Familiar Faces #10: Harold Sakata, Man of Many Hats!

Most of you know burly Harold Sakata for his role as the steel-hat-flinging Oddjob in GOLDFINGER , the third movie in the James Bond franchise. But Mr. Sakata did much more than that one iconic part. In fact, you could say that Harold Sakata wore many hats during his colorful career, and not just on the Silver Screen!

He wasn’t always known as Harold “Oddjob” Sakata, his given name being Toshiyuki Sakata. Born in Holualoa, Hawaii in 1920, Harold was raised in a large family – six brothers and four sisters! Believe it of not, as a teen he was a scrawny 113 pounds, until he took up weightlifting at age 18. Harold bulked right up, and after a stint in the Army during WWII, he became a top powerlifter, so good he made the U.S Weightlifting team at the 1948 Summer Olympic Games in London, where he won the silver medal in the light-heavyweight class by pressing 410 kg, which is more than 903 lbs! Harold also competed in bodybuilding contests, and once won the Mr. Hawaii title.

He began training to become a professional wrestler, and made his ring debut as a “good guy” in 1950. But with his 20″ neck, 50″ chest, and fearsome scowl, Harold reinvented himself as the dastardly, rule-breaking villain ‘Tosh Togo’, billed as the brother of another wrestling heel, The Great Togo. Together the pernicious pair travelled the world, winning numerous tag-team championships along the way. ‘Tosh’ also captured singles gold in Los Angeles, Texas, Puerto Rico, and his native Hawaii. During a grappling tour of Great Britain, film producers Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli spotted him on the telly, and thought the massive wrestler would make a great henchman in their latest James Bond epic, GOLDFINGER.

In my 2017 review, I called GOLDFINGER “the ultimate James Bond movie”, and Sakata plays a large part in making it so. He had no acting experience, but his career as a wrestling villain gave him more than enough training to play the right-hand man of Gert Frobe’s Auric Goldfinger – with no dialog, all he had to do was look menacing! It took Harold about five months to get that hat-flinging trick down pat before he finally mastered it. His “electrifying” battle with Sean Connery’s 007 is one of the series’ best, and if he had never made another movie after GOLDFINGER, his place in the James Bond Rogue’s Gallery would forever be assured.

But GOLDFINGER was just the beginning of Harold Sakata’s next career, and after roles in a trio of European movies (the German crime thriller 4 SCHLUSSER, the Spanish spy spoof BALERIC CAPER, and the French comedy SEVENTEENTH HEAVEN), he appeared in the all-star TV film THE POPPY IS ALSO A FLOWER, produced under the aegis of the United Nations, and featuring (among others) Stephen Boyd, Yul Brynner, Angie Dickinson , Rita Hayworth , Marcello Mastroianni, Gilbert Roland, Omar Sharif, and Eli Wallach in a tale about a team of international narcs out to stop the heroin pipeline in the Middle East. The movie was “based on” a story by none other than 007 creator Ian Fleming, and directed by Bond vet Terence Young.

With Rory Calhoun on an episode of “Gilligan’s Island”

Harold was next cast as crime boss Big Buddha in the sci-fi/spy flick DIMENSION 5, a low-budget effort starring Jeffrey Hunter and France Nuyen. He was no stranger to episodic TV either, appearing on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND in a spoof of THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME as the henchman of big-game hunter Rory Calhoun, who’s out to hunt down a man – namely Gilligan! Around this time he also showed up on variety shows like THE JERRY LEWIS SHOW and ROWAN & MARTIN’S LAUGH-IN. After appearing in the all-star bomb THE PHYNX , Sakata landed a regular role on SARGE, starring Oscar winner George Kennedy as a cop-turned-priest, with Harold as Sarge’s cook at the mission who just happens to be a martial arts expert. The series lasted but one season.

