SI Vault
Robert Towne
August 06, 1984
With the Olympics under way in his native city, the author recalls with admiration two men of Los Angeles who were defined by how they moved in their elements
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August 06, 1984

In The Water, In The Air, In L.a.

With the Olympics under way in his native city, the author recalls with admiration two men of Los Angeles who were defined by how they moved in their elements

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"Bob, I'd like you to meet Wally Wolf." There he was, hair frosted with a little gray, but the build and the smile were unmistakable. "Did you ever swim?" I asked as we shook hands. Mildly but pleasantly surprised, Wally allowed that he had. "I saw you set the world record in the 300 IM at the Coliseum pool when I was 13 years old," I said flatly. I said it more like a kid about to ask for an autograph from his favorite athlete. Both Wally and Zieg were taken aback.

Wally had—and has—the kind of silver-fox good looks that suggest an imposing manner to match them. I remember asking him something else about the world record he held. Wally chortled. His laugh was like a guy doing a comedy dive in striped long Johns off a 10-meter platform. He utterly dispelled the image of any minence grise manner with his good-natured giggle. "I think I held that record for three weeks," he said. His merriment over his fleeting glory seemed genuine, and was definitely infectious.

We became friends, and I learned, among other things, that he had been on four Olympic teams—1948, '52, '56 and '60—the last three in water polo. In '48, as part of the 4 X 200-meter relay team, he had won a gold medal at Wembley Stadium in London.

Over the next few years, Wally and I had intermittent contact with one another. Then, for reasons too complicated to be interesting, I found I wanted to start swimming again. I hadn't played water polo in 20 years and hadn't really swum, either. Wally took me by the hand and led me to the men's pool at UCLA, introducing me to the UCLA water polo coach, Bob Horn.

Horn, an amiable bear hug of a man, taught me a tumble turn, and Wally and I began to work out together. The first day I did three lengths of a 100-foot pool and nearly drowned. Within a few months, however, swimming interval workouts with Wally, I was doing about 3,000 yards a day and, without really letting on, a not-so-subtle competition began to emerge. Doing 15 doubles in the pool, going every 60 seconds, Wally and I would watch the movement of the red arrows, the sweep second hands on the twin wall clocks at either end, and fight to touch first. Wally's speed was unassailable, and so for the first five doubles he held dominion over the gutter at the shallow end of the pool. The last 10 doubles, however, were more evenly contested. Just as a monkey on a typewriter is likely to stab out a phrase or two of a Hamlet soliloquy if he keeps punching away at the keys long enough, I was able to condition myself to the point where the last part of any interval work, if not a horse race, at least held out the possibility of a difference of opinion between Wally and me. It got to the point, however, where I was working out every day and Wally would be able to join me only once a month. Still, no matter how out of shape he was, he was able to meet or beat me anytime we swam 50s, 100s, 200s, 500s, 1,000s, whatever. I came to understand how this man had qualified for four Olympics. His competitive urge simply had no limit. It was like shining a flashlight up into the night sky. The beam finally disappears, but it never ends. You could burn Wally up, but you could never burn him out. I heard Olympic tales of how Wally, 5'10" and 145 pounds, would buzz like a gnat around the shoulders of some Hungarian water polo player who could stand in the deep end of the pool, had finger-and toenails sharpened like spikes and the temperament of a Visigoth with a hangover. Wally would smile, take the ball, shove it down the Hungarian's throat and try to pull it out his toes. In the water Wally Wolf had been, and remained, a desperate man, an exemplar of competitive ferocity.

On land, in contrast, he was, and is, a model of civility and self-effacing finesse. His is the manner of one whose church has just voted him Man of the Year, but golly, he just knows that somebody, anybody, else deserves it more.

His ferocity is a matched pair with his sense of fun. Wally is a playful man, whether spinning a water polo ball on his nose or telling a story about the Mid-Ocean championships at the elegant Eagle's Nest Hotel in Bermuda in 1954. The English colonials, tricked out in decorous white, stopped just short of opera glasses as they gathered to view a competitive exhibition of the Mid-Atlantic's finest swimmers. Wally, along with other Olympians, stood on the blocks while the starter, in white waistcoat and black tie, solemnly intoned, in hushed BBC English, "Gentlemen, I shall ask you to take your marks, set, and, after a proper interval, I shall fire the starting gun." Everyone nodded assent and took his mark. Bill Woolsey and Alex Masarik earned their share of immortality in that race. Masarik farted a split second before the starting gun. Woolsey went on the fart, everyone else on the gun. A momentary loss of aplomb flitted across the starter's face, but it was an exhibition, and he was an Englishman. What was he to do? Nothing, of course. There was no recall, and Woolsey won the race. The results stood. There wasn't the faintest suggestion of the need for an inquiry, and Wally remembers the race as one of the shining moments in his competitive career. That, and the time he caromed a water polo ball off Cal's mascot turtle "to score SC's only goal in beating a superior Cal team 1-0. (The mascot's shell was painted gold with a blue C on it, and it habitually swam around the bottom of the pool, ignoring the vigorous activity of the players just above and below the surface. For some fortuitous reason, however, it decided to surface with just seconds to go in the half, allowing Wally to skip the ball off its golden shell and over the Cal goalie and score. It was understandably difficult for the Cal team to protest. After all, it was their turtle.)

In 1976, Columbia Pictures was sued for failure to honor an "implied contract" in the matter of Shampoo, a film I wrote with Warren Beatty. Warren and I were tugged, gently at first, then thrown rudely into the courtroom—and courts are a pool where somebody has drained the water. What it came down to was this: An elderly woman who had been a hair stylist apparently had written a 29-page treatment, called Women Plus, about a hairdresser in L.A. In 1971 she sent a copy of it to an independent production manager's office at Columbia. Meanwhile, by 1969, I had written about 1,000 pages of a screenplay of what was first called Hair, then Shampoo; then Warren and I disagreed over it. By 1970, 1,000 or so of our intimate friends had read it, we still disagreed and the project languished another few years, when for equally mysterious reasons, we stopped disagreeing and made the movie. (Not, however, before Warren had had words with the producer and director of the rock musical Hair because we'd registered the title Hair for our movie as far back as 1967. With the success of the stage play, however, the potential conflict over title became moot; Hair was too closely identified with the play, and we had to come up with another title.)

All the evidence notwithstanding, the poor woman's husband stood up in court and told the jury that his wife was dying and what was he to do? The jury did it for him, awarding a judgment for implied contract against Columbia Pictures, and Warren and I were tainted with plagiarism. Until the judge threw the entire thing out of his court a month later and the California Supreme Court ultimately rendered a firm opinion—that "implied contract" or plagiarism was out of the question—both of us were reminded that words indeed can hurt you. But Wally, I think, was as stunned and hurt and even as bewildered as we were during this period. He had been my lawyer in unrelated matters and had watched the trial mainly as a friend and, like me, his faith had been shaken.

The day the judge threw out the jury's decision I received this letter:

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