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Dennis Christopher wasn’t nervous when he auditioned for Breaking Away. It was the first time he had been invited to read for a film, and in his mind, he thought that meant that he already had the role in the bag. Which role though, he wasn’t sure. In fact, he wasn’t exactly sure what the movie was about, besides focusing on four friends from a working-class community.
At first, he read for role of Cyril before director Peter Yates settled on him playing Dave.
“I thought it was a very odd part when I first read the script. I thought the character seemed a bit cartoonish,” Christopher recalled. “I begged my agent to get out of it because I said this guy shaves his legs!”
Originally titled Bambino, the first draft of the script had a very different characterization of Dave.
Christopher said, “They dressed me up in skin-tight black pants and a polyester shirt unbuttoned to my chest. They put gold chains around my neck, and they made my hair dark brown and put it up in a pompadour.”
Christopher, who is half-Italian, found the costume to be over-the-top. To make matters worse, since he had missed rehearsals, due to his previous film running overtime, he felt as if he didn’t know what was expected when shooting began.
“I couldn’t understand why they hired me and what they wanted out of me when they changed me so radically,” he said.
After an embarrassing day on the set, Christopher returned and broke down in front of Yates.
Thankfully, the director and screenwriter Steve Teisch didn’t dismiss his concerns and took time to hear what he had to say.
“I told them the reason Dave wants to be Italian is because he wants a family. You saw how reserved those people were in the film — his father and mother don’t even embrace when they see each other. It’s that Midwestern reserve kind of thing, at least that’s how it was 40 years ago.”
Christopher also explained that he didn’t need a costume to express the character’s desire. Rather, by playing with his voice and his body, he could show it.
“They listened to me. I don’t know why, but they did.”
As a result, Dave’s characterization drastically changed, and scenes which emphasized his original hippy nature were cut from the script.
“It’s been such a blessing and an opportunity in my life. This movie is really faceted and says some important things very subtly. Not only about class structure, but relationships between father and son, acceptance of differences – even eccentric differences – that play out from not only wardrobe but the way that you speak… And it touches on so many aspects of coming of age, but it covers so many aspects of being an American,” said Christopher.