Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Vol. 4 No. 15 Two Runners Who Kicked Butt on the Stage and Screen

Two events in the past week reminded me that at least two good track athletes made it in the field of drama.   At  the 2014 Academy Awards last week,  Bruce Dern (University of Pennsylvania) was a nominee for his lead role in the film Nebraska.   He didn't win, but he will  be remembered in the running community for being a good half miler and having been very competitive in ultra marathons in the 1960's.  He made a good running movie, On the Edge, and  he once challenged the Hell's Angels to a race when they were participating on the set of Wild Angels.  More about that one later.  A brief look in the books shows also that Robin Williams ran a 1:57 880 in high school and Dana Carvey was a 4:26 miler.  The stunner is Woody Allen  who allegedly ran a 2:06 880 in high school.

Bruce Dern 2014 Academy Award nominee playing  his role in Nebraska. 

Bruce Dern as a runner  at U. of Pennsylvania about 1957

Dennis Weaver

Weaver on his Junior High football team in Joplin, MO

The actor Dennis Weaver (University of Oklahoma)  grabbed our attention last week when we connected to the blog of history of Michigan State Cross Country put out by Mark Harvitz of the University of Waterloo in Ontario. 

Weaver isn't mentioned directly in that blog, but he appears in a film of the 1946 NCAA national cross country championship held at Michigan State that year.  He can be seen clearly finishing in 59th place.  This may be the first time Weaver ever appeared  on film.   Weaver was more than a cross country runner.  He finished 6th at the US Olympic Trials in 1948 as a decathlete. 

John Bork Jr.,  1961 NCAA 880 Champion for Western Michigan knew Bruce Dern in the 1960's when Dern patronized the store where John sold running shoes.  John relates this story.

Dear George:

I saw Nebraska with Bruce Dern about 4 weeks ago and  loved it!

I knew Bruce from the LA running scene in the late 60's.
At that time Bruce had progressed from #3 in the 880 in his college days back East......... and was running road races.
( In his collegiate career, he was about a 1:49 or 1:50 runner ranked #3 just behind Tom Courtney and Arnie Sowell.) Editor's note.  Several readers have questioned the veracity of these times.  So we will leave them to your judgement until there is further confirmation. 

Thanks to Pete Brown and Ernie Cunliffe for holding my feet to the fire on Dern's 880 times.   Ernie sent this along. 

Found a Runners World article that mentions Dern ran a 1:55.8 880 in high school, which I believe
would have been 1954 track season.   He mentions that he did not improve his times his freshman
year at Penn.   Also, he mentions that he often ran against Courtney, Sowell, Spurrier, and Delany
when he was at Penn but finished well behind them all the time.  Ernie Cunliffe

"Our readers are our best editors.  Our mothers are our best critics."    ed. 
He was only working as a movie extra back then but shortly thereafter; got a role in the Peter Fonda Hells Angels film Wild Angels (directed by Roger Corman).   He played " the loser" who dies in the movie.

 Leonard Matlin called the movie  'OK  after about 24 beers'.  It was the 16th biggest grossing film in the US in 1966 and led to Peter Fonda's conception of 'Easy Rider'  three years later.  ed. 

At the end of each filming day Dern  would put on his running gear and go out for a long run which really intrigued the "Hells Angel's" who took part in this film.  They struck up a relationship with Bruce because they thought his running was "Cool" and a million miles from riding a "chopper".  So, Bruce challenged them to a race. They could pick any of their guys to ride a bicycle for 7 miles against Bruce running on foot.
Cagey Bruce planned a course starting at the bottom of Sunset Blvd. where it meets Pacific Coast Highway and goes steeply up intoPacific Palisades.  Naturally Bruce built up a huge lead over the first 4-5 miles of the  uphill section and won easily. They thought this was so cool and built him his own "Chopper" as a gift.  I wonder what Bruce would have owed had he lost? ed.

The quote I most remember Bruce for was made one day at the store while we  were discussing LAPD. They had a running team, whose members also came in and bought Tiger Cortez, Bostons and Marathons. but, we were talking about LA "Cops". At one point Bruce, said sincerely, , "Well" I respect the Pig!"

