InterView- Mackenzie Phillips

By Chris Murphy

Back in the day when I was cruising, all of the little sisters and brothers wanted to go along. Rarely did this ever happen, and babysitting was not the goal when you were cruising. One of the most famous little sisters to ever go cruising was Carol Morrison, the Dewey Weber surfboard t-shirt wearing 12-year old in American Graffiti. This was one of the best/worst tricks in the book when John Milner was trying to get a date with one of the girls in the car was surprised when little sister Carol jumps out, and quickly jumps in the 32 Deuce Coupe. And the rest is history on one of the most famous nights in all of film.

I got to speak with American Graffiti star Mackenzie Phillips by phone to learn some more about her experiences making American Graffiti. She began her film career at the age of 12 and went on to star in the hit TV series One Day at a Time that made her a household name along with other series and episode roles. She recently starred in Orange is the new Black. Mackenzie has published two books and she is a Director for Breathe Life Healing Centers, assisting those that struggle with long-term addiction as she had. Mackenzie will be in Modesto on June 8, where she will receive a star on the Cruise Route Walk of Fame along with her other film co-stars. We are excited she is coming to down and let’s find out more about Mackenzie.

CM: First off, what do you love more, acting or singing?
MP: Oh, that’s a hard question to answer as they are both so fulfilling. But I feel that I really look at myself as an actor that can also be a singer. My work keeps be very busy and fulfilled now, and if I were looking at anything, it would be acting.

CM: After becoming globally famous in American Graffiti, Modesto had a love / hate with Graffiti during the late 90s, and we have finally really begun to embrace and market our Graffiti Heritage, even building a new museum. I love the movie and right off, the movie was fun and your part of the movie was the most entertaining part. You and Paul LeMat working together seemed like you had fun.

MP: I had a great time, mind you I was 12 years old when we made the film and I will be 63 years old this year. I had never been in a movie before. The only thing I had done was Santa Claus in a school play. I really didn’t know what we were going to be doing, or if it was going to be an afterschool special or an educational thing. At that point, I was just along for the ride.

CM: You didn’t realize how big it was going to be?
MP: No one did. Remember, American Graffiti was a run-away hit. We didn’t even know what is was going to be called and when we were shooting, we would joke about names for the movie like “rock around the block”.

I was a child, all of the other actors had a lot of experience and were at least a decade older than I, and I kind of became the mascot and everyone watched out for me. One thing I did learn was how to drink coffee as we filmed every night from sundown to sunup.

CM: How did you make that schedule work?
MP: I would go home at 6 am in the morning to producer Gary Kurtz’ rented house in Sausalito. He was my legal guardian during the film because of my age. Gary and his family were Quakers and I was this rock and roll kid, Papa John was my dad, and here I was in this family, sitting around the kitchen table and singing songs.

CM: Must have been bizarre.
MP: It was bizarre but very safe. I was accustomed to a chaotic lifestyle.

CM: How was George as a director, was he hands on, did he give guidance?
MP: Little to none. (long pause) He would give us a thumbs up at the end of the take and say ‘terrific” and it would be “ok, that’s it”. Next! We worked hard every night. But it was a long time ago and I was very young and didn’t know what I was doing.

CM: How was it working in that environment?
MP: I would be in the Deuce Coupe with Paul for hours and hours. Sometimes the car would be mounted on a trailer as we drove around and there were cameras surrounding us and we were kind of trapped in there and if we wanted to get out, we had to crawl out the window. But really, it was cold and in the middle of the night and everyone was all bundled up and we were there in t-shirts.

For most of the filming, George was outside the front window looking in at us, and if he wanted to talk to us, he would have to come around stick his head in the window. One of my favorite pictures from that time is of me with George looking in through the window. I really like it and it really illustrates what it was like.

CM: There seemed like there was so much camaraderie on screen. Did you stay friends after the movie, and did you all mix in the movie as it seems to like there were different story tracks in the film?
MP: When American Graffiti came out, we had the same manager. She managed Candy, Cindy, me and Harrison. So I have pretty much known Candy Clark all my life and we live in the same neighborhood and we do shows together in fact, we are going up to Petaluma this week. We all really did stay friends.

