More than 30 years after its release, 1979’s Breaking Away is still one of the most beloved coming-of-age films ever made, and its zero-to-hero rise from a tiny, under-the-radar movie with no major stars to a sleeper hit and Best Picture nominee is one of Hollywood’s great underdog stories. Over the years, no one has felt the love for Breaking Away more than Dennis Christopher, who starred as Dave Stoller, the wannabe-Italian midwestern teen misfit who, much to his close-minded father’s consternation, dreams of becoming a cycling champion.
When the 56-year-old actor came to the photo shoot for EW’s Reunions issue (on stands now)—where he was brought back together again with co-stars Dennis Quaid, Jackie Earle Haley, Daniel Stern, Barbara Barrie, and Paul Dooley—Christopher brought one of the original Masi racing bikes his character rode in the movie. And he brought his memories.
EW: What did you connect with about the role of Dave Stoller?
DENNIS CHRISTOPHER: Quite frankly, I didn’t understand the character at first. He seemed off the wall to me. Shaving his legs, singing opera—I thought, ‘Oh my God, how do I make this real?’ And they initially had a completely different idea of what Dave would be. I went in to hair and makeup the first day, and when I got out of the chair, my skin had been darkened, my hair was dyed dark brown and slicked back with grease, I had a tight Ban-Lon shirt that was unbuttoned almost down to the navel, gold chains around my neck, tight pants, and pointy black shoes. They had in mind, I think, trying to make me look like a reject from Saturday Night Fever. We shot a whole day like that, and it was very disturbing to me. I never got to sleep that night. I just didn’t know who I was. The next morning, I saw [director] Peter [Yates] and I burst into tears and said, “I can’t do this. I don’t know how to play this part.” Peter said, “I know, don’t worry.” He and [screenwriter] Steve Tesich came to my hotel later that day and we talked about the script. It ultimately became a perfect fit. The difficulty between the father and son, the lack of communication—I knew what those feelings were. When we got to those scenes, stuff came out that normally wouldn’t have come out.
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