As I watched the last half of The Towering Inferno I kept wondering, "Where did O. J. Simpson go?" Billed as one of the stars—chief of security in a huge burning building he had a big moment early in the movie when he snapped to Paul Newman, "Damn it, man, get that ambulance!" (When was the last time anybody spoke to Paul Newman like that?) And then O.J. saved a kitten from a smoking apartment. O.K. O.K. And then O.J. disappeared. For a good hour and a half he was nowhere to be seen. Maybe it just seemed that long, because the inferno was so boring, but I know he was missing for half the movie. Robert Wagner died in flames (which was cool, of course), and Richard Chamberlain fell to his death (which, granted, does not exactly cut us to the quick), as did Jennifer Jones. We didn't want Jennifer Jones to die, at least not particularly, and where was O.J.?
He was holding her kitten. Four hundred-odd stories down below, on the ground, he was holding her kitten. We know this because finally at the end of the picture O.J. comes up to Fred Astaire—Jennifer's boyfriend, who has just found out she is dead—and hands him the kitten. Fred, an old con man whose last hope in life was Jennifer, does not say irritably, "What the hell am I going to do with a kitten?" He fades out with the kitten, somewhat mollified. It is the dumbest moment in a toweringly dumb movie, a movie in which nobody comes alive before burning up, and I hope O.J. is not pleased to have been involved.
I haven't seen O.J.'s other movie, The Klansman, but all the reviews said it was thoroughly rotten, and none of them suggested that O.J.'s performance was in any way a redeeming feature, so I don't see how O.J.'s performance can have been very good.
None of which would bother me if O.J. had not said he might cut his football career short in favor of acting. Joe Namath has said the same thing, and Jim Brown actually did it. I would now like to state two hard truths. One: O. J. Simpson, Joe Namath and Jim Brown all play or used to play football so well as to make you feel good all over. Two: as actors, they aren't diddly. Brown, who has been at it longest, does have a certain screen presence, which succeeds only in making me feel that I wouldn't want to meet him in a dark alley. O.J. is a smooth, agreeable figure on TV sportscasts, but how many more of those do we need?
I don't mind these guys making some extra money and lining up a career to fall back on when they can't play anymore. And I realize that football is harder on the limbs than acting. But becoming a real actor may be harder on the psyche than football is on the body. No one would stand for actors being given easy roles in football games.
There seems to be an assumption that O.J. is really making it now because he is in the movies. But if a hot young poet or doctor or politician quit to go into bad movies, we would say tsk tsk. (Come to think of it, though, when was the last time anybody said tsk tsk about anything?) If a man can still carry a football brilliantly and chooses to act indifferently instead, he is depriving the world of great moments. Being a great running back or quarterback is a fairly high calling. It raises the country's tone. Taking part in overblown schlock movies is a low calling.
Why doesn't somebody make a movie with O.J. that will preserve and illuminate the things he can do better than anybody else? At least Jim Brown had a couple of good running scenes in The Dirty Dozen. Why doesn't somebody make a documentary pro football movie along the lines of The Endless Summer (surfing), On Any Sunday (motorcycle racing) or Visions of Eight (the Olympics)? Athletes can be memorable playing themselves in movies—Babe Ruth in The Pride of the Yankees, Alex Karras in Paper Lion, Muhammad AH in Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee. Dwight White of the Steelers would be wonderful hamming it up as himself on the screen—"the man who walked the water and calmed the wind, here to bring good to your neighborhood"—and Fred Dryer of the Rams could do imitations of anybody in football. Those are the things somebody ought to be getting down on film before these players fade and are reduced to holding kittens in disastrous spectaculars.
Billy Conn, the fighter, once appeared in a film called The Pittsburgh Kid, which is so terrible, according to Roy McHugh of the Pittsburgh Press, that "Conn shows it to people he doesn't like who come over to his house." At one point in this movie Conn's manager dies, and Conn says to the leading lady, "Pops...is dead." They begin to sob on each other's shoulders. In real life Conn called his manager "Moony." because he drank moonshine. When Moony actually did lie dying, he said to Conn from his hospital bed, "Billy, I got to get out of here so we can have a drink."
"Moony," Conn replied, "the only way you're getting out of here is with a tag on your toe."
That is the kind of line that you remember, and that athletes really deliver, and that never gets captured in films with athletes in them.