In William Grefe’s “Impulse” (1974)

Yet Harold pressed on, landing a part in Florida filmmaker William Grefe’s 1974 horror movie IMPULSE, starring William Shatner as a serial killer of rich widows! He also played in another Grefe epic, 1976’s MAKO: THE JAWS OF DEATH, one of the first of the Spielberg rip-offs. He kept active on television too, guest starring on HAWAII 5-0, THE BLUE KNIGHT (with old pal Kennedy), QUINCY, POLICE WOMAN, and THE ROCKFORD FILES. He was also noted for starring in a series of TV commercials for Vicks Formula 44 Cough Syrup, dressed in his ‘Oddjob” get-up, as a man whose coughing fits cause destruction before he takes his dose:

Sakata parodied his TV ads on an episode of Johnny Carson’s TONIGHT SHOW, with hilarious results!:

The remainder of his film resume includes turkeys such as THE HAPPY HOOKER GOES TO WASHINGTON, DEATH DIMENSION ( an Al Adamson film featuring Jim ‘BLACK BELT JONES’ Kelly and ex-Bond George Lazenby !), GOIN’ COCONUTS (starring Donny & Marie Osmond!), and a recurring role on  the short-lived horror comedy sitcom HIGHCLIFFE MANOR. Harold Sakata died of liver cancer on July 29, 1982 in a Honolulu hospital, and though his film career wasn’t really very memorable, the man himself certainly was. He did indeed wear many hats during his colorful lifetime, from Olympic strongman to pro wrestler to iconic James Bond villain to TV pitchman, and Harold Sakata is still fondly remembered by his legions of fans – including Yours Truly!

Spot more “Familiar Faces” on Cracked Rear Viewer:

Hank Worden  – Martin Kosleck – Esther Howard – Rainbeaux Smith – Samuel S. Hinds  – Jack Norton – Gordon Jones – Angelique Pettyjohn – Ethelreda Leopold

In Memorian 2018: Pro Wrestling

The squared circle tolled ten bells for “The Living Legend” Bruno Sammartino , probably the most popular wrestler of his generation, who died at age 82. Bruno held the WWWF/WWF (now WWE) world title longer than anyone, 11 years in two title reigns (1963-71, 1973-77), took on and defeated all comers, and sold out New York’s fabled Madison Square Garden a record 188 times. Sammartino was a legit tough guy who once held the record in the bench press (565 pounds), and had a no-nonsense rep backstage. You just didn’t mess with Bruno! He appeared at the first WRESTLEMANIA, in the movie BODY SLAM, and was indicted into numerous Halls of Fame celebrating his almost thirty year career. A hero to millions of grappling fans (including Yours Truly), there will never be another Bruno Sammartino.

Many of Bruno’s in-ring foes also took the three-count in 2018. Pittsburgh native ‘Luscious’ Johnny Valiant (74) wrestled for Bruno’s local promotion and WWWF as a “good guy” named John L. Sullivan before teaming with his kayfabe brother ‘Handsome’ Jimmy Valiant to win the tag team titles on two occasions (and five tag titles in other promotions). Upon retiring from the ring mayhem, he started a second career as the hated manager of The Dream Team (Brutus Beefacke & Greg Valentine). Later, Johnny became a stand-up comic and actor of note (THE SOPRANOS, LAW & ORDER).

Nikolai Volkoff (left) with Fred Blassie and The Iron Sheik

Nikolai Volkoff (70) was once known as Bepo Mongol, and challenged Bruno under both monikers; he also held the tag championship with The Iron Sheik. Don Leo Jonathan (87) was a 6’6″, 300+ pound Canadian who grappled around the world, winning many titles; his 1972 battles with Andre the Giant are legendary. Larry “The Ax” Hennig (82) was a hated heel wherever he went, and the father of Curt Hennig, aka ‘Mr. Perfect’ (and grandfather of current WWE competitor ‘Curtis Axel’). Masa Saito (76) hailed from Tokyo, and competed for his country in the 1964 Olympics before turning pro; he was a two-time WWF tag champ with Mr. Fuji, held the AWA World title, and once had a “death match” on a deserted island with Japan’s Antonio Inoki that lasted two hours!

What time is it?… Vader Time!

