Tail end of the 1979. Trent Harris works at his local Salt Lake City news station. The new color video camera has arrived and you better believe Harris is field testing that baby in the parking lot. That’s where he notices some dude hanging around and taking pictures of the station’s helicopter. Harris lenses in on him.
Dude ambles on over, awestruck at “being on the TV.” Harris chats him up and turns out dude himself is an entertainer, of sorts. He breaks out with some celebrity impressions. Your basic John Wayne, the Duke’s drawl morphs into Sylvester Stallone as Rocky, referring to himself in third person. Go figure. The impressions are far from stellar, but unlike most “always on” types you wanna punch in the face after the first 5 minutes, this is one endearing dude. Just impossible to hate on this suburban hayseed hick getting his kicks out of taking a picture of someone filming him.
That’s how we meet Richard LaVon Griffiths aka Groovin’ Gary as he appears for the first time in the documentary The Beaver Trilogy. The doc also shows how Harris, an aspiring director at the time, became arguably obsessed trying to re-create Gary’s groovy vibe in not one, but two short films, both titled The Beaver Boy.
Harris somehow contacts a pre-fame Sean Penn for the first version. Wants him to come in and read for the first onscreen incarnation of Groovin’ Gary. True to form, Penn told Harris rather than audition, he had another idea: “What I’m going to do is pretend like I’m your cousin from Idaho and I’ll spend the day with you.” Penn got the part. In a short film almost no one saw.
Cut to tail end of summer, 1982. Fast Times At Ridgemont High is playing in theaters and crushing it. Box office smash blasts Penn into fame’s stratosphere playing one of the icons of cinema’s stoned pantheon, surfer Jeff Spicoli. Some thirty-plus years later, it’s still the role he’s indelibly tied to. It’s also the character Penn’s most intractable to talk shop about. Maybe now we know why.
Off to the hills of Maliboo-yeah I go. Zero in on the spot Penn tends to habit. Hang around the back long enough, Penn appears for a smoke break. Sidle up and bum a smoke. One of the tricks to the game is to have your own light. It’s like showing them a four-leaf clover. It never happens. As a reaction getter, it works every time. Then I hit him straight with the question: “Was Jeff Spicoli based on Groovin’ Gary?”
Yeah, he wasn’t too happy. Listen, the article says Darin Tino asks Sean Penn about Spicoli and Groovin’ Gary. Didn’t make any promises he’d answer back. Tell you what. Have a look at Exhibit A. Let your eyes and ears be the jury. And you be the judge.