Whoa, Ponyboy: The Cast of The Outsiders Then and Now Will Blow Your Mind

The 1983 big-screen adaptation of S.E. Hinton's bestselling novel The Outsiders was full of then-unknown young actors who went on to superstar-caliber careers.

By Natalie Finn Mar 25, 2021 4:20 PMTags
The Outsiders, CastWarner Bros/Kobal/Shutterstock

Seemingly every young actor in Hollywood wanted to be in The Outsiders.

The auditions lasted for weeks as the decision-makers gauged the chemistry between different groups of guys, which at any given time over the course of the process reportedly included Sean Penn, Scott Baio, Nicolas Cage, Mickey Rourke, Val Kilmer and Dennis Quaid. None of whom made it (although Cage, being the director's nephew, showed up in the background in an uncredited bit role).

But it was all worth it for a shot to be a part of, let alone star in, the eagerly anticipated big-screen adaptation of S.E Hinton's 1967 coming-of-age bestseller—a project spearheaded by a group of California sixth graders and their school librarian, who wrote to Oscar-winning director Francis Ford Coppola to see if he'd be interested in making their dream a reality.

Rob Lowe has said on multiple occasions that it was going to be his last audition, that if he didn't get cast in the film he was going to quit acting.

As fate would have it, he and a few others who first auditioned in Los Angeles made it to the New York round to meet with Coppola, where teen idol Matt Dillon had also made it through multiple read-throughs.  

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"Matt is in front of the camera reading the part of Dallas. And by reading, I mean reading," Lowe recalled in his 2011 memoir Stories I Only Tell My Friends. "He is holding the entire script, eyes locked on the text. After a while, however, he puts it down and begins paraphrasing. Soon he's ad-libbing completely and making up dialogue while the other actors try to keep up. I don't know if Francis asked him to freelance like this or not. If he did, then clearly Matt has got the part locked up. If he didn't, then Matt Dillon has dangling, clanking, scary-big elephant balls."

Who's to say?

What we know for sure now is that the line-up that Coppola ultimately assembled was a prescient mix of actors who had It, as the countless people who had the cast poster on their wall growing up (as Kelly Ripa did, a revelation she made when Emilio Estevez was a guest on Live in 2018) could have told you back in the 1980s. So on the occasion of The Outsiders' 38th anniversary, here's what became of that stellar ensemble: 

C. Thomas Howell

The Los Angeles native was 15 when he landed the coveted starring role of Ponyboy Curtis, the soulful tagalong greaser through whose eyes we see the events of the 1950s-set film unfold.

He had previously played one of Elliott's bicycle-riding pals in E.T., but even after that auspicious debut, he still envisioned following in his stuntman dad Christopher Howell's footsteps.

But when he got The Outsiders, Howell recalled to AV Club in 2013, "having worked with Spielberg and Coppola by the time I was 14 or 15 years old, things changed pretty significantly." The 1983 film, which he called "the opportunity of a lifetime," vaulted him into starring roles in Tank, Grandview U.S.A., Red DawnSecret Admirer and the horror classic The Hitcher in quick succession (and he'd return for The Hitcher II: I've Been Waiting in 2003).

And while Howell may be known as more of a character actor these days, he's worked nonstop, with film highlights including the Civil War-era Gettysburg and Gods and MonstersHidalgo and The Amazing Spider-Man, and small-screen turns on—to name a few—ER24, Criminal MindsSouthlandHawaii 5-0Sons of AnarchyBlue BloodsThe PunisherRay DonovanSEAL TeamThe BlacklistThe Walking DeadBosch and The Terror.

But real fans never forget your roots. 

"I can't tell you how many people will come up to me and say something about it, whether they're parents or kids themselves," he told AV Club of his role in The Outsiders. "I hear from so many parents, 'Yeah, my son, my daughter, had a real hard time reading books until they had to read The Outsiders, and they fell in love with that book, then they watched the film, and not only is it their favorite movie, but they read constantly now."

Howell admitted, "When we made The Outsiders, I had no idea that that book and that film would go on to the sort of iconic status it's reached...What an amazing thing to be a part of and to cut your teeth on."

His first marriage, to his Soul Man co-star Rae Dawn Chong, ended in 1990 after barely a year. He has three children second wife Sylvie Anderson, who filed for divorce in 2016. 

Diane Lane

The former child actress, who was hailed on a 1979 TIME magazine cover as one of Hollywood's "Whiz Kids" after starring in A Little Romance, actually appeared in two Coppola-directed adaptations of S.E. Hinton novels, The Outsiders and Rumble Fish—both of which came out in 1983, seven months apart.

And while a 22-year-old Lane certainly stood out as Cherry, the object of Ponyboy's puppy-love affections, there was no denying that the whole production was a real boys club.