Big Van Vader (63) was a former football player named Leon White who was amazingly athletic for his size, and won World titles in WCW and New Japan. Tom Billington (60) was known as The Dynamite Kid for his eye-popping aerial maneuvers, and made a formidable teammate for The British Bulldog. Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart (63) was the brawn of The Hart Foundation alongside his partner Brett “The Hit Man” Hart (Jim’s daughter Natalia currently wrestles in WWE). Big Bully Busick (63) is remembered for his thick handlebar moustache, bowler derby, and ever-present stinky cigar. Matt Cappotelli (36) won WWE’s TOUGH ENOUGH III, and was slated for mat glory until being diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor and being forced into retirement (as an aside, his cousin Lisa Campbell once won TV’s BIG BROTHER competition).

Jose Lothario (right) with his protegee Shawn Michaels

Jose Lothario (83) was extremely popular in Texas and Florida, and was the trainer for ‘The Heartbreak Kid’ Shawn Michaels. Brickhouse Brown (57) wrestled mainly in the South as well, and was also a fan favorite. “The Rebel” Dick Salter (67) could work as a face or heel, depending on where he was; either way, he was another legit tough guy. “Grandmaster Sexay” Brian Christopher (46), son of veteran Jerry Lawler, won many titles (including the WWE tag straps), but unfortunately his demons got the best of him. Chris Champion (57) was one half of The New Breed with Sean Royal. Frank Andersson (62) won a bronze medal at the 1984 Olympics before embarking on a brief pro career.

Rayo de Jalisco (right) and tag partner El Santo

Rayo de Jalisco (85) was a legend in his native Mexico, tag partner of El Santo, and appeared in many lucha libre films. Raul Matta (71) was popular in both Mexico and California. Universo 2000 (55) competed for over thirty years. 4’7″ Piratita Morgan (48) was one of Mexico’s top mini-luchadore stars. And last but not least, Larry Matycik (72) started his career at age 16, becoming one of the sport’s top TV announcers (St. Louis’s “Wrestling at the Chase”), matchmakers, promoters, and author of many books on the subject. All entertained their audiences for decades, and will be missed.

 

 

American Idol: RIP Bruno Sammartino

Bruno Sammartino, who passed away yesterday at age 82, wasn’t just a professional wrestler. He was an institution, an icon, a true American Dream success story, a hero to millions of kids now “of a certain age” (like me), and the biggest box-office star of his era, selling out New York’s fabled Madison Square Garden a record 187 times. He held the WWWF (now WWE) Heavyweight championship for close to twelve years during his two title reigns, facing the best in the business and vanquishing them all. Face it, Bruno was THE MAN!

The Man himself was born in Italy in 1935, and as a child hid from the Nazis in the Italian mountains. Coming to America in 1950 and settling in Pittsburgh,  Bruno was a sickly, scrawny child who couldn’t speak English, and was bullied in school. This caused the young lad to begin working out with weights, and by 1959 he set a world record in the bench press hefting 565 pounds, a record that stood for eight years. Bruno began performing feats of strength in his hometown, and soon a wrestling promoter offered him a chance to make some money in the squared circle.

Beating Buddy Rogers in 1963

Sammartino wasn’t a great technical wrestler; he was a brawler and a bruiser whose matches were usually won with his devastating bearhug hold. Wrestlers at the time were marketed towards local working class ethnic groups, and Bruno became a hit in Italian strongholds like Pittsburgh, Boston, and New York/New Jersey. New York promoter Vincent J. McMahon (father of current WWE chairman Vincent K.) was about to form his own East Coast alliance called the World Wide Wrestling Federation, and he knew a good thing when he saw it. Naming “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers his first champ, he set up a match between the arrogant heel and the popular Sammartino, and Bruno won the belt on May 17, 1963 in 48 seconds! The rumor is Rogers had suffered a heart attack the week before and needed to retire, and some backstage shenanigans involving the athletic commission doctors allowed the “Nature Boy” to pass a quick physical that night so the belt could be put on Bruno.

