The California Kid

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For the mixed martial arts fighter nicknamed The California Kid, see Urijah Faber.
The California Kid
"The California Kid" movie poster
Directed by Richard T. Heffron
Produced by Howie Horwitz
Paul Mason
Written by Richard Compton
Starring Martin Sheen
Vic Morrow
Michelle Phillips
Nick Nolte
Gary Morgan
Fredric Downs
Janit Baldwin
Music by Luchi De Jesus
Hal Mooney
Cinematography Terry K. Meade
Edited by Robert F. Shugrue
Richard Belding
Distributed by Universal Studios
Release dates
United States, September 25, 1974
Running time
75 minutes
Country  United States
Language English
Budget $1,000,000

The California Kid is a 1974 TV movie starring Martin Sheen, Vic Morrow, Nick Nolte, Michelle Phillips, Gary Morgan, and Janit Baldwin.


The story takes place in 1958, and involves a town, Clarksburg, California, with a famous speed trap, in which a disturbed Sheriff Roy Childress (Vic Morrow), whose wife and daughter were killed by a speeder, turns bad, with a habit of deliberately punishing speeders by pushing their cars off the mountain highway in his 1957 Plymouth Belvedere.

Two Navy sailors on leave (one portrayed by Sheen's younger brother, Joe Estevez), speeding to get back to base on time in a 1951 Ford Custom, are pushed off to their deaths by the sheriff. Soon after, a stranger arrives, driving a hot rodded black 1934 Ford three-window coupe. He provokes Sheriff Childress into giving him a speeding ticket on purpose, establishes his credentials with the sheriff as a hot rodder and potential speed maniac, with an explicit reference to the 3-window's tested speed. He pays the ticket in front of Judge J.A. Hooker (Frederic Downs), and it is revealed he is Michael McCord (Martin Sheen), older brother of one of the sailors.

Believing his brother's death was no accident, he does his own investigating, with the help of Maggie (Michelle Phillips). He finds a stripped bumper from his brother's Ford at the impound yard, dented as if by pushbars. He checks out the lay of the land. Knowing how his brother was killed, he goes out to the Curve, testing its limits.

When Lyle Stafford (Gary Morgan), the younger brother of the town's auto mechanic Buzz Stafford (Nick Nolte) is killed and his girlfriend Sissy (Janit Baldwin) badly injured by the sheriff after the duo go for a drive in a 1955 Mercury, McCord sees the pushbars on the sheriff's car. When Buzz wants to kill the sheriff for revenge, McCord persuades him not to. Then the sheriff tries to run McCord out of town, and the stage is set for the climactic duel.

McCord then runs the speed trap, challenging the sheriff, who tries to run him off the road. McCord is ready, knowing his car's limits for the curve, and the sheriff is a victim of his own obsession, going too fast to make the deadly turn. He drives off the cliff, while McCord manages to stop in the sand.


Replica of a 1957 Fury, typical of the film's interceptor.
Actor Role
Martin Sheen Michael McCord
Vic Morrow Sheriff Roy Childress
Stuart Margolin Deputy
Frederic Downs Judge J.A. Hooker
Joe Estevez Don McCord
Michelle Phillips Maggie
Janit Baldwin Sissy
Monika Henreid Gerry
Sandy Brown Wyeth Leona
Barbara Collentine Edith
Nick Nolte Buzz Stafford
Gary Morgan Lyle Stafford
Don Mantooth Jack (as Donald Mantooth)
Britt Leach Johnny
Norman Bartold Howard
Michael Richardson Charley
Gavan O'Herlihy Tom
Jack McCulloch Pete
Ken Johnson Harlie
Trent Dolan Stranger


Pete Chapouris customized a 1934 Ford three window coupe, selected on sight by the producers. The '34 would become legendary among customizers and hot rodders. Incidentally, the close-up shot of the car's engine in the movie is not in fact that of the '34 coupe featured, but a masked shot of the engine in another legendary film car, the '32 Ford from "American Graffiti"[citation needed].

At the time Chapouris created the car, the customizing style he employed was at odds with most contemporary enthusiast thinking, and was generally considered "old-fashioned" in a world where "resto-rodding" (a style of customizing sympathetic to the car's original design and specification) was the current trend. However, this old-time styling of the car made it perfect for its role in the movie, where—with a few tweaks (added dummy sidepipes, a 'c' channel rear bumper, and replacing the 1960s-era Halibrand wheels with more era-correct steel wheels and Ford hubcaps)--it provided the perfect example of a well-built 1950s hot rod. Such was the impact of the car in its role in the movie, today the name "The California Kid" refers more to the car itself than the film among rodders.

For its role in the film, the words "The California Kid" were added just below the side windows on both sides in a script-type lettering, along with the flourish of an extra piece of small flame paintwork alongside it. The extra flames were quickly deleted after filming (they were rather unnatractive and not in keeping with the style of flames already applied to the car) though the script has remained ever since.

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