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Tag: dan jenkins

Million Dollar Movie

Or: “How Hollywood Ruined Our Best Football Novel”

By John Schulian

Long before he established himself as the Ring Lardner of the Pepsi generation, Dan Jenkins wrote about sports for the blighted Fort Worth Press. He had to rise at 4 every morning to put out the paper’s first edition, and the indignity of that, he claims with typical reckless abandon, made his hair hurt.

Twenty years later, Jenkins has yet to describe the pain of seeing what Hollywood did to Semi-Tough, his best-selling bellylaugh about professional football. He tried to say something not long ago in Sports Illustrated, the magazine where his typing skills came to light, but the most emotion he could muster was mild bemusement. The possibility exits, however, that he didn’t do any better because he was in shock.

You will know the feeling if you read the book and see the movie, which will descend on Chicago this Christmas season like a curse from King Herod. Billy Clyde Puckett, the halfback hero of Semi-Tough, would probably want to know where Herod played his college ball, but there are more important questions to be asked about the cinematic mutation Michael Ritchie, a certified hot-shot director, has given us. The biggest one is: Why did he bother saying he was making a movie of Jenkins’ novel?

Just about the only thing left from it are the title, the diary Billy Clyde is keeping during Super Bowl week, and the fact that he is forever being interrupted by his podnuh, Marvin (Shake) Tiller, the mystic wide receiver, and their mutual playmate, Barbara Jane Bookman. Out of a book that ran better than 200 pages in hardback, that is not what anybody in his right mind would call a whole lot.

Ritchie’s explanation is that he was intrigued by the conclusion of the book, which found Shake doing a fly pattern all the way to India, where he could commune with his guru and ride elephants. Because of that, Ritchie would up putting Burt (Billy Clyde) Reynolds and Kris (Shake) Kristofferson in a movie about the consciousness movement. If you aren’t familiar with the consciousness movement, the premise on which it is built is that nobody’s hemorrhoids are more important than yours.

Such thinking is very big in California, which leads the universe in sun-baked brains. Everywhere else, people who become that bewitched, bothered and bewildered are called “tutti-fruttis.” Indeed, that is how Ritchie depicts them despite his West Coast ties. The irreverence is not unusual, for he has thrown darts at politics in The Candidate, at beauty contests in Smile, and at Little League baseball in The Bad News Bears. But he is so obsessed with puncturing the inherent silliness of the me-firsters that he has forgotten that Semi-Tough is supposed to be about the NFL’s inherent silliness.

In the process, some of Jenkins’ finest ideas ended up on the floor of Ritchie’s birdcage. There is no mention of how Pete Rozelle used the commissionership as a springboard to the U.S. Senate. T.J. Lambert, the flatulent defensive end, is never shown making a sandwich of six Dallas policemen. “The Giants and the Cowboys got together and kept our arrest quiet,” said Billy Clyde, who watched the proceedings in amazement. “We got to play in the game. I think the Giants had to give up a high draft choice to the Cowboys when it was over.”

Nor did Ritchie try to stage the outlandish halftime show Jenkins imagined, the one in which “several hundred trained birds—painted red, white and blue—would fly over the coliseum in formation of an American flag” while Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck sang “God Bless America.”

Even when the director relied on the author, he managed to foul things up. One wonderful scene has the drunken Lambert dangling a 20th Century fox over a terrace railing by the heels because she looked askance at his idea of how well they should get to know each other. In the book, Barbara Jane Bookman talks Lambert out of mayhem; she can’t do the same in the movie because it would rob Shake Tiller of a chance to display his new-found calm. Apparently Ritchie isn’t so iconoclastic that he would try to level the consciousness movement and machismo with the same swing.

If Jenkins should take offense to anything, however, it is what Ritchie did to his rating system for feminine pulchritude. Originally, the system went from 10—which was, you should pardon the expression, “a Healing Scab”—to 1, and of course there never was a 1. For the pure Hollywood hell of it, Ritchie completely reversed the ratings. If he had left them the way they were, Jill Clayburgh, who plays Barbara Jane, would have been a lot closer to the truth when she insists, “I’m a 10.”

She is, however, just one of Ritchie’s casting mistakes. Kristofferson wanders through his role as Shake in such a daze that he must have been handed a fistful of Valium instead of the usual NFL Sunday afternoon supply of greenies. As Barbara Jane’s father, a pinko-hating oil baron, Robert Preston appears to be a Communist plot himself. Only Reynolds, as Billy Clyde, is palatable, if you don’t mind watching him portray Burt Reynolds. And just in case you don’t, remember that he had a stand-in for most of his rib-cracking football scenes. No premiums are paid for acting with pain.

