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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Put Me In, Coach (originally published 6/96)

Actors, like athletes, can be divided into two categories: amateurs and pros. In each case, the transition from amateur to pro requires both natural gifts and years of training. There is, however, a striking difference. Although you will never see an amateur athlete competing alongside pros in a regular, non-exhibition game, motion picture releases starring amateur actors are not all that uncommon. When that happens, as it did in the current release “Kazaam,” starring Shaquille O’Neal, the rookie in the cast list usually turns out to be a celebrated athlete. Clearly, the producers are counting on Shaq’s popularity as a sports star to translate into bucks at the box office, thereby offsetting the liability of casting a non-actor in a starring role.

It’s not a new ploy, by any means. Moviemakers have been recruiting from the ranks of the sports community almost as long as there have been movies. In fact, there are even a few star athletes who have made the transition from sports star to movie star with impressive skill. To see some really worthwhile movie work done by ex-jocks, look for these titles on video.

Johnny Weissmuller in “Tarzan, the Ape Man” (1932). Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan provided the conduit for many an ex-athlete into the movie business. Johnny Weissmuller, a renowned Olympic swimming champion, was not the first to portray Tarzan on the screen and certainly not the last, but he managed to make the part his own in a way that no one since has even approached. With high-dollar M-G-M production values going for him, not to mention that unforgettable yell, Weissmuller parlayed this impressive debut into a successful career.

Paul Robeson in “The Emperor Jones” (1933). It seemed that Paul Robeson succeeded extravagantly at whatever he chose to turn his hand to. Not content with being a professional football star, he graduated from Columbia University’s law school while simultaneously beginning a career as a stage performer. In the film adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Emperor Jones,” Robeson plays an escaped convict who, through a preposterous sequence of events, becomes the ruler of a small Caribbean island. Robeson, as usual, is brilliant.

Esther Williams in “Neptune’s Daughter” (1949). Like Weissmuller, Esther Williams originally made her mark as a champion swimmer. She was recruited for the movies by M-G-M, where big, elaborate musicals were fast becoming the specialty of the house. They put her in a bathing suit, staged vast, surreal musical numbers around her swimming and diving talents, and brought Red Skelton in for comic support. If you’ve never seen one of these, you owe it to yourself. For a sampling, take a look at the film's trailer, reproduced below courtesy of Turner Classic Movies:

Chuck Connors in “Geronimo” (1962). After playing basketball for Seton Hall, Connors went on to play major league baseball, first for the Brooklyn Dodgers, then for the Chicago Cubs. He is probably best remembered today as the star of the television series “The Rifleman,” but having served that apprenticeship he went on to become a pretty fair journeyman movie actor. Indeed, he has a few moments of real distinction, one of which is his sympathetic portrayal of Geronimo, ruefully watching the betrayal of his people by the United States government.

Ward Bond in “Gentleman Jim” (1942). Plucked from the USC football roster by director John Ford, Ward Bond never looked back, becoming one of the movies’ most dependable supporting players. His golden moments onscreen are legion, but I’ve always had a soft spot for his great portrayal of John L. Sullivan opposite Errol Flynn as “Gentleman Jim” Corbett.

Roosevelt Grier in “The Sophisticated Gents” (1981). Grier’s film career has had its low points, but this excellent TV movie redeems them all. He plays one of nine members of a black athletics club who reunite for a 25th anniversary tribute to their old coach. Melvin Van Peebles adapted the script from the novel “The Junior Bachelor Society” by John A. Williams.

Okay, so we’ve established that ex-jocks can indeed do good work on the big screen. But can they become significant box office draws? For the answer to that one, I refer you to the career of Duke Morrison, another USC football player who was recruited by John Ford at the same time as Ward Bond. He changed his name to John Wayne, starred in “Stagecoach” (1939), and the rest is box office history.