article reported that when the film did poorly during its initial New York City run in Jul 1973, it was pulled after one week. However, according to a Feb 2006 NYT article about the film, Fox, encouraged by a favorable review from New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, re-released it in the fall of 1973. The NYT article also stated that Fox was unhappy with the character-driven aspect that Johnson had given the project and re-edited the film without his knowledge. According to the article, Fox had initially released the film in a few Southern theaters in the spring of 1972 under the title Hard Driver , but no contemporary information has been found to verify that title or exhibition dates.
       According to a 7 Feb 1974 HR news item, the popularity of Jim Croce’s song “I Got a Name,” which was recorded for the film and was a hit continuing after Croce’s death in Sep 1973, prompted Fox to consider re-releasing the film under the song title; however, no contemporary sources confirm that this happened. More Less

SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Box Office
4 Dec 1972.
---
Box Office
18 Jun 1973.
---
Box Office
2 Jul 1973
p. 4604.
Hollywood Reporter
26 Oct 1972.
---
Hollywood Reporter
11 Jun 1973
p. 3, 6.
Hollywood Reporter
25 Jul 1973.
---
Hollywood Reporter
7 Feb1974.
---
Los Angeles Herald Examiner
29 Aug 1973.
---
Los Angeles Herald Examiner
27 Sep 1973.
---
New York Times
28 Jul 1973
p. 16.
New York Times
26 Feb 2006.
---
New Yorker
1 Oct 1973.
---
Newsweek
13 Aug 1973.
---
Time
24 Sep 1973.
---
Variety
11 May 1973.
---
Variety
13 Jun 1973
p. 16.
Variety
17 Oct 1973.
---
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXT
A Joe Wizan/Rojo Production
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Asst dir
2d asst dir
Asst dir trainee
PRODUCERS
Exec prod
Prod
WRITERS
Addl wrt
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
Cam op
Gaffer
Key grip
Chief elec
Stills
ART DIRECTOR
Art dir
FILM EDITORS
Supv ed
Film ed
SET DECORATORS
Set dec
Prop master
COSTUMES
MUSIC
SOUND
Sd mixer
Sd re-rec
Boom op
MAKEUP
Makeup artist
Hairdresser
PRODUCTION MISC
Consultant & tech adv
Unit prod mgr
Scr supv
Casting, Los Angeles
Casting, New York
Transportation capt
Unit pub
STAND INS
Stunt coord
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the articles "Clean Fun at Riverhead" and "The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson: Yes!" by Tom Wolfe, in his book The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (New York, 1965).
AUTHOR
SONGS
"I Got a Name," music by Charles Fox, lyrics by Norman Gimbel, sung by Jim Croce.
PERFORMER
DETAILS
Alternate Title:
Hard Driver
Release Date:
1973
Premiere Information:
New York opening: 27 July 1973
Production Date:
16 October--2 December 1972 in Charlotte, NC
Copyright Claimant:
Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp.
Copyright Date:
13 July 1973
Copyright Number:
LP43209
Physical Properties:
Sound
Westrex Recording System
Color
DeLuxe
Widescreen/ratio
Panavision
Duration(in mins):
95 or 100-101
MPAA Rating:
PG
Country:
United States
Language:
English
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

Elroy “Junior” Jackson speeds through the backwoods of the rural South in his Mustang, arriving home to help his father Elroy, Sr. and brother Wayne put their moonshine whiskey into bottles. When the boys joke about a policeman named Collins, their father admonishes them to treat the man with respect. On that night’s delivery run, Junior evades arrest by listening to the police on his CB radio and eventually running a roadblock which forces Collins to jump into a watery ditch. The next day, Collins retaliates by blowing up Mr. Jackson’s still and arresting him. When Wayne informs Junior that his humiliation of Collins has put their father in prison, Junior goes to the jail with a lawyer, attempting to take responsibility for the incident, but his father stoically accepts his fate. The lawyer advises Mr. Jackson to renounce bootlegging in court to lessen his sentence, but Mr. Jackson refuses on principal, arguing that everyone at city hall drinks his whiskey. The next day, Junior talks to a racing promoter named Hackel about entering the demolition derby in order to raise money for his father’s defense. Hackel ridicules the backwoods boy, but Junior persists and is allowed to compete. Junior’s brother and friends help him prepare an old car for derby day with a spike to project from the grill so that he can ram his competitors’ vehicles, an innovation that excites the crowd and wins him two hundred dollars. Invited to the next derby, Junior replies that he will enter the stock car race instead and again Hackel scoffs at him. To prove his skill, Junior ... +


