During our first phone conversation, Clark mentioned that Graffiti was approaching the 40th anniversary of its release to theaters on Aug. 1, 1973. I told her I’d like to write a profile of her in connection with the anniversary. She agreed, and we talked on the phone for about an hour every Wednesday morning for months. She proved to be unfailingly friendly, quick to laugh, and willing to discuss her wide-ranging life, although she refused to criticize anyone or dish dirt. She’s entrepreneurial by nature and would have penned and sold her memoirs by now if she were willing to cash in on controversy.
As a result, conversations with Clark can frustrate a writer mining for salty escapades. She lives in the present. The only memorabilia she kept from her movies was the top hat with wings she wore in More American Graffiti. She’ll take gentle steps down memory lane, but that’s all.
“I’m not into slamming anyone,” she said. “It’s not fair, and it’s old news, and it stirs up bad blood, and who wants to do that? I don’t want it done to me, so I don’t do it to you.”
After her dating relationship with Bridges fizzled, Clark met charismatic evangelist-turned-actor Marjoe Gortner. Their quickie Mexican marriage in 1978 ended in divorce the following year.
Meanwhile, Clark hobnobbed with Hollywood royalty such as Jack Nicholson, attended the wedding of Sean Penn and Madonna, lived next door to The Who’s Roger Daltry, and on and on. Her 1970s heyday coincided with Hollywood’s party years. She enjoyed alcohol but wasn’t much of a drug user in an era when Tinseltowners routinely wore coke spoons around their necks.
“I remember reading a serious article in the Los Angeles Times that said cocaine is not addictive,” she recalled. “But I never liked the way it made me feel. It made me feel all congested. It was a real icebreaker back then in the 1970s. All the guys and gals would have a little gram in their pocket, and they’d pass it over to you, and you’d go to the bathroom.”
Though movie directors don’t call much anymore, Clark remains confident and successful, supporting herself through the years in a series of endeavors, from antiquing to real estate to making designer pillows. She once owned a limousine service in Hollywood, which was profitable but put her in the uncomfortable position of having to fill in for a sick driver every once in a while. Just the thought of picking up one of her peers and loading their bags in the car made her shudder. She sold the business and moved on to the next venture.
She handles her own business affairs books her hot-rod gigs, balances her books, and can’t blame anyone when something goes awry. While booking a flight to Fort Worth, she looked up the price and printed the invoice but forgot to pay. A week later she drove to the Los Angeles airport and realized she didn’t have a ticket. The mistake delayed her trip by a day and cost an extra $200.
For the past decade her bread and butter has been the hot-rod car show circuit around the country and overseas. Today’s car enthusiasts love to see “Debbie” at shows, and she enjoys their company as well, no matter how many similar stories she hears.
“I realize this is their moment to express to me how [Graffiti] changed their lives, and I see the sincerity, and I let them express themselves,” she said. “I don’t try to rush them. Some people get teary-eyed. It’s where they took their wife on their first date, or it’s what got them into customizing cars. We take a picture together. They should be allowed their moment.”
Some of the film’s other actors, including Williams, Paul Le Mat, and Bo Hopkins, are also regulars at shows.
“We’re like brother and sister,” said Hopkins, who portrayed the leader of The Pharaohs in the movie. “She’s a very good friend and a very good actress. We travel together and have fun at the shows. I wouldn’t want to do it by myself.”
Despite Clark’s streetwise self-assurance, she still worries about her appearance. She scrutinized photographs for this article with an eagle eye. Her concern is for Graffiti fans. They don’t want to see a double-chinned “Debbie” in a frumpy dress, she said. (She often speaks of her character in the third person.)
Clark stays fit, grows her own vegetables, and maintains the sparkle that mesmerized Hollywood in her glory years. She lives in the Los Angeles area and has enjoyed a 13-year relationship with self-employed curator Jon Iverson.
“She’s the light of my life,” Iverson said, recalling how he met her at a hot-rod show in 2000 and was smitten at first sight. “I said, ‘I’ve got to get to know you.’ It came straight from my heart. It was a genuine connection.”
Clark gladly poses for pictures when she’s recognized but often asks to see the fan’s photo afterward. If it doesn’t pass muster, it’s deleted and reshot with a couple of helpful suggestions on angle and light.