"It was frightening to see and realize many violations of psyche and boundaries such as honey all over my toilet seat, something terrorizing written with my lipstick in the mirror, Vaseline on every door handle, and just when you think it's safe and you can finally sleep that night, your bed is short-sheeted!" she recalled to Variety for the film's 35th anniversary in 2018. "I never had siblings or went to summer camp, so for me it was a bonding experience. Is that what they mean by trauma-bonding?"

The actress has had a prolific career with dozens of films under her belt including The Cotton Club (also directed by Coppola), ChaplinIndian Summer, Judge DreddMurder at 1600A Walk on the MoonUnfaithful (for which she received a Best Actress Oscar nomination), Under the Tuscan SunHollywoodlandSecretariat and Trumbo.

Plus, no small thing, she landed in the DC Universe as Clark Kent's earthly mom Martha, so she's streaming now on HBO Max in Zack Snyder's Justice League, as well as in the final season of House of Cards on Netflix and The Romanoffs on Amazon Prime Video. Lane also reteamed with Clark's dad, Kevin Costner, in the 2020 western thriller Let Him Go and is next playing a senator in a post-apocalyptic world in Y: The Last Man, headed for FX.

In real life, Lane was married to actor Christopher Lambert from 1988 until 1994, and then to Josh Brolin from 2004 until 2013.

Rob Lowe

Since Lowe did get cast in The Outsiders as Ponyboy's second-oldest brother, Sodapop ("it even says so on his birth certificate"), he did not quit acting. But despite his time with the Brat Pack in St. Elmo's Fire and About Last Night, an impressive evil turn in Bad Influence and the straight-man comedy support he gave in Wayne's World and Tommy Boy, it turned out that TV was destined to be Lowe's main medium. 

The West Wing returned him to prime-time rotation and he hasn't been off-screen since, whether he was unrecognizable as Liberace's plastic surgeon pal in the HBO film Behind the Candelabra, part of the ensemble on Brothers & Sisters, Californication or Parks and Recreation, or now heading up the rescue squad on 9-1-1: Lone Star. He's also an Emmy- and six-time Golden Globe nominee.

Overall, nobody seems to be having a better time (doing anything) than Lowe. His seemingly ageless matinee idol looks and the fear of losing them have been worked into several of his character arcs, and the podcast he started in 2020, Literally! With Rob Lowe, is borrowed from his ever-upbeat Parks and Rec character Chris Traeger's favorite word.

"People talk about having grown up with me," he told Esquire.com in 2014. "That The Outsiders is the first movie they saw or their first date with their wife was About Last Night... or St. Elmo's Fire. Or they went into politics because of The West Wing and now they're the head speech writer for President Obama. Which is a true story. And, again, you can only get that with history. Being part of history means you're going to be getting old."

Asked to name one thing he was most proud of about his career, Lowe replied, "I think the one thing, if I had to pick one thing, would be just that I still feel as relevant today as I did when I was in the Brat Pack and The Outsiders. I feel like I'm doing as interesting of work, if not more interesting."

Lowe has two sons, Matthew and John, with Sheryl Berkoff, his wife since 1991.

Emilio Estevez

The Brat Pack-bound actor grew up in the Hollywood scene and had a little insight as to the director's ways, his dad, Martin Sheen, having starred in Coppola's Apocalypse Now. Lowe was already good buddies with Estevez and his brother, Charlie Sheen, and actually lived down the street from their house in Malibu (where another aspiring star of The Outsiders was staying during the L.A. auditions, but more on that in a bit). Lowe wrote in his 2011 memoir that when he found out that he'd be going to New York to read for Coppola, the next call he got, seconds later, was from Estevez checking in, because he was invited to New York, too.

Estevez, whose only previous credited role was in 1982's Tex, also a Hinton adaptation, was 20 when he played Ponyboy's greaser pal Keith "Two-Bit" Matthews.

Then the 1980s blew up for him with Repo ManThe Breakfast ClubSt. Elmo's FireStakeout and Young Guns. Estevez hit the 1990s running, too, with Young Guns IIMen at Work (which he also wrote and directed), The Mighty Ducks (plus two sequels), Loaded Weapon 1 and Another Stakeout. Though he continued to act, his focus turned to writing and directing, and he both made and appeared in 2006's Bobby, 2010's The Way (also starring his dad) and 2018's The Public. And triple deke fans were rather excited to see that he'll be reprising his role as Gordon Bombay in the upcoming Disney+ series The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers.

But he knows that it's his work from the 1980s that he'll be known for forever. "They transcend generations," Estevez said in a chat alongside Martin Sheen for the Hudson Union Society in 2012. "I'll have 40-year-old, 50-year-old folks coming up to me and saying, 'I love The Breakfast Club, I watch it all the time, and then a 16-year-old will say, 'I just saw it.'" He added, "How many actors have an opportunity to have a couple of those films on their resume, that stand the test of time?"

