Q&A with Steve Bergsman, author of The Wanderers - Killer Teens, Rebel Teens, Gang Teens and the evolution of the last Great Greaser Feature
What is the book about?
On the surface, it is about the making of the cult movie, The Wanderers, from 1979. However, the wider and more accurate summation is that the book is about all the factors that pushed this movie to be made including current affairs, trends in film genres and the abiding interest of the director.
This book has a more specific origination story, right?
Yes, it is one of the few movies where the original inspiration began with a song. In this case Dion’s great hit from 1961, “The Wanderer.” The song then inspired Richard Price to write the novel The Wanderers, which also attracted a cultish following, including Peter Kaufman, the son of movie director Phil Kaufman. It was Peter who suggested The Wanderers would make a great movie.
You say this book is a “great greaser feature.” What are you referring to?
Ever since the success of The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando, in 1953, and Blackboard Jungle in 1955, bad behavior by teenagers, usually looking dangerous in dungarees, t-shirts with the sleeves rolled up and ornate hair styled high in a pompadour that looked a little “greasy,” became a staple of Hollywood and Broadway, from low budget movies such as The Violent Years and Teenage Doll! to long-running plays such as West Side Story and Grease. When the baby boomers, who grew up on such cultural fare, arrived at middle age, they became nostalgic for the 1950s as personified by the “greaser” of their collective memories. The result was television shows such as Happy Days and movies like The Lords of Flatbush and even American Graffiti, a pastoral version of the greaser film, which usually took place in an urban environment. The Wanderers was literally the last “great” movie of this genre.
Why did the greaser become the iconic image of the 1950s?
Teen gangs had, indeed, become a social, although mostly urban, problem in the 1950s. The gangs, which originated as groupings of like-minded teenagers, had become increasingly violent. While this was a reality, the headline-grabbing nature of the “teen gang” issue was really an extension of the overall hand-wringing angst on the part of 1950s parents, who feared their children were out-of-control with strange clothing styles, rebelliousness and, worst of the worst, hypnotized by that terrible music called rock ‘n’ roll. All these worries could be wrapped in the image of the teen gang member, or greaser.
Did you learn anything new by writing this book.
Yes. When Dion began his career, he was part of a group called Dion & Belmonts, which was very successful with songs such as “I Wonder Why,” “A Teenager in Love,” and “Where or When.” Every member of Dion & The Belmonts (Dion, Angelo D’Aleo, Freddie Milano an Carlo Mastrangelo) had been in a gang – and not the same one.
What makes The Wanderers special?
A number of things. First, the wonderful cast, who at the time were unknowns and first-time actors including Ken Wahl, Karen Allen, Toni Kalem and Tony Ganios. Secondly, Phil Kaufman wisely took Richard Price’s book, largely non-narrative and episodic, and scripted a coherent, sometimes humorous, tale of youthful bravado, violence and sexual naivety. Thirdly, what appears to be a standard movie about teen gangs is actually an intuitive coming-of-age film. And, finally, the movie very subtly depicts the end of the greaser culture as the rapidly changing world of 1960s traps some in the past but offers an escape to others.