Behind the Scenes: Dennis Christopher Talks “Breaking Away,” Part II

Behind the Scenes: Dennis Christopher Talks “Breaking Away,” Part II

For Part I, click here.


AM: I’m curious how often you’ve seen this movie over the years and when you do, how your reflections or thoughts on it have changed over time. 

DC: This movie has brought so much good will into my life, I can’t even tell you (clapping). People I don’t even know greet me with a really big smile, not everybody of course, but … I don’t know, it’s like being people’s friends or something and it cuts through so much bullshit and they get right down to what’s kind of important about people meeting each other or saying a story to each other or something and I don’t know how I stepped in this … but I stepped in it. It’s been unbelievable I mean I couldn’t buy this. I couldn’t have imagined—I mean I’ve imagined a lot of things about being in movies, as you could imagine, you know what I mean? Some of it fulfilled, some haven’t. But how could you, how could I ever be ungrateful after being associated with the things that came together on this, ’cause people have told me they’ve opened bike shops, they’ve changed their lives completely and there’s a future in biking not just for cyclists, but for the rest of the world. I want to take this into—for the older people, the boomers who are now having their bikes taken away from them because their bodies are getting a little decrepit or they have heart disease, you know, or whatever they have, the answer to it is the bike, not more medication (clapping).

I want them to ride a bicycle like it was two bathtubs, get off the bikes and get in the tubs then. That’s what I want. But, I think it’s time, and I’ll be the guy, because we’re getting older and particularly what I’m talking about is the bikes that boost you, that give you a boost when you get in trouble or when you see a giant hill. I know men don’t like that, they look down on it and I shouldn’t be saying it, of course, with my so-called pedigree, but I’m a man first, not an actor or a cyclist and I don’t want to have the outdoor taken away from me. And that’s what they do to us with our pride, these boosts are fantastic. You can still exercise your brains out but you’re never in any serious trouble and I’d rather pay for that than medication any day (clapping).

AM: Dennis, you know that movie had a lot of sex appeal to it (Christopher laughs) and uh, it must have done something for your ego there …

DC: Ah … once (audience laughter) … I was really busy.

AM: I was wondering if you could say your three favorite movies and how they contrasted with each other.

DC: Wow. Too good. We need to sit down with some libations and talk this out. I can tell you there’s one movie I love, it’s called, ‘A Place in the Sun’ with Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor and Shelly Winters—

AM: The movies that you played in—

DC: Oh? Me? Oh, I don’t know—Django Unchained. I’m not in it much, but working with Quentin Tarantino for four months was beyond the beyond and there’s for all of us who were in the movie—there were academy award winners—there’s a lot of footage on us and maybe someday it’ll show up in a long-form version or Quentin keeps threatening to make a miniseries out of it after he retires. Because there’s a lot, there’s five hours of real, hard story there. And, working with him was a real high point. Working with Fellini was, as you can imagine, if you’re old enough—

AM: You mean the cat? (laughter)

DC: That’s why I named him Fellini! You know, I had worked with Fellini. In a movie called Roma, I worked with him. I mean, I was a boy, I was you know a crazy lucky hippy boy living in Rome, so, you know—I don’t know. I guess, they aren’t so much the movies, but what they did to me, how they changed me and how they matured me. I did a movie called, ‘Don’t Cry, It’s Only Thunder,’ which is about a real disgruntled kind of a-hole who’s in Vietnam with a real bad attitude. It’s me and Susan St. James, written by the technical advisor for ‘Apocalypse Now;’ it’s his real story, when he was in Vietnam and what he did is he founded orphanages while he fought in the daytime, he made orphanages at night for the displaced children. It’s a fantastic story and I’m very proud of that and very few people have ever seen it.

And I also like ‘Fade to Black.’ There’s nothing like pretending to be Dracula and stuff. So, I think those; ‘Chariots of Fire’ is pretty good, I don’t know. 

AM: It’s not so much a question, but a thank you—

DC: Aw—

AM: I remember growing up, as I mentioned outside, in an environment and a culture that was very much anti-cycling—completely—and I got into some street wrecks and my first bike, my Specialized, was destroyed and as a gift back to me my family repaired the bike when I was in college, and I remember the movie I wanted to see after I got back was ‘Breaking Away’ and on a flight back from New York from visiting family I remember talking to my daughter about some of the movies that helped inspire me and this was definitely on the top of the list, but coming from a culture that shunned and was ravenous against anything physical and athletic; I mean, my wife’s idea of triathlon is going from the living room to the refrigerator and back to bed (audience laughter). So, going through that and seeing this again and again and again, I remember that old Specialized bike, and seeing you and memories of a kid who would ride out there alone because nobody wanted to be around him. And one of my favorite touching moments is when you’re riding through the forest with the trees—

DC: Yes—

AM: And I can’t tell you how there’s been multiple times in my life that when I’ve ridden through similar things like that and I want to reach my hands out—I just don’t feel, uh, mature enough.

DC: I never thought I could do it, but I just couldn’t help it.

AM: But this movie, it has so much depth, maturity inside of it, beyond its years, that that’s why I’m saying thank you.