Estevez is the father of two grown kids, son Taylor and daughter Paloma, with ex-girlfriend Carey Sally and he was married to Paula Abdul from 1992 until 1994. The actor confirmed in April 2019 that he was about to become a first-time grandfather once Taylor welcomed his first child.

Tom Cruise

We hear the New Jersey native has done well since the days he was staying at the Sheen-Estevez house while trying out for a part in The Outsiders, which would be his third-ever movie.

Thomas Cruise Mapother IV has since made a few dozen films and grossed billions of dollars at the box office, but right after playing greaser Steve Randle it was onto Risky BusinessAll the Right Moves, LegendTop GunThe Color of MoneyCocktailRain Man and Born on the Fourth of July—and that was just the rest of the 1980s. He's been nominated for three Oscars and won three Golden Globes for the same performances, in Born on the Fourth of JulyJerry Maguire and Magnolia

"They all look bummed, out of it," Lowe wrote in his book, recalling how most guys looked leaving the soundstage after their tryout for The Outsiders. "One guy, though, has a huge, toothy, wolf-like grin. He whispers to Emilio and me, 'Francis sent these guys packing, but he asked me to stay.'"

He's never left, and next up for Cruise are his seventh and eighth Mission: Impossible films as well as the pandemic-delayed release of Top Gun: Maverick, finally due in theaters July 2.

The father of three and prominent Scientologist was married to Mimi Rogers for three years, then Nicole Kidman for 10 years, and then Katie Holmes for a little more than five years before their divorce in 2012.

Matt Dillon

Having already been in a few films, including the very-1980 Little Darlings and the 1982 Hinton adaptation Tex, the 18-year-old Dillon had already established himself as a teen idol by the time he won the role of cocky delinquent Dallas "Dally" Winston.

"I can't understand it," Dillon said of his own sex appeal while talking to film critic Roger Ebert in 1983. "Looks aren't a big thing to me. I keep reading these articles in fan magazines about me, and I don't even know who they're talking about. It's boring."

To ward off the malaise, the actor joined Lane in shooting Rumble Fish with Coppola right after they wrapped The Outsiders, after which he starred in the rom-com The Flamingo Kid and then did a lot of playing-against-heartthrob-type, perhaps most memorably in Gus Van Sant's gritty Drugstore Cowboy, for which he won an Independent Spirit Award. Through the years he's had memorable turns in SinglesTo Die For, Beautiful GirlsWild ThingsThere's Something About Mary (going on to date co-star Cameron Diaz), Crash (earning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination and winning another Spirit Award), Old Dogs and the TV drama Wayward Pines. His latest movie, Capone (featuring an unrecognizable Tom Hardy as the titular gangster), is streaming on Amazon, and up next is the political satire Land of Dreams. He also directed and co-wrote the 2002 crime drama City of Ghosts and helmed the 2020 documentary The Great Fellove.

Fascinatingly, becoming more of a character actor despite his leading-man handsomeness may have been his plan all along. He told Ebert, "I'd like to play some parts that are not featured through the whole film. If you notice, in most films, the lead role usually isn't the character role; the lead role has to stand there and represent something, while the character role can experiment more. I'd like a role where I could pop in and out of the story."

For the past five years, Dillon has reportedly been happily coupled with Italian actress Roberta Mastromichele.

Ralph Macchio

Before playing doomed greaser Johnny Cade in The Outsiders, Macchio had done one movieUp the Academy, directed by Robert Downey Sr. (whose son would later be in the running against Macchio to star in a certain teen martial arts film), and had a recurring role on the family sitcom Eight Is Enough.

"I always felt [Johnny] sounded like I looked," Macchio told Parade in 2017. "Big puppy dog eyes, dark hair. He was the runt. I was never the biggest guy in class. But I didn't come from his backstory by any stretch."

Though he was 21 already, Macchio easily passed for a teen—and would continue to do so right up through My Cousin Vinny, which came out in 1992. But first, the Long Island, N.Y., native made three Karate Kid movies, starting with the classic original that came out in 1984 and made Macchio an instant icon.

He continued to act, most notably playing a city councilman suitor for Ana Ortiz's Hilda in Ugly Betty and a corrupt cop on HBO's The Deuce, but he admittedly experienced a long dry patch as far as attention-getting roles went. Until, that is, the myth of the nice-guy Karate Kid was turned on its head in the culturally self-aware dramedy Cobra Kai, which premiered on YouTube Red (later Premium) and was such a phenomenon, Netflix picked up its third season and renewed it for an upcoming fourth.