Verses the evil Killer Kowalski

Shenanigans or not, Bruno faced all the top heels in the game during his initial seven-plus year run. “Bad guys” like The Shiek, Ernie “The Cat” Ladd, Freddie Blassie, Gorilla Monsoon, Professor Toru Tanaka, and Killer Kowalski tried and failed to wrest the crown from Bruno. My Portuguese grandmother (‘vovo’) used to get real heated whenever Kowalski came on the television – I can’t describe how shocked I was as a kid to hear my sweet little Vovo yelling, “You dirty son of a bitch!” at Kowlaski’s dastardly deeds on the TV set!

Eventually, Bruno tired of the travel schedule, and dropped the strap to Ivan Koloff in 1971 (who in turn lost to Puerto Rican sensation Pedro Morales a month later). The now ex-champ made sporadic appearances here and there, but soon McMahon Sr. came a-calling. Though Morales was a better technical wrestler than Bruno, box office receipts and TV ratings were down, and Sammartino was persuaded to carry the crown again. Pedro lost to Stan “The Man” Stasiak (‘Master of the Heart Punch’), and a month later Bruno beat Stan, once again lighting up the ratings and box office for another three-plus years, battling villains like George “The Animal” Steel, Ken Patera, Nikolai Volkoff, Stan Hansen, and the hated Kowalski, finally relinquishing the title to “cool” heel Superstar Billy Graham (who, as we all could plainly see, had his feet on the ropes for leverage!).

But Bruno didn’t need a title; he was still the top star in wrestling. He headlined everywhere he went, and the fans went wild seeing him beat the crap out of his opponents. I remember a 1980 card at the old Boston Garden pitting Bruno against his protégé Larry Zbysko, now a hated heel for turning on our hero. The two brawled for an eternity, both men a bloody mess before Sammartino gained the victory, and the crowd went berserk! Yeah, we knew by then it was fake, but damn, it sure was a lot of fun! (For those of you interested, also on the card were The Wild Samoans, Gorilla Monsoon, Pat Patterson, Baron Mikel Scicluna, and “The Duke of Dorchester” Pete Doherty!)

 

Bruno was now called “The Living Legend”, an appropriate title if there ever was one. He became a color commentator alongside Vince McMahon Jr. after the son bought the company from his father, but still wrestled on occasion. He participated in the first two Wrestlemanias, and feuded with “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and “Macho Man” Randy Savage. But Bruno didn’t like the cartoonish direction the younger McMahon was taking the company, nor the rampant use of steroids, and departed acrimoniously in 1987. Things between Sammartino and the now-WWE remained bitter until 2013, when Paul “Triple H” Levesque pleaded with him to bury the hatchet, and Bruno Sammartino was finally awarded his proper place in the WWE Hall of Fame, inducted by his friend Arnold Schwarzenegger. But like every warrior, even the mighty Sammartino could not defeat Father Time. He leaves behind his wife of 59 years Carol, three sons, four grandchildren, and many beloved memories for his fans.

I recall an old issue of Sports Illustrated that had a piece on Bruno’s phenomenal popularity, the first wrestler ever to be profiled by the magazine. In the story, an elderly female fan was interviewed. On her wall, there were three pictures. On the left, John F. Kennedy, on the right, Pope Paul. And the man holding the prestigious spot in the middle… Bruno Sammartino. Holy Trinity, indeed. Godspeed, Bruno.

 

The Human Orchid: Gorgeous George in ALIAS THE CHAMP (Republic 1949)

WWE’s annual “Wrestlemania” extravaganza is scheduled for Sunday night in New Orleans, so I thought I’d dig up something wrestling related for tonight’s post…  

George Raymond Wagner (1915-1963), better known by the nom de guerre Gorgeous George, helped sell more television sets in the late 40’s/early 50’s than anyone this side of ‘Uncle’ Milton Berle . Professional wrestling was on the airwaves six nights a week, on every network, and Americans were clamoring to get a glimpse of the flamboyant antics of the  bleached-blonde, sequin-robed “sissy” who grappled like a wild tiger inside the squared circle. But TV sets were over many an Average Joe’s budget back in those days, so Republic Pictures took the opportunity to strike while the iron was hot, signing “The Toast of the Coast” to star in his own movie, 1949’s ALIAS THE CHAMP.

