Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: From March Madness into History

I seem to have let Black History Month slide by without a shout-out to the biggest black historian of them all. No matter: African-Americans are entitled to make history in months other than February. And March Madness is now officially underway. So it’s a perfect time to salute Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who has recently been named by the U.S. Department of State as an American cultural ambassador. Abdul-Jabbar, in case you haven’t heard, is the author of many serious books exploring black contributions to American life. He has chronicled the Harlem Renaissance, written about the unsung heroes of World War II’s mostly black 761st Tank Battalion, and just published a history of African-American inventors. Along the way, of course, he’s also played a little basketball. And made a surprising number of movies, the most famous of which is undoubtedly Airplane, in which (as co-pilot Roger Murdock) he spoofed his own public image as a serious, even humorless, guy.

It’s surprising (or maybe it isn’t) how many star athletes have ended up in movies. I once wrote an L.A. Times piece on a USC course in which student athletes –- including a future Heisman trophy winner –- fulfilled their fine-arts requirement by studying acting fundamentals. Their hope, of course, was to luck into a lucrative and glamorous Hollywood career, once their playing days were over. But despite their admirable physical grace, most star athletes don’t make great actors, because they’re not terrific at articulating lines on camera. Still, some have done well. Among former football greats, Merlin Olsen had a featured role on TV’s Little House on the Prairie, and even starred in his own series, Father Murphy. And Jim Brown, who debuted in major action flicks like The Dirty Dozen, is still taking on varied roles. Not to mention O.J. Simpson, who racked up a number of screen credits before he was (ahem) otherwise engaged.

In my Roger Corman days, when we were churning out routine thrillers by the dozens, Roger got the mad notion that the mere presence of a sports star would increase our audience. In one film he gave a supporting role to popular Dodger Steve Garvey. In another, he cast running back Roger Craig as a police detective, and made sure he was prominent in a chase scene so that fans could watch him run. Neither fledgling actor showed much talent, and I’m certain they didn’t increase our viewership of Bloodfist 6 or Naked Obsession.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, I suspect, would not have stooped to such exploitation. At least, when he and I were UCLA classmates, he projected a fierce dignity. He was Lew Alcindor then, the most recruited (and the tallest) player in college basketball. We were both enrolled in Professor Albert Hoxie’s Western Civ class, along with a few hundred other undergraduates. One day, I switched to an unfamiliar discussion section. I sat in the front row, and suddenly a huge shadow loomed behind me. Then two giant feet appeared, one on either side of my desk. I was so rattled that I dropped my pen on the floor, and just let it lie.

Professor Hoxie, a gifted lecturer with a flair for tracing the social and intellectual currents of an era, died at age 86 in 1999. His obituary in the Times noted that his most famous former student had lauded him in print. In the opening pages of his Black Profiles in Courage, he wrote that Hoxie “taught me that authentic history was not dry, lifeless facts, but rather the living legacies of real human beings.” Not bad for a white guy who couldn’t jump.


  1. I'll bet it won't surprise you that my favorite Kareem Abdul-Jabbar performance is in the unfinished Bruce Lee movie The Game of Death - where Mr. Abdul-Jabbar plays the guardian of the top floor of a five story pagoda Bruce Lee's character fights his way through. The film was meant to show Mr. Lee's Jeet Kune Do in action as he battles and defeats a different martial arts master on each floor - with some mysterious prize waiting on the top floor. Sadly, Mr. Lee died of a cerebral edema before the film was completed. Even more sadly, a six years later the execs at Golden Harvest took the surviving footage (100 minutes worth), chopped out around 11 minutes of it, and wrapped a whole new movie around those 11 minutes - with two unconvincing lookalikes doubling for Bruce Lee in a completely different story. This ended up getting a John Barry (!) score and played theaters in 1978.

    Mr. Abdul-Jabbar is incredibly menacing and it's wild to see him battling Lee in the original footage - and I'm very happy to say he refused to return for the reshoots years later out of respect for his friend. He also gets a terrible lookalike.

    Dignity indeed.

  2. What can I say other than Wow!? I'm not surprised to know Abdul-Jabbar can look menacing, and I'd love to see him battling Bruce Lee. Where did you see the original footage, Mr. Craig?

  3. The battle footage is pretty much intact in the released version of The Game of Death. It is by far the most entertaining part of the movie. But there's a better look at the unfinished original Bruce Lee version in the recent feature documentary The Way of the Warrior, which I believe is included as a special feature on the multi-disc Enter the Dragon Special Edition. I bet you could also see the battle on YouTube.

  4. It is indeed on YouTube. Amazing! Who'dda thunk Kareem would look so good as a martial artist?