IT'S BEEN three decades since Gary Busey, Jan-Michael Vincent and William Katt starred in Big Wednesday, the seminal but relatively little-known surf movie about three L.A. beach buddies living in the shadow of the Vietnam War—and for the leads the movie turned out to be a road map for their lives. "The funniest thing about that film," says Katt, now 57, "is that Gary, Jan and I kind of became the characters we played."
Busey, 64, who played a whack-job fight-monger, is today best known for YouTube-ready antics such as his accosting of Jennifer Garner on the red carpet at the 2008 Oscars. Vincent, 64, cast as a talented but self-destructive alcoholic, told a tabloid news show in '07 that his drinking problem had evolved past the point of remembering key moments in his life. Katt, the movie's sweet-natured voice of reason, became the star of TV's The Greatest American Hero, which ran from 1981 through '83, and he's still piling up the credits in small movies and guest spots on TV shows.
Given the madness on the Big Wednesday shoot, Katt might have seen his castmates' futures coming. He recalls a trip the three took to Juarez, Mexico. "We ended up coming to the set completely hungover with no sleep, and it continued like that for six months," he says. "Women, guns and surfboards.... [Those guys] were bigger than life." (Busey and Vincent declined to be interviewed for this story.) John Milius, who directed the film and co-wrote the screenplay based on his own youth spent busting waves in Malibu, says his stars were "pretty well-behaved." By Milius's standards, anyway: "They went off and smoked dope and chased women, but getting drunk—I draw the line there."
When it came to craziness on the set, the cast's behavior was the least of the concerns. Milius and his crew of advisers (which included surfers Bud Browne, Ian Cairns, Gerry Lopez and Dan Merkel) chose La Libertad beach in El Salvador for principal photography. "With our encyclopedic knowledge of the world's waves, we decided there were a couple of surf points we could use there," Milius recalls. "But we simply didn't take into account things like, oh, sharks, civil war and dysentery."
Katt recalls the sharks ("you could see the dorsal fins everywhere; crazy") and the dirty water, which landed him at a UCLA hospital for several days after he lost nearly 25 pounds. But it was the Salvadoran guerrillas and militiamen who eventually forced the production to relocate to Hawaii's North Shore. Says Milius, "One day this El Salvadoran militia comes to visit our beach set. We had a helicopter [for filming] and all these fit surfers with really short haircuts, so these guys figured we were CIA, U.S. military or something. We had to convince them otherwise. Hell, we offered to smoke dope in front of them just to prove we were surfers. And just when they were finally convinced, out of the water comes one of our surfers, Dan Merkel, with his skin suit on and a knife strapped to his leg. Those [guerrillas] looked at him and absolutely freaked. They were sure this guy was a SEAL!"
Big Wednesday never hit it big at the box office, but over the years it developed a cult following. In the Chicago Reader, Dave Kehr called it "deep and seductive.... Milius can be faulted for reviving a number of ostensibly dead macho myths, but in the context of the subculture his film deftly re-creates, they take on the aura of eternal values."
At his Sherman, Conn., home recently, Milius was having what he calls a Dude day. The co-screenwriter of Apocalypse Now and director of Red Dawn (he's currently penning a Genghis Khan script) served as the inspiration for a gun-loving character named Walter Sobchak, played by John Goodman in another cult film, The Big Lebowski, and he's been—ahem—celebrating that movie's freewheeling main character, the Dude, ever since. On the agenda today: cigars, White Russians and perhaps some clay-pigeon shooting. Nothing more, though. "I've got to lose some weight if I ever want to get back [on those waves]," he says. "I eat too much when I smoke. And boy, would I pay anything just to be on one of those waves again."
WARNER BROS./PHOTOFEST (BIG WEDNESDAY)
WILD RIDE Katt (left, and above with Busey and Vincent) kept cool during one of the craziest shoots in movie history.
[See caption above]