CM: We are excited to have Candy come up for our American Graffiti Festival. Hopefully you will be able to return in the future for the festival and the parade.
MP: That would be great. I would love to.

CM: We are also wishing for Bo Hopkins recovery.
MP: Oh me too.

CM: The film is really good and timeless, my kids and a lot of their friends think that American Graffiti is s cool movie, its not for just the old people. It is amazing how it doesn’t get old.
MP: It is a period piece, and it doesn’t have to get old. It doesn’t have to live up to any standard. People love the film and I am so very grateful for this. It was a launch for so many of us.

CM: I have sat in a Deuce coupe and they are really small. I could barely get out of it and I don’t think I could cruise in it. How did you deal with it?

MP: It was really small and it wasn’t comfortable. But we had a lot of fun, we just laughed all the time. It’s funny you think about a 1932 vehicle, it is very bare bones compared to our cars with the bells and whistles, it was just so bare bones and like I said, we had to climb out of the windows.

CM: You made the transition to One Day at a Time as Julie Cooper, you have really become one of Hollywood’s icons. How does it feel to be a permanent part of pop culture?

MP: It’s a wonderful thing to hear you say that. I really don’t think of myself that way. I’m Shane’s mom, You know I have a son named Shane. I am the Director of Patient Referral Relations at Breathe Life Healing Centers. I am a homeowner in Sherman Oaks California. I don’t think of my self as what you said, but I do know it’s a thing. I so just want to be a normal person.

I look at this as a gift, as a celebrity it does open doors. Sometimes one of our patients will say, “I remember you, you were in One Day at a Time and it helps me connect with people. If that helps them, I appreciate that as I am a person also in long-term recovery.

CM: I always wonder, what if American Graffiti failed? What would have happened? No Happy Days, no Laverne & Shirley, Fonz, Mork or Star Wars? American Graffiti really kind of lit the fuse on everything.

MP: Wow that is interesting. It’s so funny, I’ll go to Mel’s Diner to get a milk shake or something, and I look at the menu and the walls and I’m like, Oh my god, my picture is on every menu and the walls at every Mel’s Diner.

CM: Dewey Webber? Was that your idea?
MP: No, that was wardrobe. Dewey Weber sent me a bunch of T-shirts a decade ago. Fans will come to shows with a Dewey Weber T-shirt for me to sign, or a gear shift knob, or a die cast car.

CM: One of the things we want to do is take a run by Ramona and some of the other Lucas locations in Modesto.
MP: Oh yeah, I remember that well: “231 Ramona 231 Ramona, it’s easy to find!”.

CM: We are excited to see you in Modesto on the Walk of Fame. You will be right there with the other stars and George Lucas. Hopefully you can make it up again for the full festival in the future.
MP: Thank you so much for having me and I can’t wait to get up there and I would love to come back again

Please join us in 10th Street Plaza, June 8 at 5:30 for the Graffiti USA Historic Cruise Route Walk Of Fame with the 2022 Inductees and special inductee Mackenzie Phillips. Ceremony is at 6:30 and music until 8pm. This is a free event.

Photo Credits: Mackenzie Phillips, Universal, Sunset Boulevard/Corbis/Getty Images

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About the Author:

Chris Murphy is the President and CEO of Sierra Pacific Warehouse Group and Publisher and Founder of ModestoView Inc. Chris worked globally in the cycling industry returning to Modesto in 1996. He is also the founder of the Modesto Historic Graffiti Cruise Route, Legends of the Cruise Walk of Fame, Modesto Rockin’ Holiday, the Modesto Music History Organization and co-founder of the Modesto Area Music Association. Chris is married to his artist wife Rebecca since 1985 and has two daughters Madison and Abigail, both graduating from Modesto High and UC Berkeley. He is lead singer and guitarist for his band, Third Party that donates their performances to non-profits.