The Stars of Track and Screen

Victory movie poster (partial)

People who love sports love sports stars turned actors far more than we love actors playing sports stars.

Sport, as we’re reminded on an almost daily basis, is the ultimate reality drama. The results are as important or trivial as we choose them to be, but only the most ardent sport-hater would deny the raw appeal of the never-ending narrative of victory and defeat.

And yet, despite sport being the most glaring example of daily drama around us, when it comes to actually translating it into drama, the sports movie is a genre shackled by its own limitations. As much as sports fans are drawn to these movies, we’re routinely disappointed.

Sports movies are inherently predictable because the action can only go one of two ways: the plucky underdogs triumph against the odds, or they fail gallantly at the last hurdle. Whether they’re Disney’s Mighty Ducks or Will Smith’s Muhammad Ali, we’re ahead of the story every step of the way.

In Ali’s case, we all know the story of the 20th century’s most famous athlete. As for the Ducks? Well, what else would you expect? Even a good sports film like Million Dollar Baby telegraphed its tragic twist long before it happened. The only way to make a decent sports movie is to put sports in the background. In Raging Bull, Scorsese uses boxing as just one element in LaMotta’s ultimate destruction. In Field Of Dreams, baseball becomes a metaphor for a lost age. Winning or losing, those two impostors, are irrelevant.

The essential problem with the sports movie is that drama is guaranteed. Sport doesn’t guarantee anything. Sure, the TV promos suggests that we’d be crazy to miss the game, barking at us in a voice like thunder that these two teams are primed for battle and really, really hate each other, but we still understand that by committing to watching the game we’re taking a gamble. Our team could lose heavily. It could be hopelessly boring and disappointing. It could be all over after ten minutes. The underdog, no matter how plucky, is an underdog for a reason. The race doesn’t always go to the swift, nor the fight to the strong, but that’s the way to bet.

But it’s precisely because of this harsh reality that real sport turns into drama. When the outcome of the game goes down to the final seconds, it hasn’t been scripted that way; it’s because a series of unlikely events have led that game to that position. Like Huxley wrote in Brave New World, happiness without sadness is meaningless. For the sports fan, the nerve-jangling thriller means nothing without the yawners.

The sports movie can’t escape this. It must concentrate on the drama. The unlikeliest outcome in reality will always happen in the sports movie, completely negating any surprise element. That’s not what sport is about. Sport can shock and surprise us, but it never asks us to suspend our belief.

There is, however, a shining ying to sports movies’ dull yang, summed up neatly in the following exchange from the Airplane! movie.

“I know you. You're Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. You play basketball for the Los Angeles Lakers.”

“I'm sorry son, but you must have me confused with someone else.”

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bruce Lee in Game of Death

Great joke, but the kid in the cockpit was only saying what the rest of us were thinking. He may have been playing co-pilot Roger Murdock, but there was never any mistaking one of America’s biggest, and tallest, sports stars. There could be no suspension of belief that this is an actual pilot. Airplane! may be a supremely silly film, but this breaking of the fourth wall illustrates the wonderful lunacy of casting athletes in movies.

Career actors may come with the baggage of prior roles and past triumphs and failures, but they are at the most basic level, professionals. In theory at least, an actor should be able to convince the viewer that they are watching a real character in a real situation (of course, I don’t include Ben Affleck in this group). But the athlete turned actor arrives on screen with a whole batch of preconceptions. Actors pretend to be heroes. Sportsmen have been heroes. Every time they appear on screen they bring an element of that heroism with them.

There’s a certain amount of pleasure that comes from that recognition. No matter what the role, you still can’t help but root for him. Casting directors know that, which is why guys like Brett Favre and Roger Clemens pop up in goofy comedies like There’s Something About Mary and Kingpin.

Spotting sports stars on screen is a sneaky, guilty pleasure. It’s an extra opportunity to silently cheer for an old hero, nudge friends and reminisce about past glories, or dazzle/bore non-sports fans by reciting inane sports trivia.

People who love sports love sports stars turned actors far more than we love actors playing sports stars. Once you’re famous for your sport, you’ve carved the role for yourself forever. You’re a football player, never an ex-football player. You can put on the uniform and act like a soldier or a cop, but you’ll always be playing yourself. And that’s why we love them.

