It all began with a piece of paper in a typewriter and a man staring rather helplessly at it, wondering where a character in a novel named Billy Clyde Puckett was going after the first paragraph. Now, for the perpetrator of Semi-Tough—me—it has sort of semi-ended with Billy Clyde crawling into the mind and body of Burt Reynolds and having a few more of those escapades that were never really intended for the enjoyment of priests, grandmothers and Wellington Mara, anyway. Plus, he collides with a Hollywood Super Bowl. Of the many fun-loving things that old Burt does in the movie, some of which are even taken from the book, one is to zigzag his way to a touchdown on a play that a script girl labeled "117 apple, 28 frame." I guess that sets the tone of this for you.
On second thought, forget what I said just then; it is not entirely fair to the hundreds of people who worked so hard for several months to get the movie made, no thanks to the National Football League, incidentally. I did not mean to start out sounding like a precious critic, the kind who lets 2,000 members of a film company spend a year in the Sahara and then tells them that their movie is a flop because it wasn't done in Czechoslovakia with subtitles.
In fact, I am compelled for a moment to forget what I personally think about the film's faithfulness to my Great American Literary Classic, which so stunned the world that people publicly burned their Tolstoys because he never mentioned the San Diego Chargers. And I must pause right here to say that with the filming of Semi-Tough, Hollywood at least has finally made a football movie in which the quarterback does not get kidnapped from the malt shop to return for the big game only after Bonita Granville runs all the way from Flirtation Walk to Annapolis and speaks privately to the statue of Tecumseh.
When the shooting of Semi-Tough started last winter, I was happy enough simply to learn that it was still going to be about pro football and had not become the story of these two crazy, zingy pirates who get shipwrecked on Lake Michigan and wind up doing musical comedy in Green Bay.
On the contrary. I threw a victory party when I first heard that Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson were going to be the leading men. To me, it was inspired casting. Burt Reynolds was Billy Clyde Puckett, the running back, and Kris Kristofferson was Shake Tiller, the split end. Assuming they could have acted as well, Butch Gifford and Sundance Meredith could not have been any better choices for the parts.
But maybe I'm getting ahead of myself. I want to talk about the whole experience. I have a perfect right to do it, after all. The novel has terrorized my life for the past five years. So I will start off with...
The title had been in my head forever. Semi is an all-purpose word in my part of Texas, and it would be pronounced "sem-eye" at most truck stops. Correct usage: "I'm semi-hungry, Momma." While I always knew that I would call a book Semi-Tough someday, it never crossed my mind that the subject would be football. On the other hand, it was too late for me to take my portable typewriter and parachute into France with the 82nd Airborne. For the past 25 years I had been busily engaged in the TCU and Notre Dame and Cotton Bowl press boxes, as well as a hundred others.
I wrote the book for calisthenics, just to see if I could write a semi-novel. Billy Clyde Puckett told the story for me, in the Texas idiom we both grew up with. It contained a generous amount of raunchy language because that is how I have heard most athletes talk. You don't hear "ah, heck" too often in the locker room or on the sidelines. You don't hear it too often in the movie, either, by the way. It's a "hard R," as they say around the Beverly Hills fettucine.
The story was a little less complicated than The Brothers Karamazov. These two guys and this girl grow up together in Texas, see, and the guys are high school and college heroes who become pro heroes, and the girl, who is merely wonderful, has always been in love with both of them because nobody else ever had a sense of humor—especially her father, who is every rich oilman I ever encountered. They all wind up in the Super Bowl, and the girl winds up with one of the guys, but everybody winds up happy. The end.