Gorgeous George in his heyday

The movie itself is nothing to write home about: an East Coast gangster tries to muscle in on the West Coast rasslin’ scene, causing George’s manager to enlist the aid of homicide detective Ron Peterson. Peterson is named the new “czar of wrestling” as Athletic Commissioner, so the shifty racketeer Merlo sics slinky chanteuse Colette on him. George’s rival Slammin’ Sammy Menacker (playing himself) is also sweet on the singer with “ze ‘orribile” French accent, and has a beef with Peterson (“No canary dumps me for a flatfoot!”), as well as George, leading to an epic ring confrontation between the two “grunt-and-groaners”. After one fall apiece, Menacker dies in the ring, and George is arrested for murder! It’s up to Peterson to clear the Gorgeous One and free him to fight another day, plus keep the “Sport of Kings” out of the hands of the unscrupulous syndicate…

Manager Audrey Long holds ‘The Human Orchid’ back from detective Robert Rockwell

The script is below the level of Ed Wood , the direction non-existent, and the budget rock bottom. But wrestling fans won’t care about all that; this is a chance to see the one-and-only “Human Orchid” in action. George was in fact a pretty damn good wrestler, and held his own with the best in the business. The film gives us a complete match with George vs. Bomber Kulkovich (actor/wrestler Henry “Bomber” Kulky), and two-thirds of one against Menacker before the latter’s untimely demise (in the movie, that is! Menacker would go on to become a successful TV wrestling commentator in the Midwest). George’s showmanship can be found in every narcissistic wrestling character to follow, from ‘Nature Boy’ Ric Flair to ‘Ravishing’ Rick Rude, and his trash-talking was an inspiration to a young boxer named Cassius Clay (aka Muhammad Ali), who met the grappler after a 1961 Las Vegas match against  Freddie Blassie.

George battles with Slammin’ Sammy Menacker in “Alias The Champ”

Many other wrestling stars of the era make appearances besides George, Menacker, and Kulky. Legendary ring announcer Jimmy Lennon Sr. and referee Mike Ruby are in the wrestling scenes, as is George’s valet Jackson, doing his own little schtick of carefully folding George’s robe, and spraying the ref’s hands with disinfectant. A scene where a brawl breaks out at the gym between the Gorgeous One and Menacker includes Tor Johnson (billed as “The Super Swedish Angel”), Count Billy Varga, Bobby Managoff, and Sockeye McDonald, battling to the strains of The William Tell Overture!

The Gorgeous One gets groomed as Menacker mans the perfume bottle

Fans of the sport will surely recognize many of the holds and moves still used today: cross-body blocks, arm bars, dropkicks, back elbows, and of course, the dreaded Ref Bump! ALIAS THE CHAMP is a time capsule for wrestling buffs, a look back to when a more grappling-based game was in style, unlike the high-flying acrobatics of today. Unfortunately, it’s not a very good film, so don’t expect CASABLANCA! Clocking in at just over an hour, it’s easy enough on the brain to entertain, and gives you a chance to see the one-and-only Gorgeous George in action. That alone makes it worthwhile for fans of rasslin’ history!

Gorgeous George (1915-1963)

Pre-Code Confidential #13: Wallace Beery in John Ford’s FLESH (MGM 1932)

Long before his John Wayne collaborations, John Ford had worked to perfect his own style as a filmmaker. Even though the cranky, idiosyncratic Ford, who directed his first film way back in 1917,  had his directing credit removed from 1932’s FLESH, it is credited as “A John Ford Production”, and one can tell this is definitely a “John Ford Picture”.  The man himself thought the film was lousy, and most critics agreed, but I’m in the minority opinion. I think it’s worthy of reappraisal for film lovers to get a glimpse of some vintage Ford, with solid performances by Wallace Beery, Karen Morley, and Ricardo Cortez. Plus, as a long-time pro wrestling buff, the grappling game setting appeals to me, as do the many Pre-Code themes and moments.

