"NORTH DALLAS 40" BY PETER GENT (1973)
FILM STARRING NICK NOLTE AND MAC DAVIS (1978)
"SEMI-TOUGH" BY DAN JENKINS
FILM STARRING BURT REYNOLDS, KRIS KRISTOFERSON AND JILL CLAYBURGH (1975)
Some great sports books are terrible films, such as Dan Jenkins’ riotous Semi-Tough, which was a clunker 1975 film starring Burt Reynolds, Kris Kristoferson and the abysmal Jill Clayburgh. Then there are great sports books that make pretty good films, as is the case with Peter Gent’s North Dallas 40. The 1978 film, starring Nick Nolte, was about as good as sports movies got in that era. Subsequent efforts have raised the bar, but despite some hokiness, good acting and story development hold it up.
North Dallas 40 followed the same pattern as Semi-Tough, depicting in semi-fictional manner the intertwining of football, manhood and Texas. These are probably the two best football novels ever written; both are raw, funny and sexy. North Dallas 40 takes the story one step further, by introducing tragedy and pathos. Today, every Tom, Dick and Harry loves to pretend they know The Bard, and would say this book was Shakespearean. I would not go that far, but it is good! Finally, North Dallas 40 is the third of the great “tell-all” sports books of the 1970s. Before North and Semi, there was Jim Bouton’s Ball Four.
North Dallas 40 unsuccessfully tries to pass off an opening disclaimer that the characters are fictional. Forget about it. Phil Elliott is Peter Gent, a Dallas Cowboy’s wide receiver in the 1960s. B.A. is Tom Landy, the Cowboys legendary coach. Seth Maxwell is Don Meredith, their quarterback from 1960 to 1968 (some tried to say he was Craig Morton, but he is “Dandy Don”). Thomas Richardson is Duane Thomas, the surly black militant Dallas running back and star of the 1972 Super Bowl. Conrad Hunter is straight-arrow owner Clint Murchison, Art Hartman is Roger Staubach, and Jo Bob Williams is probably Bob Lilly.
It is a simple enough tale of a week in Elliott’s life, preparing with his team for a pivotal game against Fran Tarkenton’s New York Giants at Yankee Stadium (circa 1969). Elliott is a rebel, a malcontent, a non-conformist, a drug addict, an alcoholic, a bi-curious womanizer, an atheist, maybe a Communist, and a clutch wide receiver. He is appealing in that “bad boy” way that we love dark characters, like Paul Newman in “Hud”. He is having an affair with the fiancée of the owner’s younger brother, all the while soothing his terrible aches and bodily pains with a variety of pills, booze and pot. His pot-smoking partner is Maxwell.
B.A. is a straight-arrow Christian who cannot understand why everybody cannot be like that. He also has no personal feelings for his players, all of whom he motivates by mixing an even dose of fear, loathing, intimidation and pain. Much of Landry’s “plastic computer coach” reputation stemmed from this book. Maxwell is not anybody’s friend, but rather a totally self-centered genius leader on a football field. Elliott gets hooked up with the lovely Charlotte Caulder, and after the loss to the Giants, he is ex-communicated from the club for smoking pot. Maxwell’s pot smoking is conveniently overlooked. Elliott’s real crime is sleeping with the fiancée of Conrad’s brother.
In the book, when he returns to Charlotte, he finds that she and her black lover have been killed in a grisly love triangle murder. The film, featuring the brooding Nolte at his anti-social best, and an excellent “good ol’ boy” performance from Davis, steers from this hole and leaves us with the memory of Phil as victim of corporate hypocrisy.
Semi-Tough is much lighter, filled with sex, semi-macho Texas homilies, and Jenkins at his pure funniest. It is the story of three childhood friends. Billy Clyde Puckett (Reynolds) and Shake Tiller (Kristoferson) are superstar football players with the New York Giants who played together in high school in Ft. Worth, Texas, then at T.C.U.. Barbara Jane Bookman has been with them every step of the way since kindergarten. The film is destroyed by Clayburgh’s portrayal. In the book, she is described as Pamela Anderson fine. In 1975 Loni Anderson might have cut the mustard. Okay, her character had depth, so they needed an actress, but Clayburgh was semi-pretty at the very best. The idea that men would fall for her in the manner required is ludicrous.
The book succeeds because it can meander in and out of Billy Clyde’s fervent imagination, making full use of his storytelling skills. Billy Clyde describes writing Semi-Tough while Jenkins writes Semi-Tough, all during the week leading up to the Giants Super Bowl match-up with the Jets at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Films, which require a tight, three-act structure, fail when they meander, as this one does. All the sight gags that Jenkins has the reader rolling in the aisles over are duds on the screen. Nevertheless, three out of four ain’t bad.
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism