Skip to main content
Original Issue


Hollywood crawls with ex-athletes, would-be athletes and athlete-worshippers. Americans love sports. So where in the world of make-believe are the good sports movies?


A movie crew is about to film an action sequence of a football game. Reflectors and microphones are arranged. A Panavision camera is set up to shoot over the center into the face of the quarterback. One hundred and fifty extras have been placed to make the otherwise empty stadium seem full. The star, wearing pads and jersey No. 10, is drinking coffee from a paper cup and thoughtfully stroking his Lhasa Apso as he listens to the director.

Director: All right, Cecil, this is the deal. You're the quarterback, remember? The leader, the stud. Men would follow you into hell, O.K.? It's fourth and 10, down by six, but you got the soul to pull it off. baby, never mind the broken ribs, never mind that you feel alienated from a society that is exploiting your body and has cost you your innocence.

Cecil: I don't understand my motivation for this. Fourth and 10, you boot.

Director: It's the final minute. Cecil. All the little orphan kids in front of their TVs, they yearn to believe in heroes, and you know that's what America really needs, and you hate the people who use heroes as a commodity like corned beef. You're doing it for your wife Margie, in surgery from the suicide attempt, for Coach Thornton, who's being fired with no pension or profit sharing, for your buddies you've suffered with in the blue and gold, for $135,000 a year in salary and a lot of broads Margie don't know about besides Sue Anne the owner's daughter and Dixie from the airport coffee shop.

Cecil: Shouldn't I have dirt on my face for the close-up?

Director: Hey. Doris, put an authentic-looking smudge on Cecil's chin. Beautiful! Now, Cecil, you stand right here and hold your hands like Rudy showed you, and when this man gives you the ball you run back there to that mark and throw a pass this direction. Aim at the Hag we stuck in the ground. Got it, Cece?

Cecil: Who's going to catch the ball?

Director: The ball goes out of the shot.

Cecil: It's very important to my concept of the scene to know who is supposed to catch the ball.

Director: Alice, honey, drop that script a minute and catch the ball, will you? That's a sweetheart. It won't sting, I promise.

With the traditional clacking of the board and cries for silence and then for action, Cecil scowls heroically, shouts his snap count, accepts the ball from center, trots briskly back to his mark, hops away from a deliberately falling lineman and whips his arm forward in the motion of a debutante striking at a badminton bird. The extras cheer.

Director: Cut! Dynamite, Cecil. Just terrific is all. Not hurt, are you, baby?

Cecil: She should have had it. I mean, a real player would have caught it. All she had to do was bend over a little.

Director: Places, everybody, we'll run it again. This time, Cece, do try to make the ball twirl round and round instead of over and over. Fingers on the laces, baby, remember?


In an upstairs room a party is being held to celebrate a producer's birthday. Musicians in the orchestra are wearing umpires' uniforms rented from Western Costume. Tables are labeled "dugout," "pitcher's mound," "first base" and so forth. Baseballs are used as place cards. Popcorn, hot dogs and beer are being served by waiters in aprons and paper caps. The producer discovers a gift on his table. He unwraps the package, and his eyes cloud up with emotion. The gift is an autographed photo of Hank Aaron of the Atlanta Braves. The producer reads the inscription aloud in a husky voice.

Producer: My 815th home run will be for you....

At another table, someone laughs. The producer's head jerks up. His eyes harden again into their normal pawnbroker's gaze.

Producer: All right, you guys, who really signed this?

A few years ago a friend and I wrote the original screenplay for a rodeo movie of which a somewhat altered version turned out to be a film titled J.W. Coop. Larry Mahan, the world-champion cowboy, played a part in it. Later I asked Mahan what he thought of the movie, and he said, "It was a phony." I thought so, too, and was puzzled as to why this should have happened, since the reality of rodeo life is easy to get at. Until I saw the movie, I hadn't understood fully what the producer-director-star meant when he said, "I don't have to stick to the truth, this is cinema."

They have been trying for half a century to make a good, or even successful, motion picture with sport as a theme, or at least as a background for what the characters are doing on the screen. They have hit a few singles and a rare double or two, but mostly they have popped up or struck out. Sports films, as a rule, have been winners neither as art nor as commerce.

Given America's preoccupation with sports, why should this be so? Is it the problem of deciding where sport leaves off and real life begins? Does this, in fact, ever happen in the Hollywood mind? Of course, audiences have insufficient appreciation of how remarkable it is that a good movie ever gets made on any subject, much less one with the built-in dramatic limitations of sport. But that is Hollywood's problem, not the audiences'.

