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Retro Spirits of '76

Television Young actors on Fox's 'That '70s Show' get down with their bad hair and wild bell-bottoms.

November 07, 1998|STEVE WEINSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

They say stress will age a person fast. But for anyone who was in high school back in 1976, the sobering realization that the kids who play the teenagers on Fox's new sitcom "That '70s Show" weren't even born when the country celebrated its bicentennial will age you faster than a 1,000-point dip in the Dow.

As they read the scripts each week, these six young actors--the youngest of whom wasn't born until 1983--gaze puzzled at many of the cultural references the show's writing staff takes for granted. "What was 'Police Woman' or 'The $20,000 Pyramid'?" they ask. "Was Nipsy Russell some football player or what?" "Why would we have President Gerald Ford falling down?" "What was Chico and who was the Man?"

"Sometimes I feel like I'm doing 'Miss Jane Pittman,' " said Bonnie Turner, who, with husband Terry Turner and Mark Brazill, created and produces the series. "I feel awfully old. Way back in 1976, I tell them, people actually got their news from the paper."

"Yeah, it's kind of weird sometimes," said Laura Prepon, who plays the show's tomboy and wasn't born until 1980. "We're hanging out in the basement on the show watching TV, and we never know what we're watching."

For the most part, however, all six of the young stars declare that teenagers are teenagers, no matter the era, with the same urges, needs, conflicts with their parents and pangs of love. It's not much of a stretch to depict the teenage melodramas they themselves staged for real in their own lives just a few months back.

What's difficult is squeezing their lithe bodies into the way-too-tight bell-bottoms.

"They're always asking, 'How did you people even sit down in these things?' " Terry Turner said, chuckling.

Still, Mila Kunis, the show's youngest member at 15, admitted that much of the fashion is hot again with kids today--just not quite as unforgivingly snug. "Bell-bottoms are happening now in the '90s," she said. "It's scary but, yeah, I would wear some of the stuff I see on the show. The '70s are big right now."

"And we're going to kill that fad," interrupted Topher Grace, 20, who plays the high school junior at the center of the sitcom and who is dumbfounded that people willingly wore those polyester leisure suits and gigantic open collars. "That's our promise to you. Even though my clothes aren't too out there compared to some of the other guys, they aren't any fun for me at all."

Reliving the Tortuous Age of Blow Dryers

Nor are the boys' long hair styles. Both Grace and co-star Ashton Kutcher, also 20, had fairly short hair when they won their roles last spring.

"They really don't care for that--Topher particularly," Terry Turner said. "He can't get it to lay down properly. That was the age of blow dryers. I remember torturing myself with the blow dryer every morning. It takes a lot of maintenance. I don't know what we were thinking."

"Sometimes these kids just look at me like I'm from another planet with some of the goofy stuff we depict from that time," co-creator and producer Brazill said of the series, which is based in large part on his own high school years growing up in a small New York town.

"The '70s Show" actors say the most pleasant surprise in immersing themselves in this odd world has been the music. Before the series, nearly all of them believed that the '70s meant one thing only: disco. And though Sunday's show includes a trip to a disco and songs by the Bee Gees and ABBA, the majority of the music the series uses is 1970s rock--KISS, Bad Company, Todd Rundgren.

"I always thought it was all about disco, the whole decade," said Danny Masterson, who at 22 is the oldest of the show's six stars. "But I love the rock 'n' roll."

Most of the actors say they didn't do much research into the tenor of the times before going to work, other than watching some of the big movies--"Rocky," "The Omen," "Jaws" and "Carrie"--that were likely to have made an impact on teens of the day.

Kunis, who plays the richest and most spoiled of the kids on the show and thus wears some of the fanciest and more outrageous clothes and hairstyles, said she busied herself with reruns on Nick at Nite and lots of issues of old Cosmopolitans. And Kutcher forced himself to leaf through old yearbooks and sit through reels of TV commercials from what seemed to him that distant past.

"That was creepy," he said. "Today everything is so slick and perfect-looking and filled with special effects, and back then TV was just so raw, almost primitive. It was almost scary. And it's almost funny to sit there in a time when kids didn't have video games or CD players. There was no call waiting, no beepers, no voicemail, all these things we take for granted. Back then, playing Pong was the most happening thing in the neighborhood."

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