The prospect of visiting her childhood home was making Candy Clark giddy. She sat in the passenger seat while her brother, William Clark, drove toward Chickasaw Avenue in the Polytechnic neighborhood. They’ve always been close, and they chatter easily, although Candy is more animated in her delivery.
She recalled the house her family had rented during the 1950s as small and nondescript with only two bedrooms. The family had no car, no TV, not much of anything beyond the essentials. On the bright side, the Clark kids had pet frogs that hung out near a drippy hose faucet, a big backyard that bled out into a huge pasture packed with potential adventures, and a lack of parental supervision that allowed the latchkey kids to do what they pleased while Mom worked.
William turned right on Chickasaw, and Candy started scouring the modest frame houses, jabbering excitedly. Who might live there now? Would they invite her inside to look around?
Suddenly, there it was.
Just over 500 square feet, the house was now an uninhabitable shack with boarded-up windows and rotted wood.
Candy hooted and burst out laughing. “What a dump!” she said and laughed some more.
In fact, for the rest of the day she randomly burst out laughing whenever she thought about the house. She takes pride in having made a name for herself despite the challenges of her youth, which included poverty and learning disabilities. She struck out on her own as a teenager, first as a model in New York, then as an actor in Hollywood. Her second movie earned her an Academy Award nomination for her portrayal of Debbie in American Graffiti in 1973.
For the next few years, Clark’s star sailed high in Hollywood. Her third movie, The Man Who Fell to Earth, became a cult classic. It was the freewheeling 1970s, and she was hanging out with the A-list crowd in the most happening place in the world back then, Tinseltown.
But life isn’t scripted, and unexpected plot twists pushed her in directions she never imagined, toward Plan B. And Plan C. And D and E.
An alphabet’s worth of plans later, she’s happy, healthy, secure, and proud of the hometown she couldn’t wait to ditch all those years ago. Ironically, she tapped into those Cowtown years when developing the character that made her a star.
“I identified with the whole American Graffiti story because we lived it in Fort Worth,” she said.
I was writing a feature about Trimble Tech High School last year (“Tech Revolution,” Oct. 3, 2012) when I noticed Candy Clark listed among the alumni. Her movies were seared in my psyche, particularly the four-star favorite Graffiti, which won an Academy Award for Best Picture and earned Clark her Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.
The movie starred a newly matured Ron Howard, already famous for portraying Opie on The Andy Griffith Show, and introduced actors who would become household names: Harrison Ford, Richard Dreyfus, Mackenzie Phillips, Suzanne Somers, and Cindy Williams. Set on a single night in 1962, the movie captured the innocence of a generation that hadn’t been jaded by political assassinations and the Vietnam War.
A review in Variety praised the film as the best of its genre and predicted, “All the young principals and featured players have a bright and lengthy future.”
But it was Clark’s depiction of a gum-smacking peroxide blonde and Charles Martin Smith’s portrayal of her geeky suitor “Toad” who stole the laughs and the movie.
I messaged Clark on Facebook, described the Trimble Tech story in progress, and set up a phone interview a few days later. The conversation flowed easily. She recalled her time at the high school in the 1960s, with hot rods, cruising, and drive-in movies. “She would go out every night if she could,” her brother said. “All her boyfriends had cars, and she was into that cruising-around-Fort Worth scene.”
Her appreciation of cruising was colored by the fact that the Clarks had no car. Until the boyfriends with cars arrived, the family walked or took the bus. Her mother once saved up enough money to treat her children to a circus –– and equally exciting –– a cab ride.
“We were very poor,” Clark said. “We were living on beans, a lot of pintos. There were a lot of us, five kids and my mother. And this was before they had social services. We struggled a lot. There were times when we wouldn’t have utilities on. We didn’t get a lot of medical or dental work done back then.”
Her father left the family when the kids were young.
Candy, the oldest, caught horned toads with her brothers and sold them to a neighbor who used the critters to aerate his compost pile. One of the few toys she remembered getting as a child was a secondhand tricycle. She named it “Squeaky” for obvious reasons.
Clark was in charge of the brood while her mother worked. The twig-thin Clark walked her siblings to school and back and took them on longer jaunts after the family moved to a rental near Seminary Drive. In the summer, Clark and her four brothers put on their bathing suits and flip-flops, draped towels around their shoulders, and walked several miles along busy streets to the public swimming pool on Forest Park Boulevard.
After a day of swimming, they barely found strength to walk home.
“I can’t imagine walking that today,” she said. “It makes you tough. It makes you streetwise. You learn how to take care of yourself. You don’t develop a lot of fear because you’re interacting with the world at an early age.”
Still, she was shy and unsure of herself, partly because dyslexia made it difficult to learn right from left, north from south, and other basic things, much less algebra and science. At Trimble Tech, she told a counselor she had no college plans. “They let me off the hook,” she said. “I took shorthand and typing and home economics.”
She would have preferred to attend an “elite” high school such as Arlington Heights or Paschal, she said. “For a long time I felt kind of embarrassed about going to a trade school, but now I feel like it was the right decision,” she said.
What she lacked in money and school smarts, she made up for in good looks and a talent for having fun. She began smoking unfiltered Pall Malls in her early teens. “Back then you could send a kid to the corner market, and a 5-year-old could buy cigarettes and take them back home,” she said.
“I think I was a teenage alcoholic,” she said, only half joking.
After graduation, she went to work as a secretary at Dickson-Jenkins Manufacturing Co. near downtown. Not long afterward, she and a girlfriend planned a one-week vacation to New York. Her friend canceled at the last minute, and Clark went alone. Circling the Big Apple at dawn, she looked out of the airplane window, saw the city awash in pink and gold sunlight, and fell in love.
“I thought to myself, ‘I’m never going back to Fort Worth,’ ” she said.
She sent for her things, got a bed at the YWCA, knocked on doors, and parlayed her Texas charm and fresh look into modeling gigs despite having no experience.
“All I ever had was little snapshots in the front yard with my brothers and my mother,” she said. “I didn’t understand the concept of photography and how pictures freeze you. I thought you had to freeze and the camera took a picture of you. I had it backward for the longest time. All my pictures were fixed and forced, and I had this unblinking stare. It came to me one day –– you don’t have to think about it.”
Experience brought more jobs, including exposure in Glamour and Mademoiselle, and she supplemented her modeling income with office jobs when needed. “I don’t even think I called home for a year,” she said. “Back in the day, just to make a long distance call was very costly.”
After four years, she decided to try her luck in Hollywood.