Beery once again is a good-natured lug, a German wrestler named Polakai who doubles as a waiter in a rowdy beer garden, toting a keg on his massive shoulders. Morley is  Laura, an American just released from prison with no visible means of support. She runs up a hefty tab and is unable to pay, so Polakai takes care of it. Later, Laura is walking the streets and spotted by a local polizeibeamte. The smitten Polakai takes her in, giving this stranger in a strange land a place to stay, much to the shock of his neighbors.

What Polakai doesn’t know is Laura is carrying a torch for her lover, the still incarcerated Nicky (Cortez), as well as carrying Nicky’s baby! Polakai catches her trying to lift his stash of cash, and she gives him a sob story about helping spring her “brother” from jail, so the naïve rassler insists on helping her once again. When Nicky is released, and finds out Laura’s pregnant, the rat drops her like a hot weinerschnitzel and skedaddles back to the states. This leaves Laura with little choice: convincing Polakai she’s carrying his child, the dumb brute does the honorable thing and marries her.

Polakai wins the championship of Germany while she gives birth to a son, then  takes his new family in tow and comes to America to compete for the World’s Championship. Now the roles are reversed, with Polakai the “stranger in a strange land”.  Slimy Nicky worms his way back into the picture and becomes Polakai’s manager, but when the big lug learns the American rasslin’ racket is fixed, he refuses to play ball and decides to return to Germany. Nicky, not wanting to lose his new meal ticket, smacks Laura around to force her to convince him otherwise. She achieves this by leaving him, backing Polakai into a corner, and the hulking grappler agrees to “wrestle crooked”. He discovers the effects of American bootleg whiskey and hits the bottle hard, unable to function on the night of his big championship bout. Nicky is steamed when the brute is unable to get out of bed and shoves Laura to the floor, angering the giant. She confesses everything to Polakai, who rises from his sickbed and strangles Nicky. Polakai is arrested shortly after winning the title, and Laura visits him in prison, stating she’s leaving town, but Polakai begs her to stay. Despite all that’s occurred, he’s still in love with his American liebchin.

Appropriately, since half the film is set in Germany, Ford utilizes an Expressionistic style in FLESH. The director had worked alongside F.W. Murnau on the Fox lot, and Murnau’s SUNRISE (1927) was an eye-opener for Ford. He considered it a masterpiece of filmmaking, and it heavily influenced Ford’s silents FOUR SONS (1928) and HANGMAN’S HOUSE (1928), as well as his later, more “arty” films like THE INFORMER, THE LONG VOYAGE HOME, and (to a certain extent) THE GRAPES OF WRATH. Ford’s signature doorway motif shows up, as do some marvelous overhead shots, and the use of shadows give FLESH even more of an “Ufa” feel.  Though everybody knows Ford called the shot selections on his films, DP Arthur Edeson was no slouch; Edeson was the man behind the camera for such classics as FRANKENSTEIN, THE INVISIBLE MAN, MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY, THE MALTESE FALCON, SERGEANT YORK, and CASABLANCA , and surely must’ve had some input into the look of the film.

A whole host of writers worked on the screenplay for FLESH, both credited and uncredited. Film director Edmund Goulding is credited with the story, adapted by writers Leonard Praskins and Edgar Allan Woolf. Moss Hart wrote the dialog, while William Faulkner, John W. Considine Jr. and Hanns Kraly made uncredited contributions. Faulkner’s participation inspired the Coen Brothers to parody him “writing a Wallace Beery wrestling story” in their 1991 film BARTON FINK.

Beery goes for pathos as the dim-witted but kind-hearted bear Polakai, although even John Ford himself couldn’t restrain the actor completely from mugging for the camera (this would be their only film together). Karen Morley (Laura) is superb in a difficult role, as she was in the Pre-Codes SCARFACE, THE MASK OF FU MANCHU, DINNER AT EIGHT, and King Vidor’s excellent 1934 OUR DAILY BREAD. Morley was a fine actress whose career, along with husband Lloyd Gough, was ruined by HUAC in 1947. Ricardo Cortez is vile as ever in the part of Nicky; the former “competitor” to Valentino’s Latin Lover crown made a career out of playing low-down snakes in 30’s films before turning to directing. Familiar Faces rounding out the cast are Vince Barnett , Herman Bing, Ed Brophy , Jean Hersholt, Wilbur Mack, John Miljan, and Frank Reicher . Ford favorite Ward Bond   plays one of Beery’s early sparring partners, and ex-wrestler Nat Pendleton  is cast as (what else?) a wrestler. The film also features an appearance by real life heavyweight champ Wladek Zbyszko, who fought such greats of the era as “Strangler” Ed Lewis and Joe Stecher.