It is fairly easy to explain why some sports teams and individual athletes appeal to people. They are colorful; they offer exciting action and fuel for a rich fantasy life; they are winners; they reach their fans at a crucial age and keep them for a long time. The situation with movies is far more difficult to understand. Nobody knows why people respond to some movies and shun others, and Hollywood in consequence functions by guesswork.

Still, if the essential phoniness of moviemaking is what cripples sports films it ought to cripple cops-and-robbers movies, too, and often does not—at the box office, anyhow. That could be because far more people have intimate knowledge of sports on some level or other than they do of violent crime and thus are more willing to accept a Hollywood view of a gangster than a Hollywood idea of what a quarterback is. But if you fling a tennis ball down Sunset Boulevard it will more than likely bounce off a sports freak—a sports freak who is also an actor, writer, director, producer, cameraman or movie technician—so it seems it should not be all that difficult for Hollywood to come up with a sports film that is a real fake instead of a fake fake. But a film that begins with the best intentions and honest talent can quickly turn into banana pudding under the constant stirring of too many chefs. Even if it starts with the advantage of a truly dramatic story, which seldom happens, a sports film is in special jeopardy for a number of reasons, not the least of which are ill-applied imagination and the fact that there are very few actors who can throw a fastball low and outside and not many more athletes who can act.

They don't stop trying. "This place is a dream factory," says Producer Pervis Atkins, who used to be called Afterburner when he was a star halfback at New Mexico State and later played for the Los Angeles Rams. "Producers, directors and writers are always gathering material. They can empathize with a football player in action. A 70-yard run is a major feat, you must understand. A 70-yard run is bigger than life, like what you see on the screen. But there's something very elusive about transferring the meaning of that feat onto film.

"I'd like to make a sports film, but I don't know how to do it," Atkins says. "Pro football, for example, is so complex that the spectators don't understand it. They don't appreciate the drama of the guys sitting on the bench, waiting. You can get so involved in making a football movie that you neglect to tell a story. You need drama off the field to sustain your film."

It used to be that it was enough of a story for the star pitcher to get kidnapped or the quarterback to be kicked out of West Point unjustly, only to be reinstated in time to win the Navy game. These stories depended on the star overcoming an obstacle and then making the big play. Later attempts to put drama into sports films called for the hero to perform while dying from a lingering disease, or going blind, or getting his leg cut off (racing drivers went berserk and smashed themselves and a lot of fancy machinery trying to prove they had heart). The next phase had antiheroes coming along to show up big-time sport as a mess of cynical creeps to whom winning was all that mattered. With an occasional exception, the public has rejected these films, and critics have jabbed them unconscious with their tiny fists. But even when a sports movie has been believably done—as was Downhill Racer, the Robert Redford skiing film—people have not lined up to see it as they have to watch the same star play a feeble Hollywood writer in love with a Communist with a big nose.

It is Hollywood doctrine that sports films do not make money. (Neither do most other movies, if you are going to take seriously the formula film people toss around, according to which a movie must earn 2½ or three times its production cost before it "makes money.") But what is sport? Is marathon dancing less a sport than heel-and-toe walking? How about stunt flying? How about Sonja Henie, Esther Williams, Buster Crabbe? Surely much of what Tarzan did was "an athletic activity requiring-skill or physical prowess," but you would be thought peculiar if you called Tarzan a sports hero. A sports hero is engaged in competition with his peers. Maybe there are so many of them engaged in real competition with their peers, live and in color on TV, that people do not have an overwhelming interest in seeing them do something that has been invented for the screen.

"I don't buy that," says Producer Stanley Schneider. It is fortunate he doesn't, because Schneider will be producing the movie version of North Dallas Forty, Pete Gent's novel about professional football. "Despite what you hear, some sports films have done well," says Schneider. "The filmmaker must find what it is in the subject or characters in athletics that reaches a chemistry with the public. This Sporting Life is the finest film I ever saw dealing with sports. It has the grit and reality of the whole atmosphere, the life-styles, the pressures. It has human beings in it. It transcends the sports movie."

Movie audiences are now about equally divided between the sexes and among age groups, while sports-TV audiences are older and heavily male. But a solid dramatic story should attract everyone, even if the only sport involved is a fake priest threshing it out with a fake devil. Perhaps the audience is merely out there waiting, if not exactly clamoring, for the kind of sports story it can identify with.