I probably haven't seen Bruce since 1970 but, watched his movie career from afar.
The roles he got usually fit his "persona" quite well.
Bruce apparently was asked to leave the U. Penn track team, (see link above), because he let his hair grow long and the crowd at Madison Square Garden started yelling, "Go Elvis Go." while he was running a leg on the two mile relay.  The coach Ken Doherty thought this brought undeserved attention  to the U. Penn team and made an ultimatum to cut his hair or leave the team.  Bruce chose the latter.  Doherty was later interview about it and thought that the ultimatum was more about Bruce needing to make a choice and focus on his running or his acting.   Bruce obviously made the right choice.  This story was found on a discussion thread on Track and Field News.  Later in his career Bruce made a running film On the Edge about a long distance runner participating in the Dipsea race on the west coast.
Go Elvis Go!

Dern's filmography can be seen at :  http://www.starpulse.com/Actors/Dern,_Bruce/Biography/
 On the Edge  released in 1985 is left off the list.  Here is a review of that film by Roger Ebert.  http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/on-the-edge-1986
Look for Marty Liquori as a TV announcer, Gary Bjorkland as one of the runners, and Walt Stack as himself.  

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cHr4XtxViOY  trailer for On the Edge.  

Things I've Said and Probably Shouldn't Have with Christopheer Fryer and Robert Crane is his autobiography.

Dern and Weaver never  shared the tv screen on Gunsmoke , as Dern appeared in several episodes after Weaver had left the series in 1961.   A short tribute to  Dern's film roles can be seen at the following youtube clip with an intro by Quentin Tarantino.    

Dennis Weaver with Gunsmoke co-star Amanda Blake

Billy D. Weaver became Dennis Weaver when he applied for an Actor's Equity card and found that there was already an actor named Bill Weaver,  so he used his middle name from that time.

After serving as a Navy pilot in WWII Dennis Weaver became a drama major and a track and field and cross country athlete for the University of Oklahoma.  He finished 59th in the NCAA cross country nationals in 1948  one place ahead of Michigan State's Walter Mack.   Mack was a returning WWII veteran who had a severe foot wound from a battle at New Britain in the South Pacific.  Irony ran the table with Mack the foot wounded veteran finishing just behind  Weaver who  would gain fame as a gimpy deputy sheriff on the popular series Gunsmoke.  

Weaver topped his cross country performances with his decathlon work under the eyes of coach John Jacobs. (see photo note the oil can)  He was  road trip roommate  with Bill Carroll who succeeded coach Jacobs.  On several occasions Dennis hooked up with the U. of Oklahoma track and field team escorting them around a film studio when the team was in Los Angeles.  He also came to the OU- Kansas dual meet when I was a freshman in 1962.     Weaver ended his career at the University of Oklahoma shortly after graduating in 1948.   His last meet was the US Olympic trials in Bloomfield, NJ.   There he met one of his former teammates, Lonnie Chapman who was already in New York attempting to make it in the theater.  Dennis, also a drama major, roamed the streets of New York with Chapman walking past theaters seeing the sights and even rehearsing for an audition later in the week.   Weaver recounts in an interview on youtube   that the next day his legs were dead, and by the time the two day decathlon event was over , he had finished in 6th place.  He thought he should have done better but looking down the road toward his acting  career took him out of the sports spotlight.  He did have the fastest time in the 1500 meters in that meet and tied in the pole vault.  There is a five part series of interviews with Weaver about his life and career.  At the end of the first segment, he relates the story about the Olympic Trials.    It can be found at the 25 min. 35 sec. point of the interview.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4hDr_bWDV1U  The series of episodes though long, is well worth watching if you are a interested in his work, in the early days of television, and his roles in film.   In the second segment there is a particularly interesting account he gives of working with Orson Wells in A Touch of Evil.

Dennis Weaver passed away in 2005 at the age of 81.  For years he had been an environmental activist.    He was the feature actor in Steven Spielberg's first film  Duel.  All the World's a Stage is his autobiography.  A tribute to his life can be seen at http://www.dennisweaver.com/

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