I’m unsure why Ford chose to pull his name from the director’s credit. FLESH isn’t a bad movie by any means, and in fact is quite entertaining. It’s been said he felt constricted working at MGM, and didn’t work at the studio again until 1945’s THEY WERE EXPENDABLE. By that time, John Ford had already won three of his record four directing Oscars, and was a force to be reckoned with in cinema. FLESH offers viewers a chance to see the master in an early, experimental stage, and for that reason alone deserves to be seen.

 

Tag Team Turmoil: …ALL THE MARBLES (MGM 1981)

all_the_marbles

Before Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, before Hulk Hogan and Roddy Piper , the worlds of professional wrestling and the movies had long been entwined. After all, they’re both show biz! Grapplers like Nat Pendleton , Mike Mazurki, Tor Johnson , Harold Sakata (GOLDFINGER’s Oddjob), and Lenny Montana (Luca Brasi in THE GODFATHER) made the successful transition from the squared circle to Hollywood, not to mention Mexican luchadores like El Santo and Mil Mascaras, who starred in the ring and in their own series of movies south of the border. Even early TV wrestling phenom Gorgeous George had his own feature film, 1949’s ALIAS THE CHAMP.

marbles

1981’s …ALL THE MARBLES was made just before the Hulkamania craze started a boom in pro wrestling’s popularity. It’s a serio-comic character study centering on small time manager Harry Sears and his two young charges Iris and Molly,  better known as tag team The California Dolls. Harry and Iris have an on-again/off again relationship, while Molly pops pills to bolster her self-esteem. The trio traverse the highways and back roads of American trying to make a name for themselves, working in front of small crowds for low pay. When sleazebag promoter Eddie Cisco stiffs them over twenty bucks, Harry takes a baseball bat to Cisco’s Mercedes, making a big enemy in the insular wrestling world.

mudwrestling2

 

Harry manages to get the girls a non-title match against the champs The Toledo Tigers, a match they’re supposed to lose. But the Dolls, tired of third-rate paydays, pull a double-cross and pin the Tigers, earning them more animosity. When Harry can’t land his team a lucrative spot on a big card in Chicago, he books them in a mud wresting match at a small town fair. Iris and Molly are irate, refusing at first to participate in a “freak show”, prompting Harry to lose his temper, screaming “Every time you walk into a ring, you’re a freak. That’s what a wrestler is!”

all-the-marbles000141

After the humiliating fracas almost ends the partnership, the girls discover they’ve been ranked number three by a national magazine. Harry uses this leverage to get them that coveted Chicago spot, where they face their rivals the Tigers, losing this time around. However, Eddie Cisco’s in attendance, and wants the Dolls to appear at his big Christmas show in Reno against the Tigers for the title. He offers a $10,000 winner-take-all purse, with a catch… he wants to sleep with Iris. She takes one for the team, earning a smack from Harry for her degradation and betrayal, but the deed’s been done, and the California Dolls are in the big time.

Harry and Cisco place bet over who will win. Harry lays out dough to get the Dolls publicized, and gives them a grand entrance dressed as showgirls, carried on the shoulders of some muscular hunks. But what he doesn’t yet know is Cisco’s hired a crooked referee to ensure victory. Can the Dolls overcome the stacked deck and win the championship? Well, I don’t want to spoil the ending but, if you’ve seen sports movies like this, you can probably guess the answer.

falk

Peter Falk’s  charm makes the character of  Harry work. He’s a walking contradiction, spouting Clifford Odets and Will Rogers quotes, listening to his favorite opera (Pagliacci, of course) in the car, while being tight with a buck and cheating on Iris. He’s “a lousy human being” as Molly says, but you can tell he genuinely cares for Iris and Molly, and at heart only wants the best for them. There aren’t many actors that could make a louse like Harry likeable, but Falk’s acting ability pulls it off.