Elroy “Junior” Jackson speeds through the backwoods of the rural South in his Mustang, arriving home to help his father Elroy, Sr. and brother Wayne put their moonshine whiskey into bottles. When the boys joke about a policeman named Collins, their father admonishes them to treat the man with respect. On that night’s delivery run, Junior evades arrest by listening to the police on his CB radio and eventually running a roadblock which forces Collins to jump into a watery ditch. The next day, Collins retaliates by blowing up Mr. Jackson’s still and arresting him. When Wayne informs Junior that his humiliation of Collins has put their father in prison, Junior goes to the jail with a lawyer, attempting to take responsibility for the incident, but his father stoically accepts his fate. The lawyer advises Mr. Jackson to renounce bootlegging in court to lessen his sentence, but Mr. Jackson refuses on principal, arguing that everyone at city hall drinks his whiskey. The next day, Junior talks to a racing promoter named Hackel about entering the demolition derby in order to raise money for his father’s defense. Hackel ridicules the backwoods boy, but Junior persists and is allowed to compete. Junior’s brother and friends help him prepare an old car for derby day with a spike to project from the grill so that he can ram his competitors’ vehicles, an innovation that excites the crowd and wins him two hundred dollars. Invited to the next derby, Junior replies that he will enter the stock car race instead and again Hackel scoffs at him. To prove his skill, Junior times himself on the track that night and is so fast that he is allowed to enter. During the race, Junior amazes the crowd with his fearless driving and wins first prize. Afterward, Junior drives to city hall to attend his father’s trial, but discovers that the trial has ended and his father sentenced to a year in prison for refusing to denounce moonshine. Unaware that his mother is in attendance, Junior wins his eighth race on Hackel’s track, which ends with another driver attacking Junior over his aggressive maneuvers. After the fight, Hackel brands Junior a troublemaker and orders him never to return, to which Junior retorts that he is a star and will race at the more prestigious Hickory track. That night, worried about Junior’s safety, Wayne and his mother urge him to take a job as a garage mechanic, which he angrily refuses. During Junior’s next visit to the jail, when his father tells him that “one man’s foolishness is the breath of life to another,” Junior realizes that only his father understands him and gives him his trophy. Needing money for a faster car, Junior continues delivering moonshine, now in a truck with a tank that he and Wayne have equipped with a release valve that dumps the whiskey onto the road if the police get too close. However, when the sons proudly tell their father about the invention, he chastises them for antagonizing the police. Junior arrives at the Hickory track to announce to the owner Morley and racing star Kyle Kingman that he will win the next race, but Morley, who knows Junior’s reputation, replies that he has declined Junior’s entry. In response, Junior surprises Morley by producing a pit pass and a rule book that states he has a right to qualify. After successfully completing his trial run, Junior goes into the office where he meets Morley’s friendly assistant, Marge Dennison, and thanks her for sending him the pass and rulebook. As Junior signs the entry papers, Marge tells him about his motel accommodations and puts his name on the list for the buffet, adding that he can bring a guest. When Junior invites Marge to dinner and she replies that she has a date, he grins and says he does not discourage easily. That evening, when Junior checks into the motel he finds that Marge has gotten him a discount on his room and has flowers delivered to her. As he is getting out of the shower, Junior, wearing only a towel, is flustered when Marge knocks and enters, thanking him for the flowers and flirting while he dresses for dinner. At the buffet and party, Marge dances with Kingman while Junior sees driver Rick Penny arguing with his manager, Burton Colt. When Penny complains to Junior afterward, Junior disdainfully suggests he work for himself and as Junior drives Marge home, he derides the other drivers as hired jockeys. After dropping Marge off, Junior goes into a recording booth where he makes record for his family, telling them about Hickory and finally apologizing to his father, saying that he loves him, but throws the record in the trash as he leaves. Back in his room, Junior calls Marge and is shocked when Kingman answers, but is later cheered when his friends show him their new team jackets emblazoned with his name. The day of the race, Junior sees Marge waving from the stands and sadly realizes that she is waving at Kingman. The race begins and Junior pulls ahead with his friends cheering him on, while Penny falls behind as his manager bullies him over a radio. When Junior’s car catches fire he is unhurt, but is unable to complete the race, which Kingman wins. Impressed with Junior’s driving, Colt takes advantage of the destruction of his car by offering to make him one of his drivers, but Junior refuses to be bought, vowing to get a new car and beat Colt and everyone else. While celebrating Kingman’s victory with him, Marge meets his wife, who makes it clear that Marge should end the affair with her husband. Calmly accepting this, Marge turns to Junior and they proceed to her apartment where they have sex. They are startled when their romantic conversation is interrupted by Kingman unlocking the door, but Kingman smiles and tosses his key to Junior for future use. Later back home, Mr. Jackson returns from jail, but when his sons show him their new underground still, he angrily destroys it, saying he does not want Junior to risk his racing career by bootlegging. When Junior retorts that he needs money for a new car, his father slaps him, saying that Elroy Jackson, Jr. will find a way. Seeing no alternative, Junior offers to drive for Colt in exchange for fifty percent of the prize money. Colt inflexibly counters with his terms of thirty percent and demands that Junior wear his uniform, drive his car and use his crew. Junior eventually accepts and begins the Hickory 500 race with Colt coaching him through an earpiece, which Junior soon discards and proceeds to race his own way. Junior and Kingman compete for the lead throughout the grueling contest until Junior finally triumphs. In the winner’s circle, Junior is joined by his friends and Colt. As they are celebrating, Marge congratulates Junior and although he is relieved that she is no longer with Kingman, he sadly watches her leave with another driver. When Colt threatens to dock half of Junior’s three thousand dollar prize for insubordination, Junior grabs the trophy, saying that his talent gives him the power in their relationship. Junior then informs Colt that he will continue racing for him only if he can retain sixty percent of future prize money and use his own car and crew. As his brother and friends enjoy skipping stones, Junior walks alone into a press conference as flashbulbs pop and is asked where Junior Jackson is going next. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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