"It is very hard to think of a dramatic situation that can be brought into focus in a short time and can be made to seem real and still involve sports," says Bill Goldman, author and screen-writer (Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid). "In terms of a story or a play, sports are not dramatic. Novels can sprawl, but a movie has to cover its ground in 90 minutes or so.

"You could take a story of, say, a black ghetto kid who becomes a basketball player and dramatize the pressures he's under for a big game, or you could do a tennis film about a crucial match. The problem is, who's going to do the action sequences? Actors look ridiculous as athletes. When Stacy Keach got into the ring in Fat City, reality went out the window. Brian's Song was a success as a love story without much football in it, and there would have been no story if Brian Piccolo hadn't got cancer. I remember Kirk Douglas as being good in Champion, but that was less about boxing than about a sorry way of life. The same thing is true about Richard Harris and rugby in This Sporting Life. The two best sports films I ever saw were Downhill Racer and The Hustler. Robert Redford loves skiing and knows what it's about, and it was evident in the movie. In The Hustler, two men are opposing each other: you know who they are and what they want and what their skills are. You can encompass it. But it's hard to bring drama to a sports film without making it unbearably phony."

What Goldman calls "the Tony Perkins syndrome" has wrecked a number of sports films. If an actor playing Jim Piersall in Fear Strikes Out, as Perkins did, cannot throw the ball from the outfield to second base, the audience is not going to stay around to see if there is a story or not. Chuck Connors, himself a former big-league baseball player, recalls that The Pride of the Yankees was ruined for him when he saw that Gary Cooper didn't know how to wear a uniform. "You can tell when a guy is faking it," says Connors.

Some sports films have been faked very well. In addition to Redford's honestly competent performance, Downhill Racer has the benefit of photography that gives an extraordinary sensation of tension and speed. The Last American Hero, an excellent film that has been little noticed for the usual inexplicable reasons, includes dazzling shots of stock-car driving. Bang the Drum Slowly, last year's film with a baseball background, does use stylized action sequences, but Director John Hancock courted the feeling of authenticity on the field so faithfully that he never set his audience howling with laughter as Robert de Niro slowly expired.

"We used sport as a metaphor, as a lyric element, to present our story as a pitcher's memory of a season and a dance of death," says Hancock. Planning action shots, Hancock watched baseball on TV and discovered 60 people were the most he could ever see in the stands behind the batter. He hired 75 extras for one day and moved them around to depict the Mammoths at bat against different teams. Hancock filmed much of the movie at New York's Shea Stadium, where there are no center-field bleachers to be seen behind the pitcher, and he rehearsed his actors for three weeks on how to look like baseball players. The result is a moving film with baseball players behaving in a highly romanticized way toward their dying comrade—an achievement that ought logically to get to fans of the game as well as to fans of Love Story—but it has hardly been a box-office blockbuster.

The screenplay for North Dallas Forty is being written by Jeremy Larner, who claims to be the first to have written about alienation in sports in a novel that came out 10 years ago called Drive, He Said. The novel was made into a film directed by Jack Nicholson and written by Larner and Nicholson.

"At first my book was rejected by publishers, who said, 'What's this nonsense about a star athlete feeling alienated? Who is this nutty kid?'" says Larner, who as a screenwriter won an Academy Award for The Candidate. "Now it's the style. They're all alienated. Many athletes are true innocents, in the sense that the game is all they seem to know. When they find out there's more going on around them than the game, alienation comes easily.

"I'd like to do a movie about players' fantasies instead of a game. Athletes live in a pseudo-culture and are trying to be cynical about it. Rebellion is a style. It's easy for an athlete to buy into rebellion. Is life a game or not is not one of the most interesting questions to me. Neither is the matter of whether violence in sports equals America. Sports are not all that moving, you can't take them too seriously. They're not really cosmic."

But sports do have a profound influence on the lives of many, including a surprising number of Hollywood folks who are hero-worshipers of the first order (because, Bill Goldman has observed, actors have been so roundly hero-worshiped themselves that who is left for them to look up to?).

Thus, they play in softball leagues, organize touch football and pickup basketball games. Some of them hang around pro locker rooms with a persistent curiosity that would make a groupie blush. One producer did not miss a single Rams home game last year even though he spent the season making a film in Durango, Mexico. Once he drove 200 miles to Torreon on a Monday night in the vain hope that the f√∫tbol he saw in the Torreon TV log would be the ABC Game of the Week instead of soccer. David Hart-man still works out with the San Francisco Giants every spring. Steve McQueen has come in second by 23.8 seconds at Sebring (with his foot in a cast). Whatever they do in sports, whether participating or critically observing, the Hollywood enthusiasts spend a great deal of time at it, with a zeal that might be called pure stone craziness, and their dreams of the big leagues can become pretty bizarre on film.

