Francis Ford Coppola Was Recruited By Children For One Of His Most Classic Films

Francis Ford Coppola's miraculous 1970s run of "The Godfather," "The Conversation," "The Godfather Part II" and "Apocalypse Now" came crashing to a hubristic halt in 1982 when his backlot musical "One from the Heart," produced at his recently purchased Zoetrope Studios in the heart of Hollywood, bombed upon release. Poor reviews and audience indifference resulted in a paltry $637,000 gross against a $26 million budget, thus killing his dream of an artist-driven mini-community.

The magnitude of the film's failure meant Coppola would have to lower his sights for the time being, and make films with more straightforward commercial appeal as a means of paying off his debts. It was a shockingly precipitous fall, one that left his many admirers worried that he'd become more of a paycheck-to-paycheck director. This happened eventually, but for a time he was able to stoke his creative fire even if he was making movies that weren't as personal to him as his '70s masterpieces.

He just needed encouragement. When it came to making his adaptation of S.E. Hinton's coming-of-age novel "The Outsiders," he found this encouragement from a most unexpected source.

A library class 'chose' Francis Ford Coppola to direct The Outsiders

Coppola was easily the most celebrated American filmmaker of his era until he rolled snake eyes on "One from the Heart," but the films that brought him to such dizzying prominence were made for adults. Sure, the "Godfather" movies are about family, but they come to this theme in a mature manner, one that doesn't begin to connect for viewers until they're well into their teen years.

So it had to come as a shock to Coppola when he received a "big fat letter" from a library-class teacher and her young students asking him to direct the film adaptation of Hinton's book. As Coppola told Entertainment Weekly in a 2021 oral history of the film:

"They had chosen me to direct it. The reason the letter was so fat was because it had pages and pages of kids' signatures. I read the book and was very touched by the sentiments — it said something that I believe to this day: Young people are more than qualified if you give them the opportunity to collaborate with us on a work of art. They more than come through."

A coming-of-age classic fueled by one big broken dream

Coppola more than came through, too. "The Outsiders" is a sensitively told tale of "greaser" teenagers who, in the absence of attentive (or living) parents, form their own family. They're a tight, protective clan, and, to put this across, Coppola and casting director Janet Hirshenson assembled a group of young actors destined for stardom. Matt Dillon, Rob Lowe, Patrick Swayze, Emilio Estevez, Tom Cruise, Ralph Macchio, Diane Lane ... that's just scratching the surface of this film's acting talent. This was the dawn of the "Brat Pack."

"The Outsiders" delivered Coppola the hit he desperately needed, offering a grounded, humanistic antidote to the raunchy teen sex comedies that were very much in fashion. This was a film that depicted teenagers as they truly are: wild, hopeful, melancholy, pissed off and, yeah, a little bit horny. The yearning here, however, is much more romantic than libidinous, which meant that the kinds who recruited Coppola to direct one of their favorite novels could actually buy a ticket to see the film in theaters. Thank god they didn't send that letter to Bob Clark.