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The World's Greatest Athlete

The World's Greatest Athlete

Before he became a household name with plum roles on the CBS sitcom Good Times and in the ABC miniseries Roots (1977), John Amos went unbilled in his first feature film role (Vanishing Point) and played only a bit part in his second (Sweet Sweetback's Badass Song), both in 1971. It represented a step up in status for the former stand-up comedian and Leslie Uggams Show staff writer to receive star billing (in the company of Tim Conway and Jan-Michael Vincent) in Walt Disney's The World's Greatest Athlete (1973).

The part of the luckless but indefatigable Coach Archer, athletics director of the fictional Merivale College (not to be confused with Disney's other bogus university, Medfield – the setting for campus comedies from The Absent-Minded Professor [1961] to The Strongest Man in the World [1975]), had first belonged to Godfrey Cambridge; Cambridge collapsed shortly after the commencement of principal photography in the spring of 1972 and withdrew from the project. If Amos lacked the sardonic wit of Cambridge (who died of a heart attack in 1976), he was a better physical fit as a former Golden Gloves champ and pro football player for the American and United Football Leagues. For three seasons, Amos appeared semi-regularly on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, in which his affable "Gordy the Weatherman" was often mistaken for a sportscaster because he was black. Pitched to Nixon era moviegoers as "the motion picture sports story of the century," The World's Greatest Athlete is more interesting now for the innocence and awkwardness of its take on race relations.

This twist in Tarzan's tail that is The World's Greatest Athlete sprang from the shared brain of comedy writers Gerald Gardner and Dee Caruso. Although the team had come to Buena Vista to pitch an entirely different project, the logline of The World's Greatest Athlete was the one that resonated with producer Bill Walsh. Gardner and Caruso's scenario is a superficially agreeable mix of fish-out-of-water gags (both the bumbling Americans as they stumble across the Dark Continent and their Greystoke surrogate as a Merivale matriculant) and supernatural hoodoo (courtesy of African witch doctor Roscoe Lee Browne), which causes Conway to levitate and reduce in size for some sub-Incredible Shrinking Man slapstick. The comedy is as broad as it gets and the playing is all over the map. Jan-Michael Vincent comes off best, as "Nanu," the orphaned son of African missionaries raised in the brush to become a Wild Child nonpareil. Blessed with Adonis-like physical beauty and an easy, uncomplicated acting style, Vincent remains the film's capital asset, even when let down by substandard chroma key or forced to play straight man to Amos and Conway as a poor man's Abbott and Costello. The depiction of the film's other black characters is harder to countenance, with Roscoe Lee Browne, Don Pedro Colley and Clarence Muse donning chicken feathers and nose bones to soldier through the material as best they can. Browne fares best and even has some good lines, as when he expresses his hope to attract western doctors to Africa not by the construction of hospitals but golf courses.

Entrusted to former song and dance man Robert Scheerer (whose previous job had been the, for him, atypical youth picture Adam at Six A.M. [1970], starring Michael Douglas). The film's African scenes were filmed at the Lion Country Safari south of Disneyland, while various locations in Stockton (including Caswell State Park) stood in for the Merivale campus and its environs. (An Alan Maley matte painting helps transform the wilds of Newhall, California, into a section of the Great Wall of China.) Although the initial scenes have a bland budget-conscious feel, a hefty chunk of the film's budget went to the giant props used for the scene in which Conway is shrunk to a mere three inches in height. The giant telephone (which boasted an 18' receiver) set the production back $7,900 while the contents of a ladies handbag (into which the homunculean cutup drops) came to a very dear $15,000.

Scheerer parades more than a few familiar faces (Nancy Walker, Billy De Wolfe, Danny Goldman, Ivor Francis, Leon Askin, Vito Scotti, Howard Cosell, Frank Gifford and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter [1966] star John Lupton) in front of the camera, along with newcomer Dayle Haddon. A Canadian fashion model who had been in Los Angeles for only a month when she impressed Scheerer with her "air of innocence," Haddon fled Hollywood postproduction to star in a string of European soft core sex films (among them Charles Matton's Spermula [1976] and Just Jaeckin's Madame Claude [1977]).

The Walt Disney Studio kicked off their 50th year of production with the release of The World's Greatest Athlete. A rough cut of the film had been screened in October of 1972 at a Buena Vista sales conference and was at that time slated to make its world premiere at Manhattan's famed Radio City Music Hall (and in so doing became the fifteenth Disney film to have that honor). Accompanied by a live stage show dedicated to the life of Nat King Cole, The World's Greatest Athlete failed to win over New York audiences and the engagement there was a resounding bust. The film fared better after its Los Angeles premiere the following month, where it was booked into the Fox Hollywood to more enthusiastic audiences and a better return on Disney's investment.

While Time branded the production a "slack and dreary comedy" in which "the jokes are either raucously insipid or coyly racist," Box Office found it "ideal family entertainment" and awarded the film its annual Blue Ribbon Award for cinematic excellence. The New York Times split the difference, with critic A.H. Weiler averring that "this ribbing of the Tarzan myth runs a good, clean course that should grab all red-blooded sports fans up to and including the 14-year-old group." Not especially noteworthy in its own right, The World's Greatest Athlete marked the final film appearance of musical comedy performer Billy De Wolfe (cast as one of Disney's ever-apoplectic college deans), who succumbed to the ravages of lung cancer in February 1974.

Producer: Bill Walsh
Director: Robert Scheerer
Screenplay: Gerald Gardner, Dee Caruso
Cinematography: Frank Phillips
Art Direction: John B. Mansbridge, Walter Tyler
Music: Marvin Hamlisch
Film Editing: Cotton Warburton
Cast: Tim Conway (Milo), Jan-Michael Vincent (Nanu), John Amos (Coach Archer), Roscoe Lee Browne (Gazenga), Dayle Haddon (Jane), Billy De Wolfe (Dean Maxwell), Nancy Walker (Mrs. Petersen), Danny Goldman (Leopold Maxwell), Don Pedro Colley (Morumba), Vito Scotti (Games spectator), Liam Dunn (Dr. Winslow).
C-93m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.

by Richard Harland Smith

Disney A to Z by Dave Smith
The World's Greatest Athlete Production Handbook
Walt Disney Productions' DisNews newsletter



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