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Vicki Frederick (Iris) is good too, and was a dancer who worked with Bob Fosse. She was in the Broadway and film versions of A CHORUS LINE, and should have had a better career. Instead, she got stuck in junk like CHOPPER CHICKS IN ZOMIETOWN. Laurene Landon (Molly) had some good roles too, including Velma in I, THE JURY and the first two MANIAC COP films. The girls trained for this movie with wresting legend Mildred Burke, who held the women’s wrestling title for twenty years, and did their own wrestling in the film. The scenes are well choreographed, with moves that are still used in the wrestling business today (the more things change…). Burt Young’s appropriately sleazy as Cisco, aided by his bodyguard, the dimwitted Jerome (Lenny Montana). Mike Mazurki cameos as a referee, and L.A. sportscaster Chick Hearn appears as himself. Others in the cast you may recognize include Tracy Reed, Claudette Nevins, Clyde Kusatsu, Angela Aames, and footballer Mean Joe Greene.

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When I saw Richard Jaeckel playing the crooked ref, I wondered what the hell is he doing here? The answer’s simple: he was doing a favor for his old friend director Robert Aldrich. …ALL THE MARBLES was Aldrich’s last film, after a career that saw him work on everything from film noir (KISS ME DEADLY, THE BIG KNIFE) to action epics (THE DIRTY DOZEN , EMPEROR OF THE NORTH) to horror (WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE, HUSH.. HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE) to comedy (THE LONGEST YARD). While this one’s far from his best, it’s certainly a unique addition to the Aldrich filmography, and worth watching for fans of both  “rasslin'” and action movies.

(…ALL THE MARBLES is my contribution to the ” Athletes in Film Blogathon ” hosted by the wonderful Once Upon A Screen and Wide Screen World! Now playing at a blog near you!)

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RIP ROWDY RODDY PIPER

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TMZ (and others) have reported actor/wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper has passed away from heart failure at age 61. Besides classic film, pro wrestling has long been one of my obsessions. Yeah, I know, it’s phony as a three-dollar bill, but so what? So are some of the Grade B (and lower) movies I look at here on Cracked Rear Viewer and Through the Shattered Lens. I got into the so-called “exhibition sport” at age 12, going with my grandmother (who was a true believer) to see the matches at the old Lincoln Park Ballroom in Dartmouth, MA. Later, my friends and I would travel to Boston Garden to watch Bruno Sammartino and company tear it up, usually followed by a trip to the Combat Zone for some exotic dancers (hey, we were young!) and pizza at Little Stevie’s in Back Bay. Ah, youth!

Roddy Piper was unique in the “sport of kings”. His mouth made him famous, no one could come up with the smack talk like Piper. While he never held a world title, he didn’t need one. People would pay their hard-earned cash to see him get his ass kicked just once. They were usually disappointed, as the dastardly Hot Rod would end up cheating his way to a victory or disqualification. Piper was the original anti-hero to many, including me. The segment ‘Piper’s Pit’ was must see TV for a generation of disaffected youth.

piper2Roddy made movies, too. Though most were low-budget dreck (HELL COMES TO FROGTOWN, BODY SLAM) or direct-to-video nonsense (TOUGH AND DEADLY, SCI-FIGHTERS), one stands out. THEY LIVE (1988) is a great science fiction adventure directed by John Carpenter (HALLOWEEN, THE THING, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK). It’s about aliens using subliminal messages to control the masses. This tongue in cheek action flick says a lot about society, and Piper shows a strong screen presence. (Best line: “I’m here to kick ass and chew bubble gum, and I’m all out of gum”) Wrestling fans thought this would be a breakthrough role for Roddy, but alas it wasn’t to be.

Rowdy Roddy Piper’s best work came in the ring, and on the microphone cutting down his opponents with the greatest of ease. We’ll miss you, Hot Rod. RIP

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