The sports star turned actor negates any suspension of belief, and that’s no bad thing. How else can one explain the perpetual appeal of Escape to Victory (called Victory in the US), a film about a team of Allied soccer players taking on the Nazi National team in a propaganda match? Allegedly starring Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone, the actual stars were the real life players in the Allied team, including Bobby Moore, Ossie Ardiles and Pele. Originally based on a tragic and heroic true story, the eventual plot bordered on insulting. That wasn’t the point. The fun was seeing these players and their shoddy attempts at acting. And therein lay its success.

Sports movies ask us to suspend our belief and believe in miracles. Sports stars in movies remind us that we want to be entertained and don’t really mind how it’s done. Although having said that, there’s still no excuse for Dennis Rodman in Double Team.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bruce Lee in Game of Death

So without further ado, we proudly present the Sticky Wickets’ Pro Athletes Turned Acting Icons Hall of Fame.

OJ Simpson: Although the job offers have strangely dried up recently, The Juice appeared in some bona fide hits and won plenty of laughs as Nordberg in The Naked Gun series. More importantly, when he’s on screen viewers inevitably find themselves shouting ‘That guy did it!’, even if it’s not a crime movie.

Jim Brown: Most NFL fans will tell you Brown was a better running back than Simpson. He’s a better actor, too. And he was never finer than in his first role, demonstrating his athletic ability by running across the compound in the bloody finale of The Dirty Dozen. Tragically, a German bullet succeeded where the linebackers of the 1960s had failed, and brought down the great man for good.

Gary Stretch: Stretch, a one-time middleweight contender, was brilliant as a low-level drug dealer in the ultra-grim British revenge thriller Dead Man’s Shoes. His key moment, and the key moment of the film, is his confrontation with Paddy Considine’s ex-army killing machine. Stretch may have possibly drawn on his boxing experience for this scene, as he paints a spot on portrait of a man coming face to face with an imminent pummelling.

Brian Glover: Few realise that uber-Yorkshireman Glover started out as a pro wrestler by the name ‘Leon Aris the Man from Paris’. Since then he starred in Alien 3 and pinned down Shakespeare. He never beat his role in American Werewolf in London though, stealing the show with his shocking roar, “That’s ENOUGH!”

Alex Karras: Karras turned to acting almost by chance, after stealing a few scenes playing himself opposite Alan Alda in the movie version of George Plimpton’s Paper Lion. His portrayal of the lovable Mungo in Blazing Saddles, knocking out a horse with a single punch, set the bar for comedy big guys.

Kareem Adbul-Jabbar: Hardly the most gifted actor in this list, but props must be given for a pair of iconic scenes: ranting about basketball fans in Airplane and going toe to very long toe with Bruce Lee in the finale of the uncompleted Game of Death, thankfully available on the bonus DVD that comes with Enter The Dragon.

Shaquille O’Neal: Another big man with, let’s say, limited acting ability. Blue Chips wasn’t great and Kazaam was hopeless, but Shaq redeemed himself by turning up opposite Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm. Not that playing himself was a challenging role, but respect is due for risking potential marketing deals by appearing in the most offensive, foul-mouthed comedy of its generation.

Vinny Jones: Jones’ hard-man persona was scarcely deserved in his career in English soccer. A thug and a bully would be more accurate. But he’s worked at his craft, and was terrific in Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. His portrayal of Juggernaut in X-Men 3 wasn’t great, but it wasn’t like the rest of the cast were trying very hard, either.

André the Giant: Given André’s physical appearance, there were only ever going to be a handful of roles open to him. But he was brilliant in The Princess Bride, adding a surprisingly light touch that overcomes his strong French accent and speaker-busting low register. For his delivery of the line “Anybody want a peanut?” alone, he would deserve inclusion in any acting hall of fame.

The Cast of Escape to Victory: Shaq may have delivered a pretty convincing performance as himself, but the all-star cast of the WW2 sports thriller spluttered their lines seemingly alien to the very concept of emotion. Brazilian Pele in particular seems to have little idea of the meaning of the English words coming from his mouth. This is so bad that it’s good, with the all time special effects highlight being when Ossie Ardiles flicks the ball over his head.


Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

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