As it turns out, the audience does all the suffering, which is no small achievement for a movie that Ritchie calls “a racy comedy.” His choice of words may be the funniest thing about Semi-Tough. When it was a book, it was enjoyably bawdy, almost “Tom Jones with a Jockstrap.” Ritchie’s adaptation, however, is merely smarmy, filled with the kind of double entendres that aren’t even good enough for TV.

Naturally, that won’t stop TV from buying this worthless hunk of celluloid. If you are smart, you will wait until then instead of wasting your money on it in a theater. When it comes to passing judgement on Semi-Tough, you see, there is no semi about it. It is totally terrible.

John Schulian is a former syndicated sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. His work has appeared in GQSports IllustratedInside Sports, the Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times. He also wrote for the TV shows Miami ViceL.A. Law, and co-created Xena: Princess Warrior. He is the author of Twilight of the Long-ball Gods and Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand, and co-editor of At The Fights.

His Way

Al Davis died yesterday.

He was 82 and he was as big a legend as the NFL has ever seen.

Texas Two-Step, Part Deuce: The Ballad of Crew Slammer

Jimmy Cannon: Sportswriter.

Riding the Harper’s Magazine bandwagon today. They’ve earned it. Just published a terrific collection called Rules of the Game: The Best Sports Writing from Harper’s Magazine. Lots of good stuff in there including Pete Axthelm’s memorable essay The City Game (which became an excellent book), Pat Jordan on the shady baseball prospect Toe Nash, another good baseball essay by Rich Cohen, and a spot-on piece on sports writing by the critic Wilfrid Sheed, a guy who is real hit or miss for me.. Also work from Mark Twain, John R. Tunis, Shirley Jackson, Tom Wolfe, and George Plimpton. It’s the goods.

Harper’s has also made Gary Cartwright’s memorable recollection of his days at the Fort-Worth Press (included in the book), Confessions of a Washed-Up Sportswriter, available for us all on the Internet. Whoopee!

Here we have a first-hand account of Shrake and Jenkins, Blackie Sherrod and the Forth-Worth Press in the Fifties:

I did not know it at the time, but The Press sports staff was ten years ahead of the game. In 1955 The Press was perfecting what most, but not yet all, sports staffs believe they have just created: a competitive art form. Significant television competition was years away, but already The Press was rebelling against the stiff, bleak who/what/when/where architecture of its predecessors, exposing myths, demanding to know why, and treating why as the only question. It was funny about 1961 when Newsweek devoted its press section to the wry progressive sports editor of Newsday, Jack Mann. Newsday hired good, creative writers. They worked as a unit, pruning cliches from wire copy, pepping up hard news by tracing angles all over the country, barreling over dogma where they confronted it. Was Yogi Berra a lovable gnome, like it said in Sporting News? Did he sit around reading comic books and eating bananas? Or was he a noncommunicative boor whose funniest line was, “How the hell would I know?” Newsday, the magazine pointed out, demanded an answer.

There was no way for Newsweek to know it, but sports editor Blackie Sherrod had been preaching a better anarchy at The Press in 1950. Sherrod surrounded himself with such men as Dan Jenkins and Bud Shrake, now well-known and excellent writers at Sports Illustrated, not to mention the irresponsible Crew Slammer. He let them write from the gut.

Cartwright recalls the early days with great fondness but he doesn’t romanticize the sports writing profession:

…Let me make one thing plain: most sportswriters have no business in journalism. They are misfits looking for a soft life. The worst sportswriters are frustrated athletes, or compulsive sports fans, or both. The best are frustrated writers trapped by circumstances. Westbrook Pegler called sportswriters “historians of trivia,” but Pegler learned his craft by writing sport. Scotty Reston, Heywood Broun, Damon Runyon, Ring Lardner, and Paul Gallico wrote about sport. Winston Churchill covered cricket during the Boer War. TheNew York Times‘ John Kieran was a sportswriter, but he was much more. When students at Yale protested that a sportswriter had been invited to address them, Kieran delivered his speech in Latin.

Sportswriting should be a young man’s profession, No one improves after eight or ten years, but the assignments get juicier and the way out less attractive. After eight or ten years there is nothing else to say. Every word in every style has been set in print, every variation from discovery to death explored. The ritual goes on, and the mind bends under it. Ask a baseball writer what’s new and he’ll quote you the record book. Baseball writers are old men, regardless of age.

