Tales from the Vault: Vocal Hero

Steve Seidman, Tales from the Vault

“For this is a game for the young – a young
game for a young nation – Big Game America”

Over the past 10-15 years, many of our high profile productions, such as ROAD TO THE SUPER BOWL, FOOTBALL AMERICA, and the AMERICA’S GAME series, have been narrated by Hollywood actors. Gene Hackman, James Coburn, Ed Harris, Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt, and Alec Baldwin are among the stars who have done voice-over work for NFL Films. Hackman and Coburn were Academy Award winners, and managed to win their Oscars despite not being British, despite not portraying drunks, and despite not playing characters were mentally or physically handicapped.

Our current use of film stars as voice-over talent isn’t without precedent. In 1969, Ed and Steve Sabol were in the midst of a project that would become one of their young company’s best early films, titled BIG GAME AMERICA.  Hoping to make it as attractive as possible for a sale to the TV networks (it was eventually aired on CBS) they wanted a “big name” narrator for the film.  Not that their films were lacking a big voice.  By this time, narrator John Facenda had already shined in many NFL Films, including the company’s first major documentary, THEY CALL IT PRO FOOTBALL (1969).  But the Sabols felt Facenda didn’t have any kind of footprint outside the Philadelphia area*, so they turned their gaze toward Hollywood, and ultimately obtained the services of one of the biggest movie stars on the planet: Burt Lancaster.

Lancaster is probably remembered best by today’s generation of movie-goers for his role as Doc “Moonlight” Graham in FIELD OF DREAMS.  He was a charismatic and sensitive actor who easily moved into character parts as he got older, doing some of his best acting work during the twilight of his career, including an Academy Award nominated performance for ATLANTIC CITY in 1980.  A decade earlier, at the time of BIG GAME AMERICA, he was already a proven box office draw and a 3 time Oscar nominee for Best Actor (he won for ELMER GANTRY in 1960).  The versatile Lancaster could internalize (BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ) or chew the scenery (THE RAINMAKER). He played devil-may-care heroes (THE FLAME AND THE ARROW) and devilish villains (check out VERA CRUZ, where Lancaster, in full hambone mode, steals scene after scene from taciturn good guy Gary Cooper). He was equally at home on the prairies of the old West (APACHE) and in the steel canyons of contemporary Manhattan (THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS).

In the majority of his roles during the 1950’s and 60’s, Lancaster projected a robust physicality and athleticism. In fact, he had attended NYU on an athletic scholarship, and was an acrobat and circus performer before he came to Hollywood in the mid-40’s. But Lancaster also flexed muscles in his business, in which he was one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. He was an independent producer as well as an actor who had the luxury of being able to pick and choose the films that appealed to him, no matter how risky. THE SWIMMER (1968) for example, was a low-key downer that was heavy on existential ennui and narrative stasis. Not surprisingly, it was a box office dud. But Lancaster was also smart enough to balance out the egghead projects with crowd-pleasers like AIRPORT (1970).

The point is that Burt Lancaster could do anything he wanted, and in 1969, he wanted to narrate the Sabols’ script.  It certainly didn’t hurt that Lancaster was a diehard football fan who was friendly with Baltimore Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom.  So was Ed Sabol. With Rosenbloom serving as a go-between, Lancaster agreed to narrate BIG GAME AMERICA. According to Steve Sabol, Lancaster, despite his enormous star power, didn’t exactly drive a hard bargain before signing on the dotted line. All he wanted in the way of payment was a football autographed by Pete Rozelle.

BIG GAME AMERICA, despite a title that makes it seem like the kind of show  you’d find today on The Nature and Wildlife Channel, is an ambitious and imaginative documentary about (among other things) pro football’s place in American popular culture. The opening titles, done in split screen, are in keeping with the style of commercial Hollywood films of the period (cf. THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR) but the credit “A Film By Steve Sabol” suggests art-house aspirations.  Lancaster’s credit, which appears before he even speaks in the film, is another indicator that we’re going to be seeing a movie – one that happens to be about pro football.

Click to read letters between Ed Sabol and Burt Lancaster

The opening half hour of the 60 minute film traces the evolution of pro football, while at the same time situating the sport within the history and popular mythology of 20th century America. This segment juxtaposes football action with non-football archival footage (including assembly lines, an exploding Atom bomb, and Cape Canaveral rocket launches), and even a scene from the classic Western film HIGH NOON (1952). This section might be the first serious attempt to treat the development of pro football as an important part of American history.  As a whole, the film is a sort of mash-up  – there’s some history, plus personality profiles of Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith and Vikings defensive lineman Jim Marshall, and a little “inside football” stuff that takes us into meeting rooms , locker rooms, and practices. There’s also the “100 Yard Universe,” Steve Sabol’s three minute tour de force of montage that frames hard-hitting football action against rain, snow, dust and mud ; it’s a mess, but in the best sense of the word.

The film’s seemingly diverse segments all serve to reinforce the relationship between the NFL and America’s love for both hard work and play (pro football players are “good people…proud people…all united in their love and devotion to the game.”) While BIG GAME AMERICA isn’t as well known or as highly regarded today as THEY CALL IT PRO FOOTBALL (what’s the name of this website again?), it deserves to be considered one of the true achievements from the early stages of NFL Films’ creative development.

Lancaster brings a quiet, contemplative gravitas to his narration, and you also hear the traces of his New York City upbringing;“destroy-ahs,” “defend-ahs,” “lineback-ahs,” etc. Added ‘time machine” bonus: Steve Sabol’s script gives Lancaster some 60’s lingo to play with: “Don Meredith is a different breed of cat…” “George Halas has been doing his thing for 50 years.” Finally, you get the sense that Lancaster has a genuine love for the game. In fact, he loved pro football to such an extent, that when he was making a film in Spain, he asked Ed Sabol to send him 16mm reels of Rams highlights.

In BIG GAME, Lancaster is utilized more in the film’s first part than in later segments, and his star persona adds considerable poignance to the script and image.  A “showdown” sequence cross-cuts between Gary Cooper in HIGH NOON and action footage of Johnny Unitas. Here, Lancaster intones: “The Cowboy movies of the late 50’s offered America a new kind of hero and so did pro football…he was the lonesome good guy.”  The 1958 Championship game between the Colts and the Giants is “pro football’s most famous showdown” like “The Gunfight at the OK Corral.”  This and other comparisons that Lancaster voices are especially resonant when considering some of 1950s film roles already to his credit: playing Wyatt Earp in THE GUNFIGHT AT THE OK CORRAL (1957) and the signature role as JIM THORPE – ALL AMERICAN (1951), a performance that echoes in the early newsreel footage of Thorpe that’s included in BIG GAME AMERICA.

In the years that followed BIG GAME AMERICA, John Facenda solidified his well-deserved reputation as “The Voice of NFL Films.” But even during Facenda’s glory years, Steve Sabol looked to the movies for voice-over talent, and landed such Oscar winners as Burl Ives and Orson Welles.**  As for Burt Lancaster, he was approached by Ed Sabol to narrate another NFL Films production, but declined the offer. During Lancaster’s hey-day, voice-over work by movie stars wasn’t as commonplace as it is today.  And besides, Lancaster already had Pete Rozelle’s autograph.

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