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Charles Martin Smith, from Toad to dolphins

Director Charles Martin Smith, who came to fame as Terry the Toad in "American Graffiti," is back with "Dolphin Tale 2," which he directed, wrote and appears in.
Director Charles Martin Smith, who came to fame as Terry the Toad in “American Graffiti,” is back with “Dolphin Tale 2,” which he directed, wrote and appears in.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Charles Martin Smith would have walked over hot coals for George Lucas during the filming of the seminal 1973 hit “American Graffiti,” in which he was sweetly endearing as the nerdy Terry “the Toad” Fields.

And even 41 years later, the actor-director believes that he and the rest of the cast, which included Harrison Ford, Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Cindy Williams, Candy Clark and Paul Le Mat, would still be willing to hot-foot it for the director.

“We had so much respect for him,” said Smith during a recent interview. “We were happy to be doing that movie, because the script was so good.”

The camaraderie on the low-budget film was especially strong among the young and talented cast, he recalled. “American Graffiti” was set in the Central Valley town of Modesto but was shot mainly in Petaluma and San Rafael.

“We were all staying in one hotel. We were shooting nights, and we would sleep all day. Paul Le Mat and Harrison got in a lot of trouble. Gary Kurtz, the producer, would come and pick us up in his car every day. It was kind of like we were making a student film. I remember Cindy Williams one time saying, ‘I just hope [the film] gets one week in Westwood.’ We were worried it was going to disappear.”

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Not only didn’t it disappear, “American Graffiti” put the filmmaker and his young stars on the map.

Smith is now 60, and though he has less hair than in his “Graffiti” days, he hasn’t changed much in the last four decades. Besides Lucas, he’s worked with such acclaimed directors as Brian De Palma (“The Untouchables”) and Carroll Ballard (“Never Cry Wolf”). Though he’s continued to act, Smith’s also been working behind the camera since making his directorial debut with the low-budget 1986 horror film “Trick or Treat.”

Three years ago, Smith scored his biggest success as a director with the family film “Dolphin Tale,” which told the story of a plucky bottlenose dolphin named Winter, who was rescued from a crab trap by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater, Fla., whose motto is “Rescue. Rehab. Release.”

However, since the crab trap line cut off the circulation to her tail flukes, Winter lost her tail and was outfitted with a prosthetic. Her story of determination and bravery has inspired many people with disabilities — most notably children and veterans — to meet Winter.

Martin has also written and directed the sequel “Dolphin Tale 2,” which opened Friday. The original cast of Harry Connick Jr., Ashley Judd, Nathan Gamble, Kris Kristofferson and Morgan Freeman returns, as well as Winter and Hope, a young dolphin that was rescued the night of the original’s wrap party. Smith also appears in the film as an Agriculture Department official.

“Winter knew I was the director,” said Smith, who also used animatronic and computer-generated dolphins for the film. “She is a total ham, and Hope is like a little kid.”

“Charles had a great deal of artistic sensitivity,” said Connick. “It is like when I sing a song, no notes are sort of superfluous. He is like that. When he approaches a situation, whether it is shooting a pelican or shooting Morgan Freeman and everything in between, he treats it the same way. He applies the same amount of integrity and intensity to everything he does.”

Smith isn’t the only director in the family. His father, the late animator Frank Smith, directed episodes of the “Mr. Magoo” TV series and was an animator on “Gerald McBoing-Boing” shorts and the beloved “Charlie Brown” specials. “I grew up sitting next to my dad drawing,” said Smith. “He instilled in me a love of films.”

And in a story that could only happen in Hollywood, Smith was discovered by a talent agent when he played Sancho Panza in his high school production in Reseda of “Man of La Mancha.”

“He asked me if I wanted to go out on interviews,” said Smith. “I was thrilled, but I never thought I would make a living at it. I thought I’d act in movies as a teenager and then I’d direct theater or teach theater at a university.”

While studying acting and theater directing at Cal State Northridge, he landed a role in the 1972 western “The Culpepper Cattle Co.” with Gary Grimes. About a year later, he was cast as Terry the Toad.

It was his “Never Cry Wolf” director Ballard (“The Black Stallion”) who inspired him to direct feature films. Smith shared most of his screen time in the haunting 1983 drama with movie-trained wolves and real caribou.

“I learned so much about filmmaking in that movie,” Martin said. “I was like a sorcerer’s apprentice.”

He learned an invaluable lesson from Ballard about directing animals, which served him well on the “Dolphin Tale” movies.

“You let them be themselves,” said Smith. “Then you almost become like a documentary filmmaker, which is how I approach it. I want to see what the dolphins do and then adapt that to my story. Otherwise, you are just turning them into puppets.”

susan.king@latimes.com


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