Her actor’s insecurities surfaced only once during our many phone interviews. In my naiveté I assumed a former Oscar nominee with a distinctive screen presence could get acting jobs with ease. She seemed to disappear from the big screen for no reason after such a strong start.
“Why aren’t you in TV and movies more these days?” I asked clumsily.
“It’s easier said than done,” she said. “For a lead in a pilot, they usually go for people who are hot right now.”
I pestered her more about her lack of roles these days and hit a nerve.
“When you ask me these questions, I’m degrading myself for how far I’ve fallen,” she said. “These are questions that make me respond in a negative way about myself. I have a lot of positive things going on in my career right now.”
She paused, but my question was still rattling in her head. She couldn’t let it go. She hears the same question from others, and it often feels like criticism.
“It puts me on the defensive,” she continued. “I have to tell people to just settle down and let me be where I am. I’m only unhappy when you bring it up. People are like, ‘Call your agent, and suddenly you’ll have an acting gig.’ I’m not a young up-and-comer anymore. You go to films and see Susan Sarandon and Meryl Streep. They seem to get all those parts for the older women or the grandma. It’s very limited.”
To support herself between acting gigs, Clark started antiquing in the 1990s and selling items on eBay, and she has owned and operated a variety of businesses. In 1989 she met a man, fell in love, and moved to New Jersey with him for a dozen years. After that relationship ended, she moved back to Los Angeles in 2000 and bought a house. She also owns a rental property in the Fort Worth area.
She still lands the occasional role but doesn’t often seek out parts.
“I’m really not that hard-driven by ambition,” she said. “I have a nice house and nice car and all the stuff you could ever need and plenty of food. I don’t strive to be a billionaire or even millionaire. I strive to be comfortable with what I have.”
After all those phone interviews, I finally got to meet Clark in person last week when she visited her family in Fort Worth. We met at her brother’s house and spent the day driving around the city, visiting her old stomping grounds. She dressed comfortably in sneakers, jeans, and a blue patterned silk blouse, and she looked remarkably similar to Debbie in American Graffiti despite now being 66 and wearing a far different hairdo.
Visiting Trimble Tech was something she had mentioned every time we talked, but the week she was in town the school was giving state-mandated tests, and no visitors were allowed. Still, she autographed a picture to the drama class and signed another for drama teacher Cheryl Penland, who tried to get us access to the school.
For lunch we went to Cattlemen’s in the Stockyards, her favorite restaurant to visit when in town.
“Oh, boy!” Clark exclaimed as the waitress set a medium-rare rib-eye in front of her.
The waitress introduced herself as Debbie, giving Clark an opportunity to say something like, “Oh, I played a girl named Debbie.” Before long, she could have had the restaurant clientele all abuzz. But that’s not Clark’s style. She doesn’t go out of her way to seek attention, and she is rarely recognized in her hometown.
“When we’re out, I can’t remember a single time when someone has come up to us and said anything,” said William Clark, who teaches special education at a Fort Worth elementary school. “She uses her own name, checks, credit cards, and everything, and nobody has ever said anything.”
He wonders why the Lone Star Film Society hasn’t done a retrospective on her career.
“She has starred in 50 or 60 movies,” he said. “Maybe she needs a publicist just for Fort Worth.”
Her picture hangs at Trimble Tech but was initially excluded from the Fort Worth Independent School District’s “Legacy of Excellence” photo gallery in the administration building. District officials added her to the gallery after William pointed out that she’d been overlooked.
“It’s odd that her fame is not locally recognized in very many ways,” he said. “She’s not hiding. She looks the same. She looks great. I don’t think they’ve ever invited her back to Tech to do anything at UIL or any of the theaters around here. In Los Angeles she is recognized all the time.”
He seems more concerned than she does. She has fond thoughts of Fort Worth regardless of whether she feels as though her hometown loves her back.
“I know she still likes Fort Worth,” William said. “There is a still a draw, a pull.”
Clark is content with her lot, including the what-ifs.
“Every dog has his day, and I’ve pretty well had mine,” she said. “If I get any more acting gigs, it’s gravy. But as you can see from the movies I’ve done lately, it’s little roles. Glorified extra, basically.”
Does it bother her?
“Yeah, it does, but what can you do?” she said and flashed the smile that can still send somebody hurtling through a time warp to the days of Debbie, sock hops, bouffant hair, Capezio shoes, and the innocence of another time.