Sean Penn Went Method For Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Because Of Course

Sean Penn is an enigmatic tour de force in Hollywood. The actor/director/activist is a two-time Best Actor Oscar winner known for his range and powerful performances in films such as "Mystic River" and "Milk." But he's also known for his questionable takes on issues such as toxic masculinity and inserting himself into the middle of all sorts of controversies. And despite all the accolades, activism, and political wrangling, Penn is often remembered most for his role as the stoner surfer Jeff Spicoli in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High."

The 1982 high school comedy directed by Amy Heckerling is one of the most memorable in a decade full of great comedies. Spicoli, who mused with a relaxed drawl, "All I need are some tasty waves, a cool buzz, and I'm fine," also started the early '80s Vans sneaker trend with his iconic checkered pair. Surfer Today explains that the Spicoli character embodied the stereotypes of the 1960s and 1970s surf scene as a stoner beach bum with a carefree attitude.

Penn's performance created a template for the cinematic stoner still seen today. But what few know is that his work behind the scenes to become Jeff Spicoli is almost as memorable as the role itself.

Spicoli was based on a real person

Method acting, also simply known as "the Method," is the process of an actor identifying with a character by sharing authentic experiences like those the character might have gone through. The Ringer notes that Sean Penn might be the first stoner method actor. Producer Art Linson explains that Penn arrived on the set of "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" as Spicoli and remained in character until the end of the production. Linson said:

"Sean was clad at all times in full beach ensemble — all conceived and put together by him — including a long, sun-thrashed wig."

Penn, who wouldn't let anyone call him by his real name during filming, channeled a childhood friend from Malibu to help create the character. It's only fitting that Penn would draw upon realism to perfect the character. Spicoli is, after all, is based on a real person. To write the book that the film was adapted from, 22-year-old Cameron Crowe attended a Southern California high school undercover to get an accurate portrait of teenage life. This is how the Spicoli character was discovered and brought to life.

Penn's rigorous preparation for the role not only influenced fans of "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" but nearly every stoner in popular culture still to come.

Spicoli still dominates pop culture

As The Ringer opines, nearly all potheads in cinema that followed "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" could be considered descendants of Spicoli. They cite Slater (Rory Cochrane) in "Dazed and Confused," Floyd (Brad Pitt) in "True Romance," and more recently, Saul (James Franco) in "Pineapple Express." Heck, even The Dude (Jeff Bridges) in "The Big Lebowski" is a grown-up Spicoli (almost all in our top 15 list of Best Stoner Movies Ever).

While Penn didn't create the stoner surfer stereotype, he certainly perfected it. Even today, the trope reverberates throughout popular culture. In the World Wrestling Entertainment, former MMA fighter and current WWE superstar Matt Riddle is a carbon copy of Spicoli, with long blonde hair, a ring entrance that involves flip flops and a scooter, and a theme song that begins with, "Brooooo..."

Not everyone got a kick out of Penn's memorable performance. Just after the film's release, the president of the National Scholastic Surfing Association (yes, that's a thing) told Surfer Magazine, "You can no longer get away with long hair, cussing, or bad behavior."

Does Penn have any regrets about the role? Apparently, a little bit. As People notes, in 2003 Penn was asked if he had any guilt for the dimwitted surfer image he helped create, he responded, "I accept full responsibility." While surfing scholars might not have appreciated Penn's portrayal of their ilk, many agree that Spicoli is one of film's most memorable surfers.