…There is no spectacle in sport more delightful than witnessing members of the Baseball Writers Association, who invented the box score, trampling each other at the buffet table. The first time I actually saw Dick Young, the New York Daily News‘ very good baseball writer, he was smearing deviled egg on the sleeve of Arthur Daley’s sport coat and discussing Casey Stengel’s grammar. Ben Hogan was rude and gruff but he impressed me when I learned that the caviar at his annual press party cost $45 a jar. Tony Lema had a genius for public relations at least as great as his genius for golf. Champagne Tony! I covered his funeral. It was an assignment that I did not want, but I was there, thinking that it may be years before I taste champagne again. They served some on the flight home. Bear Bryant used to insist that the way to handle a sportswriter was with a fifth of Scotch. Sportswriters deplored this attitude, but no one ever thought to sue Bear Bryant.

This was the title piece of Cartwright’s collection of his best work, Confessions of a Washed-Up Sportswriter (including Various Digressions about Sex, Crime, and Other Hobbies). If you can ever find a copy of that on the cheap, get it, it also features a wonderful piece on Candy Barr, the famous Texas stripper, and a vicious story about dog fighting that would make the dudes at Deadspin moist. Cartwright regarded it as the best piece he ever wrote even though it was rejected by Playboy, Sports Illustrated and Esquire. It was his favorite, anyway. Probably worth signing up for Texas Monthly (it’s free) for the Cartwright archive alone.

Kudos to Harper’s here. They are doing a real mitzvah and other publications like Rolling StoneEsquire, GQ, and The New Yorker could take notice and make some of the gems from their vaults available to us on occasion. Share the wealth, just a little taste, good Internet karma and all that. A little love goes a long way.

[Life picture of Jimmy Cannon via A Continuous Lean]

Texas Two-Step Part One: Permanent Press

Got a treat for you from the good people at Harper’s Magazine. They’ve taken Edwin “Bud” Shrake’s classic piece “In the Land of the Permanent Wave” out from behind the pay wall and made it available for all. If you’ve never read it before, do yourself a favor and check it out:

For about five hours I had been drinking Scotch whiskey and arguing with a rather nice, sometimes funny old fellow named Arch, who was so offended by my moderately long hair that he had demanded to know if I weren’t actually, secretly, a Communist. “Come on now, you can tell me, hell, I won’t hate you for it. Wouldn’t you really like to see the Communists take over this country?” Arch had said, placing his bare elbows on the table and leaning forward to look trustingly at me, as though he was certain that if I had one virtue it would prove to be that I would not lie to him about such an important matter. Arch was wearing a jump suit; swatches of gray chest hair, the color of his crew cut, stuck out where the zipper had got caught in it when last Arch had excused himself from the table. We were in the guest lodge of a lumber company in a small town in East Texas. Arch is an old friend of the president of the company. Sitting around the table or nearby were my wife, a State Senator in town to crown a beauty queen at a “celebration” the next evening, a U. S. Congressman who had come down from Washington to make a speech between the parade and the barbecue the following noon, a lumber lobbyist who is mayor of still another town owned by this same lumber company, and I think one or two more people but my memory of that evening has a few holes in it.

Willie Morris ran Harper’s during the magazine’s heyday in the Sixties. He said that Shrake’s story, along with Seymour Hersh’s devastating account of the My Lai Massacre, were his two favorites.

In his memoir, New York Days, Morris recalled Shrake as:

…a large, tall Texan with a blunt exterior that disguised a lyric but misdoing heart. This piece was infiintely less ambitious than “My Lai,” but struck a chord in me that I have never quite forgotten, having to do with how clean, funny, and lambent prose caught the mood of that moment in the country and mirrored with great felicity what we were trying to do at Harper’s. To me few finer magazine essays have ever been written.

The genesis of “The Land of the Permanent Wave” was itself a germane story of the magazine business of that era. Sports Illustrated sent Shrake down at his insistence to do a piece on the beautiful and haunting Big Thicket area of East Texas. This was about the time a Texas lumbering company was becoming a major stockholder in Time Inc. Shrake’s story on timber choppers and developers ruining the Thicket was not happily greeted at SI. Andre Laguerre, the managing editor later to be dismissed by the money men, broke the news to the writer at their daily late afternoon gathering in the bar around the corner from the Time-Life Building where many of their editorial decisions took place. It was the only SI story Shrake ever wrote that the magazine would not print and Laguerre embarrassed. Shrake got his permission to rewrite it and give it to Harper’s. He sat down and changed the main angle of the story from the mercenary destruction of the Thicket to his and his young wife Doatsy’s travels through Lufkin and down to the Thicket, about permanent waves and long hair in the Sixties and cowboy hats and rednecks and cops and the fumes from the paper mills.

This story speaks to that time and place as well as a movie like Easy Rider, but it is not at all dated (the same can’t be said for Easy Rider).


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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver