Happened upon this the other day while nosing around the Internet. It’s gotta be, by at least five touchdowns, the worst movie that ever featured a former pro football player — in this case Rosey Grier, the Pro Bowl defensive tackle with the Giants and Rams in the ’50s and ’60s. (And believe me, there are a lot of candidates for this honor.)
For those of you who aren’t movie buffs, Ray Milland, Grier’s co-star in The Thing With Two Heads (1972), won the Best Actor Oscar in 1945 for The Lost Weekend, a film about a drunk who goes on a four-day bender. It might also have been during this “lost weekend” that the plot for The Thing With Two Heads was conceived. Here’s the trailer (and it’s perfectly all right if, at some point, you want to cover your eyes):
I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the inspiration for Stuck on You, the Farrelly brothers’ 2003 take on conjoined twins. Unfortunately, neither Matt Damon nor Greg Kinnear ever played in the NFL . . . though they did play some high school ball:
If Woody Strode is remembered today, it’s probably as an actor, not as one of the two players to reintegrate the NFL in 1946 with the Los Angeles Rams. His most famous role was as the title character in Sergeant Rutledge (directed by the legendary John Ford). He also played the Grand Mogul in the classic Batman TV series. But his most famous scene was in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, when he fought Kirk Douglas in one of the great cinema battles of all time. Take a look:
Awesome, no? (Yes, that’s Laurence Olivier taking the knife to Woody at the end.) Steven Spielberg certainly has a high opinion of it:
Anyway, how did we get from that exercise in thespian manhood to this? By this, I mean Strode’s wrestling match — date unknown — with Gorgeous George, one of the daintiest grapplers ever to climb in the ring? If you’ve never seen George’s shtick before, you’re in for a treat. The guy took Muhammad Ali’s “I’m so pretty” to a whole new level.
Besides his football and film careers, Strode also did some rolling around on the mat. He even wrestled Primo Carnera, the former heavyweight boxing champ — Sept. 27, 1956, according to wrestlingdata.com. (Alas, I couldn’t find any more information about it.) The character of Mountain Rivera in Rod Serling’s Requiem for a Heavyweight (played in this trailer by Anthony Quinn). is loosely based on Carnera.
Speaking of boxing, Strode refereed some bouts, too — including one in Ogden, Utah, in 1956 involving light-heavyweight champ Archie Moore. Moore’s victim was a wrestler-turned-boxer, Roy Shire, who — get this — had faced Woody a few months earlier.
OK, that’s enough backstory. Here it is, tonight’s main event: Woody Strode, who was built like a Greek god, vs. Gorgeous George, who would have been the first on his block to use Grecian Formula (if it had been around then).
Too bad Woody didn’t work that “long pitchfork,” as Spielberg called it, from Spartacus into his act.
One of the best things about this commercial is that, right up to the end, it looks like an instructional video on How To Take The Center Snap. Our demonstrator is Roman Gabriel, the Pro Bowl quarterback for the Rams and Eagles in the ’60s and ’70s.
That same year (1969), Gabriel appeared in John Wayne movie, The Undefeated, set in the period just after the Civil War. He played a Native American named Blue Boy. (Was he a Native American? Well, no. But his father was Filipino, which accounted for Roman’s dark complexion. That’s show biz, folks.) You also get a glimpse here of Merlin Olsen, the Rams’ Hall of Fame defensive tackle, who went on to a much more substantial acting career (Father Murphy, Little House on the Prairie).
How great is it that an NFL quarterback got to be in a film in which The Duke delivered this line?
One night in the ’30s, Shipwreck Kelly, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ owner/running back/party animal, was at the El Morocco with a group of friends. In walked a big fellow with a beard — at a time when such adornments were confined mostly to sheepherders.
“Do you know who that guy is?” the nightclub’s owner asked Shipwreck.
Shipwreck didn’t have a clue.
“It’s Orson Welles, the actor.”
The owner brought The Actor over to the The Football Player’s table for introductions, Shipwreck recalled in Richard Whittingham’s oral history of the NFL’s early years, What a Game They Played.
I tried to be a smart aleck, like I did a lot of times in those days. I said, “Gee, Mr. Welles, it’s nice meeting someone like you.” He didn’t know who I was or that I played football or anything about me. But he was very pleasant. Then I said something like, “Why do you cultivate something on your face that grows wild on your ass?”
“Mr. Kelly,” he said, “you are fresh in New York, and if I were you I wouldn’t tell my friends how much you know about my ass.”
It was one of the rare occasions Shipwreck was out-wiseguyed.
Fast forward to 1979. Jets legend Joe Namath — who, like Kelly, enjoyed the nightlife — is serving as the victim for one of Dean Martin’s Celebrity Roasts. Who should take the podium to add to the merriment but Welles, still sporting a beard but now built like a nose tackle.
What followed was the five cleverest minutes in NFL Films history (which is saying a lot). Watch:
Don’t ask me why this scene stuck with me. I’m pretty sure Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970), a Liza Minnelli vehicle, was the second half of a double feature one night at the drive-in. Anyway, Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, the Chiefs’ mouthy cornerback from Super Bowl I, was in it and spent a fair amount of time carrying this wheelchair-bound character around. Like so:
Some people, me among them, think Alex Karras belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The late Lions defensive tackle definitely belongs in some kind of Hall for giving us this memorable scene — as the inimitable Mongo — in Blazing Saddles (1974):
You also might enjoy this clip, from the same movie, of Alex at his thespian best. My guess is that he’s reenacting for the townsfolk what he and his defensive mates did to the Packers offensive line when they sacked Bart Starr 11 times in the ’62 Thanksgiving Day game:
Carl Weathers‘ NFL career lasted only eight games with the 1970-71 Raiders. His Hollywood career has gone much better, highlighted by his terrific Muhammad Ali knockoff in the Rocky movies and this scene from Happy Gilmore (1996):
I would have preferred to post a clip here from The Dirty Dozen (1967), at the end of which — spoiler alert — NFL legend Jim Brown gallantly gives his life to wipe out a bunch of Nazi officers during World War II. Alas, I couldn’t find one. Must be the ol’ Copyright Thing.
Still, I loved Nora Ephron’s tribute to the scene in Sleepless in Seattle (1993):
The following “Best of Jim Brown” will have to do. Somewhere, sometime I read that this was the first interracial kiss in Hollywood history. (Who can say for sure?) As if that weren’t enough, the recipient was one of the hottest females on the planet, Raquel Welch. Nice goin’, Jim. From 100 Rifles (1969):
I stopped it there because my screen was starting to fog up.