Tom Petty's Best Moments in Film & Television
At the dawn of his career, Tom Petty popped up in FM, a 1978 film satire of rock & roll radio. It was the start of a long affair with film and video for Petty, one that saw him take roles both meaty and small.
Whenever he showed up on camera — or was animated for a prime time cartoon — Petty was winking at the audience, sending up his own image as a rock & roll star. It’s no coincidence that these cameos began after MTV gave him the opportunity to display a sense of humor that wasn’t apparent on his earliest records. Petty, along with the rest of The Heartbeakers, enjoyed mugging for the cameras, which not only made him different from his heartland rocker peers — pretty tough to imagine Bruce Springsteen & The E-Street Band cavorting at the Mad Hatter’s tea party — but it made him an ideal foil for a comic as knowing as Garry Shandling, whose meta-comedy always winked back at the audience.
Petty’s appearances on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and The Larry Sanders Show opened the door for a cameo on The Simpsons and, eventually, a recurring role on its FOX primetime partner King of the Hill. These cartoons highlighted how Petty excelled at getting laughs as an actor — but, curiously, whenever filmmakers put his music in their work, they emphasized his earnestness. Petty’s records could work convey both freedom and longing, and played off our collective memories, which is why it provided the perfect backing music for indelible scenes in Silence Of The Lambs, Jerry Maguire and The Sopranos: Tom Petty had already written the soundtrack to our lives.
Here are Tom Petty’s 10 most memorable moments in film and television.
Tom Petty’s appearance in FM is brief, but it captures a moment in time — a period when rockers plugged their music by traveling from station to station, giving interviews just before their record plays. That’s all Petty does here, but he already exudes a natural laconic charm that’s captivating — and it’s also interesting to note that “Breakdown,” the song played after the brief Q&A, just barely scraped the top 40 of Billboard’s Hot 100: it’s an FM radio hit, through and through.
Streets of Fire (1984)
Tom Petty didn’t appear in Walter Hill’s noirish rock musical Streets Of Fire, nor did anybody from the Heartbreakers — but Petty and guitarist Mike Campbell did write “Never Be You,” an excellent tale of heartbreak, performed on the soundtrack by Maria McKee. Roseanne Cash later had a No. 1 Country Songs hit with a version of the song, and Petty and McKee would collaborate again on her band Lone Justice’s 1985 hit, “Ways to Be Wicked.”
Made In Heaven (1987)
Alan Rudolph’s reincarnation comedy isn’t well-remembered, but it did give Tom Petty the opportunity to ham it up as a low life called “Stanky” who is robbed at gunpoint by Timothy Hutton’s character. Petty looks like a rock star, but wields his drawl like a comedian, delivering his parting line with a gleeful sneer.
It’s Garry Shandling’s Show (1988, 1989)
The Larry Sanders Show (1998)
Garry Shandling and Tom Petty became friends in the late ’80s, when the rocker played a minor recurring part as one of Garry’s celebrity neighbors on the Showtime series It’s Garry Shandling Show. He may have showed up on Shandling’s subsequent HBO series The Larry Sanders Show only once but it was a doozy of a performance: Backstage at Larry’s final show, Petty picks a fight with Clint Black and gets into a shoving match with white knight Greg Kinnear. His comedic timing is impeccable, and that signature sneer surfaces again as he leaves backstage with fists flying.
A more relaxed Petty can be seen in this bonus feature from 2007’s Not Just The Best Of The Larry Sanders Show, where the two old friends shoot the breeze and reminisce.
Silence Of The Lambs (1991)
Jonathan Demme used “American Girl” as a way to fill in the backstory of Catherine Martin, the woman whose abduction by Buffalo Bill sets the plot of Silence Of The Lambs into motion. The song’s opening line — “She was an American Girl/Raised on promises” — explains this previously unseen character perfectly: She’s singing along with the radio, so wrapped up in the music that she may not realize the song is about her.
She’s the One (1996)
This romantic comedy from Edwards Burns marks the only time Tom Petty provided the score for a film and, in many ways, the ragged soundtrack is the best thing about the movie, as it allowed Petty to indulge in his love of ornate pop. “Walls,” the album’s single, makes excellent use of Lindsey Buckingham’s backing vocals, while retaining the rustic feel of 1994’s Wildflowers solo album.
Jerry Maguire (1996)
Like Jonathan Demme before him, Cameron Crowe used a Tom Petty song on the radio to signal something about his character — but where Demme used “American Girl” as shorthand, Crowe taps into the transportative nature of Petty’s hit records. When Tom Cruise-as-Jerry Maguire happened to find “Free Fallin'” on his car’s radio after signing a crucial deal, it was precisely the right song at the right time — an experience familiar to any fan of pop music, but perhaps never conveyed as naturally as it was here.
The Simpsons (1997, 2002)
Tom Petty first surfaced on The Simpsons when “The Waiting” scored a 1997 episode where Homer Simpson impatiently waits for his gun permit to clear. But he returned in 2002, to teach a rock lyrics workshop at rock camp. By playing with rock cliches, Petty winds up illustrating how he avoids them in his songs.
The Postman (1997)
Kevin Costner’s messy dystopian epic The Postman features Tom Petty’s appearance as the Bridge City Mayor, who helps our hero escape to freedom. It’s the largest role Petty ever had, and while it doesn’t stretch his acting skills, he livens up a turgid film with his wily charm.
King Of The Hill (2003-2007)
Tom Petty wound up with a recurring role on Mike Judge’s King Of The Hill, playing Lucky Kleinschmidt, the husband of Luanne Platter. It may be animated, but Lucky is likely Petty’s greatest role, as it offered him the chance to be funny and sensitive while sending up his Floridian roots.
The Sopranos (2006)
David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos, was keenly aware of how pop music can instantly stir up emotions. That’s what happens to Carmela Soprano in “Join The Club,” a 2006 episode of The Sopranos, which finds Tony Soprano in a coma after being shot by his Uncle Junior. Waiting in his hospital room, Carmela plays “American Girl” on her portable stereo, and she can’t contain the memories — recalling how the song was playing in Tony’s car for an entire weekend while the couple and a bunch of friends went down to Long Beach Island. Her memories are vivid and pointed, triggered by a song that was part of their lives — an experience that is very familiar to every fan of Tom Petty, who may not have realized how deeply intertwined his music was with the fabric of their lives.