DC: Thank you. I’m very happy to hear that and I’m so glad you’re here with us tonight. I’m honored that, again, to be associate with something that means so much to people. I can’t tell you how good that is. Some little job that I did 30 years ago. You know and we’re sitting here talking about it and we’re raising money for Pablove and it’s just so good. It’s the personification of all good.

AM: Dennis, so I’m curious, you said that early in production, you plead with them to allow you to evolve the character into someone who would be more emotionally honest. Where—when was it for you that you began to realize that the film would have such resonance with an audience?

DC: I never did.

AM: And so how long after the film was released did it take?

DC: At the opening? I was estranged from my father for a long time. And, uh, Paul’s [Paul Dooley who played Stohler’s father] relationship with his father—well first of all, how about Paul Dooley and Barbara Barry in this movie? (applause) You know, it’s the first time you see Dennis Quaid, the first time you see Danny Stern. I mean Jackie [Earle Haley, who plays Moocher] was a seasoned movie star by then; I was so impressed to meet Jackie from ‘Bad News Bears’ and stuff, you know and ‘Day of the Locust,’ but, um, Paul had a similar relationship with his father—shut down—the antithesis of any kind of emotion, any kind of PDA whatsoever … and, um, my father was of that generation, too. He showed affection by earning money. And not much money was really even earned, you know, but that was when the middle class could live. Um, so, it was important to kind of get that stuff in the movie.

Opening night my father had had his cancer deal and it was always a strain to try and reestablish stuff. It was really bad between us. But I know he’s dying so you swallow all that stuff and you go and do your thing. Anyway, the night it opened, he came to New York—actually, what I did was after making scale plus ten for this movie, I bought two first-class tickets and a stay at the Plaza Hotel—it’s not even the best hotel in New York, it’s just that’s all I had heard of. You know the Plaza! And a limousine at the airport—all that stuff—but I had to lie and say the studio paid for it or he wouldn’t accept it. That kind of old school Italian—Italian!—father. Um, and he came, he couldn’t, he thought I was a bum, really, you know an artist that’s a bum along with a couple of other choice nouns. And, he sat there in silence—it was even uncomfortable to sit around him; it was that kind of festering thing all the time. Maybe you’ve experienced this, I mean, I don’t know. Family can bring it (muted audience laughter).

After the movie was over people stood up. People cheered during the race. I saw my father, a look on his face like he was 11, with his mouth open. Usually it would be because he was hyperventilating before, but this was like … and he didn’t know how to talk to me after that. Because I had accomplished something. And maybe he had thought it was good. But he never said a word; he couldn’t. It was like he was paralyzed. He couldn’t practically get out of the chair and walk up the thing. So we walk up the thing, get out of the thing and I’m outside—and they also had a promotion with a local radio station and the balconies were filled with young people. The swells were on the floor and the kids that listened to the local radio station were up above, and they went crazy and they rushed me like it was The Beatles or something, and my father was horrified and then the old man—it was like he was an old broken guy—and then: he rose up, and he made them form two lines! (audience laughter) ‘You over there and you over there, and you cut!’ And he directed the whole damn thing like this big bully—and I—because he kinda wanted me to be safe. And I don’t even know what he thought, but I couldn’t believe it. And that (sighs) was the moment (clapping).

AM: Just want to—a very similar message—I just want to say thank you. I took a lot of cues from this movie. I switch out Indiana with Iowa; I mean—

DC: Same thing.

AM: Indiannapolis might have been Treviso compared to Northwest Iowa in terms of cycling culture. I sang classical music, I raced a little bit, I came home from college and said, ‘Mom, dad, I took out a loan I’m moving to Florence to learn Italian (laughter, none louder than Christopher), and I got a job; I’ve had a 25-year career in the cycling industry. I have met and worked with and become very close friends with some of the greatest cyclists of the past 20 years and it’s because of this movie. And I just want to say, if you love bikes, you don’t want to get rich and you want to enjoy going to work every day, work for the bike industry, which is the greatest thing

DC: I may be applying. That’s great. Thank you for that, really. That’s great. I had to run away from home to get to Italy. We’ll leave it there.

Don’t forget about the charity. If you can’t give tonight, just keep it in your mind. These are real people that need help. It’s a homemade charity, you know what I mean? It’s not some corporate thing, so please don’t forget this; it’s so important. And everyone that I’ve met so far with this charity and before even I knew anyone in it—the people like I say—music and stuff—they know this organization, so please, don’t forget them. If you can’t give now remember December 31st give a big ‘un, you know what I mean, when you need that deduction and think of this. Think of ‘Breaking Away’ okay? And then just do it.



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  1. hoshie99

    Great interview. The part of the story I liked is how he helped change the shape the character of the movie and he had a sympathetic director that ran with it. Sometimes all greatness takes is a little support…


  2. Troy

    I clicked on this story not actually registering who Dennis was only to find myself emotionally moved in a way that was totally unexpected. I saw Breaking Away as a young man, became a bike racer and am still at it 30 years later. Thanks Padraig. This is the kind of content not found anywhere else in the cycling media.

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