Every Friday and Saturday at midnight the New Yorker theater on Manhattan's Upper West Side shows a punk-rock film that has roughly the same artistic merit as the cinematic fare on 42nd Street. Only instead of sighs and moans, the audience at the New Yorker is treated to the sounds of the Ramones, the string and percussion quartet that has recorded Teenage Lobotomy and Blitzkrieg Bop. Also featured in this puerile cult movie is a 22-year-old heartthrob named Vincent Van Patten, whose credits also include the starring role in The Bionic Boy, a movie-mag "romance" with Farrah Fawcett and a ranking among the top 50 tennis players in the world.
The movie is called Rock 'n' Roll High School and for anyone not into punk, it has only one conceivable point of interest: Can Van Patten act as well as he hits a tennis ball? The answer is no, which is not to say that he isn't a promising young actor. It's just that as a tennis player he is a good deal more than fine. In fact, since last spring, when he decided to shelve his Hollywood career to play tennis full time, Van Patten has shot up the charts faster than On the Radio.
He began the pro tour as the 374th-ranked player on the Association of Tennis Professionals' all-knowing, career-making-or-breaking computer. That was just about good enough to get him into qualifying tournaments for qualifying tournaments. But after only six weeks on the U.S. satellite circuit, tennis' version of Double-A ball, Van Patten started advancing straight into major events, like the $200,000 ATP Championships in Cincinnati, in which he upset Bob Lutz (then 38th in the rankings) and Tom Okker (44th) before losing in three sets to Harold Solomon (ninth). A month later he pulled off three more shockers, the biggest coming against Pat DuPre, the world's 19th-rated player, en route to the quarterfinals of the $175,000 Jack Kramer Open in Los Angeles. Van Patten closed out 1979 by reaching the semis of the $50,000 Paris Indoors, where he lost another three-setter to Solomon.
Performances such as these catapulted Van Patten to 44th on the computer. No player—not even John McEnroe, who jumped 243 spots in 1977—has leaped so far in a year. Hence, Van Patten was the obvious choice for the ATP Rookie of the Year award, not a bad beginning for someone who spent the better part of his formative years on sets rather than playing them.
As youngsters, Connors, McEnroe and the rest of today's tennis stars each hit millions of balls, received thousands of hours of instruction and competed in hundreds of tournaments. Not all of them were national age-group champions, but few players have made it to anywhere near the top without having played with some success on the national level either as a kid or in college.
Van Patten never had a lesson or held a national junior ranking. Nor was he offered a single college scholarship. His highest ranking came in 1976, when he was 10th in Southern California in the 18-and-under division. That was the only year he qualified for the nationals, but at the last minute he chose to play the Bionic Boy instead of the tournament.
Van Patten has been acting since he was nine. "In the early '70s, he was the-hottest kid actor in Hollywood," says his father, Dick, star of the ABC series Eight Is Enough. "Much hotter than I was." Since then Vincent has appeared in scores of commercials, eight motion pictures and more than 40 television shows. He also has co-starred in two CBS series, Apple's Way and Three for the Road, which ran for a total of three years.
"Between jobs Vincent would go to a public park by himself after school and look for games," his father adds. "He would play with anybody. When he was working, he was always hitting against the wall behind the stage between scenes."
The only tournaments Vincent had time for were local age-group and celebrity events. His only serious challenger for Tinseltown's No. 1 ranking was Dino Martin, and Van Patten easily disposed of him several years ago in an exhibition at the Los Angeles Civic Center. He also has outhustled Bobby Riggs several times. In their last meeting Van Patten spotted the nation's premier male chauvinist the alleys and still won.
Wins over a 61-year-old former champion and a putative player like Martin, however, don't qualify a player for the pro tour. But so what? With classic all-American-boy features—platinum blond hair, 30-inch waist, cherub face and Pepsodent smile—Van Patten's future in Hollywood was secure. At 18, he was making $100,000 a year, owned his own home—next door to his parents—complete with swimming pool and tennis court and the tabloids were insisting that he and Farrah Fawcett were an item. Everyone who might reasonably be expected to know the true life story of Farrah and Vincent denies the rumors, especially Van Patten's parents. Had they had their way—and this is on the level—Vincent would have gotten together with Debbie Boone or Marie Osmond.