Which brings us to the real athletes with their notions of imitating what the Hollywood folks do at work. As Wide Receiver Lance Rentzel says wistfully, "Egos are involved. The spotlight. An athlete wants the applause never to stop." And so, "Athletes show up in Hollywood all the time, like male starlets," says Marvin Schwartz. Schwartz was the producer who signed Jim Brown to his first real starring role in 100 Rifles and the press agent whose promotion campaign prevented This Sporting Life from being dumped from the American market. "Where else but show business can a fading athlete make so much money without learning a trade? Show business looks easy to them from the outside, but they only hear about the successes. Acting is hard work—and boring—and everybody is a critic. You can get your heart broken.

"Leading men know they're eventually going to have to take their shirts off, so they stay in shape. Jockeys and basketball players don't make it as leading men, and neither do 280-pound tackles. Tennis players would have a good chance, but they usually keep playing tennis until they're too old."

Still, some of the ex-athletes with whom Hollywood is crawling are doing quite well. Don Klosterman, general manager of the Rams, says that in some respects the transition is natural, because many star athletes are extroverts and exude confidence. And Dick Bass, a former Ram back who works in film promotion, points out, "A star athlete has an automatic audience."

There are so many ex-athletes in Hollywood that veteran actors complain about it. Stunt Man Eddie Donno says, "Actors like to get friendly with athletes, and the athletes move right in. But there's plenty of guys out here who were never known as athletes, and are damn good ones anyway. Like Burt Reynolds, Greg Morris, Bob Conrad." One story goes that during the making of The Green Berets a bunch of MPs kept kidding the actors about being "Hollywood fags." After which the actors proceeded to beat them 33-0 at touch football, the MPs quitting with 10 minutes left to play and several arms broken.

O.K. So there should be no shortage of actors who know enough not to put a football helmet on backward. To go back to the beginning, then, why is it that you cannot succeed in imagining one of them playing the star quarterback in your movie?


With the exception of the director, Cecil and a cinematographer, who is squinting at the fading sun and roaming about with a light meter, everyone is taking a break. Alice, the script girl, is walking the Lhasa Apso toward the star's trailer for a snack of minced beef and vitamin E. The director is in quiet but intense conversation with Cecil.

Director: What's the trouble here, baby? Why can't you communicate the feeling we want?

Cecil: I just don't get what this is all about. Who the hell is exploiting who?

Director: They. Cece, are exploiting you, the quarterback. All of them. The bosses, the orphans, the coach, Margie, the broads, the screamers in the stands. They're using you, baby.

Cecil: Well, I was talking to my analyst about this, and he told me that with quarterbacks it's the other way around.

Director (carefully): I'm not saying your analyst doesn't have the brains of a week-old goat. I'm not saying you don't throw the meanest spiral since Shirley Temple. I'm not saying it was $25,000 ago when we started this little shot. It would be nasty to say any of those things, wouldn't it?

Cecil: You're making me very cross.

Director: That's it, you're beautiful when you're mad. Places, everybody! Cecil is going to throw the ball for us again.

Quickly the actors and crew make ready. Alice rushes back. The clacker clacks: Scene 31 A, Take 27. Cecil crouches behind the center. The director calls for action. Cecil shouts the snap count, lakes the ball and begins to run. Stepping high, pivoting, whirling, stiff-arming, Cecil cuts between bewildered linemen, breaks into the open and races for the goal.

Director (screaming): What the devil are you doing?

Cecil (calling back): It's Hollywood. baby! I've got my career to think about!


The producer's birthday party is still going on. Musicians in their umpires' uniforms are tootling merrily. The producer is gazing at his autographed photo of Hank Aaron. There are tears on the producer's cheeks, and he is not a man who weeps easily. He is talking to his wife Lulu.

Producer: Hank...if only it's really from Hank.... God bless that great American. I'm a lucky man. Lulu.

Lulu: We could put it in the den next to Admiral Halsey.

Producer: I wonder what Hank would take for the musical rights to No. 815? I can see it...the green grass...the blue sky...the little white ball...the people singing in the bleachers....

Lulu: Another Kahlua on the rocks, love?