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Ever wonder how some people can work day after day in unskilled, minimum wage jobs? Sometimes it's simply a matter of attitude. Welcome to Car Wash (1976), a day in the life of a bunch of L.A. car wash employees and the characters and customers who fill their lives. It's an essential slice of the '70s, so packed full of ensemble mayhem it’s hard to believe it's scripted.
Promoted as a Richard Pryor/George Carlin movie, the film only features those two big names as cameos. Pryor plays gold-dripping preacher Daddy Rich, but the part was given to him only after the character’s real-life inspiration, televangelist Reverend Ike, turned it down. According to director Michael Schultz, in Jim Haskins’ biography Richard Pryor: A Man and His Madness, “I was trying to get (Ike) in the film, to play himself because he’s got such a great rap. He came and met with us at Universal about it, and at first he was very interested, but then I guess he figured it might not be good for his image. He would have been making fun of himself, in a way. I’d seen Richard do some of his preacher characterizations, and after Reverend Ike turned it down, the part went to Richard.”
Schultz had extensive experience in the theater and treated his cast like an ensemble. He had them meet at the sound stage before shooting began to do readings and blocking and staged a run through at the Los Angeles car wash where the film would be shot (Figueroa Car Wash). By the time shooting began, the actors were a close-knit group.
In the aforementioned Haskins biography, Schultz discussed working with Pryor on the film, stating, "The only direction I gave him was: go here, stand there, do this, do that. Richard's the kind of actor who will give you three or four variations on one theme, and as a director all you have to do is guide him along or pick which one you want." For his part, Pryor wasn't too keen on appearing in the film and would later discredit it in his biography, Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences, saying, "On the set of Car Wash, I was too coked out to know any better." He felt that ticket buyers were being deliberately misled by the advertising campaign to expect his part to be bigger than a mere cameo role.
None of the main actors was a star, although there were lots of veteran thespians among them. Ivan Dixon (Lonnie) and Clarence Muse (Snapper) were both established on stage and screen. Carlin and Pryor were there to punch up the box-office appeal, but for Schultz, the point of the film was the lives of everyday people – a hooker looking for her boyfriend, a black militant, the car wash owner and his geeky Maoist son, the cashier who waits for prince charming to walk through the door, the aging ex-con and wise man of the bunch – not to mention all the customers and their respective neuroses (mom with puking boy), difficulties (man in body cast), and quirks (family with Doberman). And then there's Carlin, weaving in and out of the film as the taxi driver looking for the aforementioned prostitute after she ran out on a fare. The Pointer Sisters show up as Daddy Rich's entourage, Garrett Morris appears (pre-SNL), and DeWayne Jesse (Animal House’s  Otis Day) is also present, polishing cloth in hand. The film's soundtrack acts as a character in its own right and won a Grammy® for best original film score. Car Wash even won two prizes at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, one for Michael Schultz and one for Best Music.
Producer: Art Linson, Gary Stromberg
Director: Michael Schultz
Screenplay: Joel Schumacher
Cinematography: Frank Stanley
Film Editing: Christopher Holmes
Art Direction: Robert Clatworthy
Music: Norman Whitfield
Cast: Franklyn Ajaye (T.C.), Sully Boyar (Mr. B), Richard Brestoff (Irwin), Carmine Caridi (Foolish Father), George Carlin (Taxi Driver), Irwin Corey (Mad Bomber).
C-97m. Closed captioning.
by Emily Soares