By David Raether, veteran TV writer and essayist.
My two football teams growing up were the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers and the Minnesota Vikings. How has that worked out for me? Well, the Gophers haven’t been to the Rose Bowl since 1962 (that’s 55 years, and we may as well keep counting because I don’t see that changing anytime soon.) And the Vikings have lost four Super Bowls. I’ve pretty much lost interest in football. Fair weather fan? Yup. But I gave the sport a good thirty-year run.
But does that mean I hold this against football movies? Of course not! I’m up for a good football movie any day of the week. Here are my picks for football movies to dig into now that the season for the game has returned.
Everyone knows this movie because of Ronald Reagan’s performance as George Gipp. The nickname “Gipper” and the phrase “win one for the Gipper” stuck with him throughout the rest of his life and was even part of one of his political speeches. But I’d like to focus instead on the director, Lloyd Bacon. You’ve never heard of him, but what a career! He started out in vaudeville, acted in more than 40 movies (including several with Charlie Chaplin), and, between 1920 and 1955, directed more than 100 movies. And he did all this after serving as a naval officer during World War I. Tip of the hat, Lloyd Bacon! A real professional, and thanks for this film, Knute Rockne All American.
This is the male version of Steel Magnolias, starring James Caan and Billy Dee Williams. Originally a made-for-TV movie about Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo dying of cancer, this tearjerker will divide any room. The men will all agree it’s probably the greatest movie ever made, and all the women will roll their eyes. They are both right. It was written by TV pro William Blinn, who has a gazillion credits, including creating Starsky & Hutch. And you know what? “I love Brian Piccolo.” (I’m choking up as I type those words.)
This is the version to watch, not the 2005 remake that starred Adam Sandler. Burt Reynolds is simply great as the star quarterback who ends up in prison and leads the prison football team versus the guards. It’s the best performance of his career. The actual football is well-executed and featured a number of real NFL players. Eddie Albert is the evil warden of the prison. Don’t miss it.
A bubbly and charming comedy about a quarterback (Warren Beatty) who is mistakenly brought to heaven early by an incompetent angel (Buck Henry) and then is allowed to return in a different body to win his QB job back. This movie has a dream cast that includes James Mason, Julie Christie, Dyan Cannon, Charles Grodin, and Jack Warden. Beatty and Henry co-directed the movie. The script, co-written by Henry and Elaine May, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. It should have won, but lost to Oliver Stone’s script for Midnight Express. It’s at this point I would go into one of my rants about how comedies never get the artistic credit they deserve, but that’s for another time. If you run into me in a coffeehouse in San Francisco, I’ll be happy to give you that speech. Even if you don’t want to hear it.
Finally, I would like to cite the TV series Friday Night Lights (2005-2011). I have recommended this series to many non-football fans, particularly women who hate sports. They all have ended up binge-watching it. It’s a compelling portrait of high school football and small-town life in contemporary Texas. The original non-fiction book was fascinating, the feature film version was not so good, but the series is excellent.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times is awaiting publication.