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And, of course, it was. The Oregon Athletic Department would even end up being the agency that supplied thousands of extras for the crowd scenes.
I took Towne and Hemingway and Glenn to the plane. As soon as I got home the phone was ringing. It was Towne in Los Angeles, saying, "You know that goof of a swimmer, Denny, who comes in near the end? Well, Mariel and I want you to read for that part."
Everybody should have a phone call like that, as a test of cardiac fitness. I knew him well enough to know he was serious. But he just didn't understand. "Hey, no," I said. "I can understand your being grateful that things turned out...."
"I don't cast out of gratitude." He was angry.
"But I've never...I'm shy, I get embarrassed...I became a writer so I wouldn't have to talk."
"You're an athlete," he said with disturbing finality. "And the character is easily embarrassed."
Writhe though I might, that theme, authenticity, was his hook. If I wanted to help the film be true, he insisted, I wouldn't resist his judgment in what he knew best.
I made no promises. In the next days I brooded. Then Towne arrived with Patrice Donnelly and had me read through Denny's scenes. "You're in deep trouble now," he said afterward, relishing my discomfiture. "The only thing that will get you out of it is if you photograph too old." (Denny is supposed to be in his mid-20s. I was then 36. "Skinny to the point of disfigurement," said Frederick, "but reasonably well preserved.")
Thus I was to take a screen test. I flew to Los Angeles and reported to Towne's office in the Burbank Studios, having parked in Clint Eastwood's parking space. Towne took me to his innermost sanctum, a steam room. His credentials are impressive, including experience on a tuna boat out of San Pedro; an education in philosophy and the classics at Pomona College; a reputation as Hollywood's preeminent script doctor, called in the middle of the night to save scenes or whole movies when all else had failed; the ability to command a fee of one million dollars for an original screenplay; an Oscar for Chinatown. Yet he is a strikingly informal man, and I soon came to feel that such achievement was only natural for someone of his antic, relentlessly probing and ultimately serious mind. Tacked above his desk I had seen the opening pages of what he considered his life's work, Greystoke, a yet-to-be-done Tarzan film that he had spent years researching. Later he would say that choosing Personal Best for his directorial debut was in part to prepare himself for Greystoke.
"I give you my word that playing Denny will not be contrary to your own character," he said, as the steam hissed into the room. A screen test, I learned, wouldn't be simply a little pacing and talk before the camera, as I had imagined, but a full day's acting, to discover one's ability to benefit from direction. "Tomorrow you and Mariel will simply do the weightlifting scene, which, by the way, is an echo of how I met Jane. It will be easy for you; you're at home in a weight room. What's 15 more technicians and cameramen and arc lights and sound and makeup and prop men and costume people and hairdressers getting in your way?"