By DAVID MILLER News Sports Writer
I was sitting in a doctor’s office waiting room last week and messing around with my phone when I became aware of the passing of film star Burt Reynolds.
I have not always been a huge Burt Reynolds fan, but his passing tended to remind me that many of the movie and television stars in my memory of an earlier, and less troublesome time, are no longer with us.
And the funny thing was that one of my first thoughts in remembering Mr. Reynolds was that he had been a college football player.
That remembrance was odd because I only learned of his association with football many years after the fact. Basically, what I did remember about his sports career was that he had been on the football team at Florida State. I remember that because I had heard him tell stories about Florida State and how it had been a women-only institution not many years before he was a student.
In honor of his memory I decided to research Mr. Reynolds’ years at Florida State. I learned he did go there on a football scholarship after having been a standout player at Palm Beach (Fla.) High School. He was good enough in high school to be named All-State as a fullback his sophomore season. Several colleges recruited him and he eventually chose Florida State, which had been converted from an all-women’s campus to be coeducational less than 10 years earlier. His college career was cut short when he injured a knee in his sophomore season. To add to the situation, he was involved in an automobile accident that same year in which he lost his spleen and injured the other knee. He came back to play in his junior season, but after he was beaten in coverage to allow the game winning touchdown in a7-0 loss to North Carolina State, he hung up his shoes for good.
My first memories of Reynolds was when he was a member of the cast of the TV series Riverboat along with one of my favorite actors of all time, Darren McGavin. I was still in high school when this series originated and it was one of those shows that I would put homework on hold in order to watch. Come to think about it, there were a lot of television programs for which I put homework on hold.
Later he joined the cast of Gunsmoke after Dennis Weaver who portrayed Matt Dillon’s sidekick Chester left the show. Reynolds was cast as blacksmith Quint Asper, who was identified as a “half-breed” being part Native American. Reynolds may have gotten the part because he did claim to have some Cherokee ancestry in hia gene pool. As my family knows I have been a fan of Gunsmoke since I began listening to the radio version back in the early 1950s. I always thought Reynolds was OK in his part, but as far as I was concerned Quint Asper was not an adequate replacement for Chester.
I guess my favorite movie in which Reynolds was cast was “The Longest Yard.” In the movie, Reynolds’ character is sentenced to prison and becomes involved with a team of prison inmates who play a game against a team of prison guards. While it was never critically acclaimed as a great movie, it entertained me. In addition, it was good enough to be remade in 2015 with Adam Sandler playing the Reynolds role. I haven’t seen the Sandler version so have no opinion as to which is the better version.
The whole thought process involving Burt Reynolds got me to remembering other athletes who became film actors, a subject that I’ve written about in earlier segments.
Onesuch person, of course, was Chuck Connors, who had a long stint portraying Lucas McCain, the main character in the television series The Rifleman
Connors had been a baseball player and it was during his years as a member of the Seton Hall University baseball team that he got the nickname “Chuck”. His real name wasn’t Charles, the name from which “Chuck” often is derived. Instead, his full name is Kevin Joseph Aloysius Connors. At Seton Hall he would often implore his teammates to “Chuck it (the ball) to me, chuck it to me.” Hence the name “Chuck”. He left Seton Hall after his sophomore year and played minor league baseball in the Northeast Arkansas League and the Piedmont League before enlisting in the Army during World War II. After the war he played professional basketball for the Boston Celtics for a short time and then went back to baseball. He did have a few games in the majors (one game with the Dodgers and 66 with the Chicago Cubs). He was sent down to the Cubs farm team in Los Angeles where he realized he would never have a great career in professional sports and switched to acting. Being in Los Angeles helped him land parts.
Another athlete-turned actor was Fred Dryer.
Dryer is somewhat different from Connors and Reynolds. Their sports careers were not remarkable. Dryer meanwhile was a pretty good football player for the New York Giants and the Los Angeles Rams. Before that he had been a Junior College All-American and then a Little (College Division) All-American at San Diego State. While at San Diego State, his team won two College Division national championships.
He was drafted in the first round by the Giants and became an All-Pro defensive end, specializing in sacking quarterbacks. Eventually he was traded to the Rams,where like Connors, the transition from athlete to actor was relatively easy. His break came when he was chosen by Sport Magazine to team with Lantz Rentzel and portray TV announcers doing interviews of players in the Super Bowl. They actually did the interviews, in character, and talked to members of the competing teams, the Minnesota Vikings and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
We remember the character of Sam Malone in the TV sitcom “Cheers” as being Ted Danson. But Dryer came very close to landing the role as Sam. Mr. Malone would have been a retired football player had Dryer been cast in the role, but it was thought Danson looked more like a baseball player and so Malone became a retired relief pitcher.
Dryer did land a big role in the detective drama “Hunter,” which had a decent run.
Reynolds, Connors and Dryer may have been the most successful of the former athletes to become actors.
There have been a few others who, let’s just say, were better athletes than actors once they made the transition.
One of the best athletes of any sport, who just happened to try his hand at acting was Jim Brown.
There haven’t been many running backs in college or pro football that could come even close to being as good as Brown. He was a great back at Syracuse in his college years and even better as a member of the Cleveland Browns in the NFL.
What did Brown do as an actor? His first role was as a buffalo soldier in the movie “Rio Conchos” which was made in 1964 two years before his retirement from football. He had a significant part in his next film “The Dirty Dozen,” and many think it was his best effort as an actor.
He made “100 Rifles” with Burt Reynolds and Raquel Welch. Reynolds said that most of his timein that movie was spent refereeing fights between Ms. Welch and Brown. Brown actually made a lot of other movies, most of which were pretty unremarkable.
One of my favorite athletes-turned actors was Alex Karras. I was a fan of Karras when he was a football lineman with the Iowa Hawkeyes and later with the Detroit Lions.
Some of you may remember the movie “Paper Lion” which was made about writer George Plimpton’s experience of playing some preseason football as a member of the Lions. Some of the actual Detroit Lions were cast in the movie and one was Karras. He was a big hit with Plimpton and some of the movie execs because of his sense of humor and ability to tell interesting stories.
From that movie he went on to have an acting career. Possibly his most memorable movie role was a minor part in “Blazing Saddles,” where he played the slow-witted Mongo. He rode into town on a large bull and he knocked out a horse with one punch to the forehead. His memorable line was when the sheriff asked him a question responded with “Don’t know, Mongo only pawn in game of life.” He portrayed George Zaharias, the husband of famous athlete Babe Didricksen in the movie “Babe.” He had a number of television roles, including the series “Webster.”
Joe Namath was one of my favorite football players and I was really excited when he led the New York Jets to a Super Bowl win over the Baltimore Colts in 1968. I can’t say that I ever had much appreciation for his acting career. Perhaps his most notable role was in the movie “C.C and Company,” with Ann-Margret. I have to admit that I spent more time watching Ann-Margret than I did Joe. Really can’t remember much about his performance. But he wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award. But then neither was Ann-Margret.