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CNN Today

Legendary Car Customizer Created Hollywood Stars

Aired January 5, 2001 - 4:51 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: Even if you're a big fan of movies and TV, the name George Barris may not mean much to you. But George Barris is a star maker.

CNN's Jim Moret explains.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JIM MORET, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Such passion for an automobile is typically only seen in the movies, but for the man who built that dream car for "Grease," the passion is real. George Barris is a pop culture legend who's designed vehicles for movies and television for 50 years.

GEORGE BARRIS, BARRIS KUSTOM PRODUCTIONS: Well, I found out one thing: that people, the public in general, everywhere in the world, loves automobiles.

MORET: So does Barris. As a child, he toyed with model cars. But by the time he was a teenager he was building the real thing.

BARRIS: Back in the early days is when we were really pioneering customizing and hot rods. We were kind of considered the militants, because we'd take hot rods and we'd go out and race in the streets, and that means the cops would have to chase us.

MORET: When the filmmakers of the 1950s flick "Hot Rod Girl" needed a cool set of wheels for the title character and her pals, they sought out Barris. That movie, and a number of other hot-rod-titled films of the time, jump-started Barris' Hollywood career.

He built James Dean's road racer from "Rebel Without a Cause." In the 1960s, the fad of customizing cars with vibrant colors, fins and flares captured the attention of journalist Tom Wolfe, who wrote about Barris' creations in "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby."

BARRIS: He said, you're a Picasso of automobiles; you do to automobiles what he would do on either canvas or clay.

MORET: His career shifted into high gear, and Barris-built cars burst onto the small screen.

BARRIS: He put together the Green Hornet's "Black Beauty"; designed "The Beverly Hillbillies"' jalopy; and created "The Munsters"' family coach.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "THE MUNSTERS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: How do you like it, Herman? I had it customized just for you.

(END VIDEO CLIP, "THE MUNSTERS")

MORET: In 1964, Barris had four weeks to create the skull and spider-strewn vehicle. It cost about $27,000 then. Barris says it would cost $187,000 today.

(on camera): This really underscores one of your philosophies: not just a great looking car, but it has to run?

BARRIS: It has to run. Not only does it have to run, it has to portray what the family has to do. This is kiki (ph), goofy, three Model-Ts in one, 10 carburetors out of a big Ford engine.

MORET (voice-over): His crowning achievement was transforming this 1955 Lincoln Futura.

(on camera): This, you said, is probably the most famous car ever built?

BARRIS: Without a doubt, this is the No. 1 car worldwide.

MORET (voice-over): Barris was the brains behind the original batmobile from the 1960s television series.

BARRIS: We push this lever and oil would go out of the back so it would skid the Joker out. Push this one here and nails would come out so the Riddler wouldn't catch us.

MORET: But what the crime-fighting car didn't have got Barris into trouble while driving it for an appearance in Fargo, North Dakota. The batmobile was impounded because it was missing windshield wipers and taillights. Barris says a judge threw out the case and scolded the arresting officer.

BARRIS: He said, Wilbur -- he said -- do you know what you did? He says, you've impounded the batmobile and you've thrown Mr. Barris in jail. I'm now demoting you to a dog catcher.

MORET: Barris transformed stock cars into stunt cars. The general lee in "Dukes of Hazard."

A cartoon served as his blueprint for the real-life Flinstonemobile. He made what appeared to be driver-less Ford Explorers for "Jurassic Park," a trick he learned when building Kitt, the driving force of "Knight Rider."

BARRIS: They become stars. They become a functional piece that has to act, that has to perform, that has to entertain.

MORET: In the 1970s, Barris branched out and produced a half- dozen movies, including "Mag Wheels," in which he plays the king of customizers -- in other words, himself.

Barris' custom car shop is in north Hollywood. On this day, they were shining Harrison Ford's cruiser from "American Graffiti." Fine- tuning it for an exhibit at the Petersen Automotive Museum because Barris' shop is not open to the public.

Hundreds of posters and photos representing Barris' life's work line the walls, thousands more are in boxes, including photos of celebrities who asked Barris to make cars for them, including Marilyn Monroe. Barris customized Liberace's finely-tuned Caddie, Farrah Fawcett's foxy-Vette, Zsa Zsa Gabor's gold-plated Rolls Royce and Bob Hope's look-alike golf cart.

BARRIS: Even commercial companies, for the exposure, for advertising their products, found out that automobiles, or wheels, play an important part, like the weinermobile was the Oscar Meyer's.

MORET: Yes, Barris restored the weinermobile in the '50s. He manufactured the Pokemon beetle in the '90s. And he once created a van with a nine-foot Coppertone lotion bottle that talked.

BARRIS: It says, "I'm Mr. Coppertone. Would you like to have some Coppertone?" He puts the two arms and he goes squirt, squirt, squirt. He squirts Coppertone all over the girl so she can get a tan.

MORET: Now in his 70s, Barris still collects toy cars, many based on life-sized classics he built. Even with so many cars under his belt, he has no favorite.

BARRIS: My favorite is the challenge; the challenge of actually creating something that entertains a person.

Very quiet car, huh?

MORET: Jim Moret, CNN, Los Angeles.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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