Monday, August 13, 2012

From the Court (or the Pool) to the Sound Stage

The other evening, when the gold-medal duo of Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings were chatting with Bob Costas of NBC, he commented that ideal casting for a Hollywood treatment of these two beach volleyball stars might be Deborah Messing and Laura Dern. Walsh -- the tall, willowy blonde -- disclosed that her shorter, more curvy brunette partner had fantasized being portrayed by Sandra Bullock. It was all in fun (I think). Frankly, I was relieved that no one's suggesting the two women go Hollywood and play themselves. Or use their victory as a springboard to serious acting careers.

Years ago Hollywood looked to Olympic champions for their star potential. Perhaps the first athlete-turned-actor was Johnny Weissmuller, the American swimmer who won five golds in the 1920s, then became the quintessential movie Tarzan. Another Olympic swimmer who ended up playing action roles was Buster Crabbe. His name sounds like something out of a comic book, so it’s apt that he starred as comic-book heroes Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers.

Hollywood also snapped up Sonja Henie, the Norwegian ice princess who won Olympic figureskating titles in 1928, 1932, and 1936. She went on to star in a dozen Fox musical romps with titles like Thin Ice, Wintertime, and Sun Valley Serenade. The plots -- such as they were -- always gave Henie a reason to strap on her skates for a big production number. Henie became controversial because of her apparent coziness with Nazi leaders, but at the height of her career she was one of Hollywood’s highest-paid stars.

One soggy beauty made her mark in the water rather than on top of it. Esther Williams wasn’t exactly an Olympian, because the 1940 Olympics were cancelled. But Williams was a serious competitive swimmer who had set many national records. She caught the eye of MGM talent scouts looking for their own Sonja Henie-type, someone athletic but totally feminine. Films like Million Dollar Mermaid and Dangerous When Wet let her look fetching in a one-piece suit while showing off her talents on the diving board, on water-skis, and as the centerpiece of elaborate synchronized swim routines. (I still love those!) Years ago I visited a decrepit tourist attraction called Cypress Gardens, where guides proudly showed off a Florida-shaped swimming pool that was built at enormous cost for the filming of 1953’s Easy to Love. It was set at a Florida tourist attraction, with Williams’ character the aquatic star and Van Johnson playing hard-to-get as her boss. The inimitable Busby Berkeley contributed splashy choreography.

More recently, Olympic stars have had difficulty transitioning to the big screen. After swimmer Mark Spitz won seven gold medals at the 1972 Olympics, Hollywood beat a path to his door. After all, he was tan and muscular, with a flashing grin and a rakish mustache. Only problem: he couldn’t act. Gold-medal 1976 decathlete Bruce Jenner had a modest acting career (he auditioned for but didn’t get the role of Superman). Today he’s best known as the step-father of the egregious Kardashian clan.

I most admire Cathy Rigby, the highest scoring American female gymnast at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, back when Americans didn’t win gymnastics medals. She later made TV commercials and did sports commentary, before launching a full-blown acting career. She’s best known today for physically demanding stage roles like the high-flying lead in Peter Pan, for which she copped a Tony nomination. I saw her in Li’l Abner, playing Mammy Yokum. She totally owned the part of Li’l Abner’s feisty mom, and (though over fifty) even managed to throw in a nifty tumbling run.


  1. This is a fun Olympics wrap-up post - let's also mention Kurt Thomas - whose gymnastic prowess at the 1976 Olympics led to his starring role in Gymkata - a wonderfully silly martial arts action outing that has spy Thomas finding naturally occuring gymnastic equipment where he most needs it (parallel bars in an alley, a stone in the town square shaped just like a pommel horse...) He of course uses these items to lay an acrobatic smackdown on the baddies. Another gymnast-turned-actor was Mitch Gaylord - who won gold in the 1984 Olympics, then starred in American Anthem for Purple Rain director Albert Magnoli. But for me Mr. Gaylord's peak in cinema came with 1990's American Tiger - a martial arts exercise so silly it might have been directed by Ed Wood, had he not passed on twelve years prior.

  2. These films sound hilarious! I remember both gymnasts, but had no idea they had enjoyed such "auspicious" screen careers.