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Dan Jenkins
November 07, 1977
The writer of the best-selling pro football novel watches with dismay and reluctant admiration as Hollywood transforms his book into a movie
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November 07, 1977

Roll 1 Take 2: Semi-tough

The writer of the best-selling pro football novel watches with dismay and reluctant admiration as Hollywood transforms his book into a movie

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Later, David Merrick said, "I think we'd better make a movie."

Well, if that was the case, then what was needed was...

The screenplay was originally taken on by Ring Lardner Jr., a man whose work (M*A*S*H, The Cincinnati Kid), character (endured blacklisting) and brother (John, the best sportswriter who ever lived) I admired tremendously. I also basically liked his first draft. He cleared the gigantic hurdle of taking the story out of first person. And he added the one character I would like most to have thought up myself—an Iron Curtain, soccer-style placekicker who speaks only through an interpreter. This touch of Ring Jr.'s has stayed in the completed film, even though it had become time for the project to take on that most powerful of all forces known to mankind ...


...who knows more about life, death, divorce, laughter, sorrow, money, even pro football, than anybody else in the world, and who usually wants a new script because he has just overheard something relevant to the project on a tennis court or at a consciousness seminar.

Nobody knows how you get to be a director. It just happens. But once you get to be one, you know what people want to see in a movie theater a lot better than people do, especially writers, actors and producers. There is the old story of a writer trying to talk Sam Goldwyn into letting him direct a film. "You're a writer, not a director," Goldwyn said. "But Frank Capra, John Ford, King Vidor, they all had to start somewhere," the man said. And Goldwyn said, "Don't you believe it!"

Only the public will decide whether Michael Ritchie was a wise choice as the director of Semi-Tough. He had certainly made movies I enjoyed and laughed hard at—The Candidate, Smile, Bad News Bears. And against considerable odds, he did get this movie done. It was Michael Ritchie who persuaded Kristofferson to be in the film. It was Ritchie who knew that Jill Clayburgh was an actress with enough depth and class to play the role of Barbara Jane Bookman and say all of those unprintable words, making them seem natural and almost downright charming. It was Ritchie who had to stage all of the football action in three different stadiums and make it appear real—it does—even though the NFL, with the exception of Miami owner Joe Robbie (bless him), refused to cooperate with the movie. It was Ritchie whose overall casting was fairly brilliant, I must say, when it came to some of the lesser roles out of the novel. Richard Masur, who is trying to live down being Brenda's boyfriend in Rhoda, is a suitably oily business manager. Carl Weathers, the Apollo Creed of Rocky, is a perfect Dreamer Tatum. And you would never guess that a couple of professional actors—Brian Dennehy as T. J. Lambert, and Roger E. Mosley as Puddin Patterson—had not stepped right out of somebody's interior line.

It was Ritchie who hired Tom Fears to see to it that all of the "players," whether they were athletes or not, looked like, acted like, spoke like and moved around like pros. It was Ritchie who told Fears to tell the guys that they would get a line of dialogue if they hit Reynolds or Kristofferson particularly hard on a play, all the better for reality.

It was Ritchie who cast an old friend of mine, Norman Alden, as The Coach, having appreciated a story Norm told him during his audition. It was a story those familiar with TCU's onetime coach, Abe Martin, had often enjoyed.

To put it as descriptively as possible, Abe, with his crumpled brown suit and cigar stub, was folksy. During a game against Rice back in the 1950s, I was standing near Abe on the TCU sideline when he summoned a player off the bench to make a defensive substitution.

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