But despite playing one of the roles of the 1980s (and, unexpectedly, the 2020s) in Daniel La Russo, The Outsiders was its own experience of a lifetime. Whenever he sees a co-star, Macchio told Parade, "there's a kindred spirit. There's a warmth about seeing each other because you know you all started from the same place, and you're always connected by The Outsiders."

Macchio has been married to wife Phyllis since 1987 and they have two children together, daughter Julia and son Daniel.

Patrick Swayze

The Outsiders was only his second movie, but at 31 years old Swayze was the man to his co-stars, in more ways than one.

Lowe remembered in his book when he first met the trained dancer and gymnast: "He walks into the gym as cool as you want, wearing tight jeans and a tattered, sleeveless Harley-Davidson T-shirt revealing his massive, ripped arms. (This is his uniform, he never changes it, and if I looked like him, neither would I.)" Further separating Swayze from the pack, Lowe noted, was that he was married, "so on that level he might as well be a Martian."

Swayze played Ponyboy's eldest brother, Darrel "Darry" Curtis, and then reteamed with Howell for both Grandview, U.S.A. and Red Dawn the next year. Depending on who you are and what you're into, Swayze will always be Johnny Castle from Dirty Dancing, John Dalton from Road House, Sam Wheat from Ghost or Bodhi from Point Break, or perhaps Vida Boheme in To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, so iconic were all of those roles. But as with everyone who was in The Outsiders, that movie meant everything to the trajectory of his career.

"His wife talks about how getting the role of Darry in The Outsiders was so pivotal in his career," Howell told Tulsa World in 2019, referring to Lisa Niemi's commentary in the documentary I Am Patrick Swayze, which also featured he and Lowe. "It changed their lives forever, as it did all of us."

Swayze had just started making the drama series The Beast for A&E when he found out he had pancreatic cancer, but he insisted on toughing it out to complete a 13-episode first season. He died in 2009 at the age of 57, having been married to Niemi since 1975.

Francis Ford Coppola

His legacy secure after directing The GodfatherThe ConversationThe Godfather Part II (for which he won the Oscar for Best Director) and Apocalypse Now in the 1970s, it's all been so much experimental gravy for Coppola since. He made The Outsiders and Rumble Fish in quick succession, after which his output—The Cotton ClubPeggy Sue Got Married, the Michael Jackson-starring 3-D short Captain EOTucker: A Man and His DreamThe Godfather Part III (an Oscar nominee for Best Picture more for old time's sake), Bram Stoker's DraculaJackThe Rainmaker and 2011's Twixt, which he promoted at Comic-Con that yearhas been all over the map, genre-wise and with critics.

Coppola, who's also been producing wine since the 1970s out of Napa Valley, married wife Eleanor in 1963. Their eldest son, Gian-Carlo, died in a speedboating accident in 1986. Son Roman Coppola is a producer and Oscar-nominated screenwriter and filmmaker daughter Sofia Coppola won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Lost in Translation in 2004. Granddaughter Gia Coppola, Gian-Carlo's daughter, is also a director. (Plus, Talia Shire is his sister, Nicolas Cage and Jason Schwartzman are nephews...we could go on.)

The Outsiders: The Complete Novel, which is 22 minutes longer than the original version and features more rock and roll on the soundtrack, as Coppola originally wanted, arrived on DVD in 2005. "I'm not a tinkerer," he told Entertainment Weekly at the time. "There are just a few things that, if I could, I'd like the chance to set right."  In that vein, he added 49 minutes to 2001's Apocalypse Now: Redux and re-cut The Godfather Part III into Mario Puzo's The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone, which was released in December to coincide with that film's 30th anniversary.

Judging by the various accounts of The Outsiders shoot, it sounds as if none of its stars would have been surprised by the arrival of a director's cut.

The unusual audition process, in which the actors took turns reading with each other as different characters, and everyone stayed in the room and watched each other's readings, "was nerve-wracking," Estevez admitted in his Hudson Union Society talk in 2012, "but also incredibly exciting." Moreover, Coppola filmed all of it, and then showed the results to the cast before they started shooting the actual movie.


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Asked if he sensed at all when he was making the movie that so many of his co-stars would go on to have huge careers, Estevez said, "It's not something that you're really paying attention to at the time. You're just a bunch of guys—most of those guys you're competing against for a lot of the same roles."

And as they made the movie and the actors dug into the material, he added, "there was a sense that all these guys were gonna work, that we'd all see each other again. But there was no idea that a lot of these guys would go on to have these extraordinary careers, no."

Howell, who remained closest with Lowe and Macchio through the ensuing decades, told AV Club, "When you look back on films, it's so rare to have a cast like that, who start out so young and move on to be such a prevalent part of this town. I'm very, very proud to have come from that sort of… frathouse, really, and to have shared that with those guys. And I know each and every one of those guys, from reading different interviews and still staying in touch with them, they all feel the same thing."

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