Indeed, the cameo appearance of former Cougar quarterback Drew Bledsoe in the 1996 Tom Cruise film Jerry MacGuire seemed to be a once-in-a-lifetime movie oddity to Washington State fans. Certainly when Wazzu faithful think of the silver screen -- that particular brand of art called cinema -- it isn't likely Cougar football comes to mind. Yet oddly enough, WSU football has enjoyed a lengthy relationship with that long-legged starlet known as Hollywood. It's a courtship dating back to 1915.
And we're not just talking about a tawdry, "straight-to-video" type of relationship, either. From Cecil B. DeMille and Charlton Heston to Nick Nolte, Elizabeth Taylor and Robert Redford, Cougars have been rubbing elbows with Hollywood's heavyweights for generations.
Fittingly, it all began with Washington State's maiden Rose Bowl voyage. Following their arrival in Pasadena, one week before the 1916 New Year's Day game, Cougar coach Lone Star Dietz and his players were hired as "extras" for Brown of Harvard, a remake of a 1911 film.
Reports or folk tales -- we're not sure which -- say the Cougar players and their coach earned $100 a day (or week) until getting fired for being too realistic with the film's star in the scrimmage scenes. And, it's been said, the wages were used to bet on themselves in the Rose Bowl. A wise investment, if true, considering Washington State won the Granddaddy of Them All, 14-0 over Brown.
Accounts of the film's production are sketchy and often contradictory. Even the film's actual title remains a question mark. And for years, archivists have been at odds over the sport featured in the film; one side insisting it was football, the other camp certain it was crew. Had they only come to Cougfan.com -- your one stop source for all things trivial -- much bloodshed could've been spared.
We unearthed an old plot synopsis for Brown of Harvard that describes a tale of two Harvard Crimsons competing not only for the affection of a sassy young co-ed, but for all the glory on BOTH the gridiron and in the rowing shell.
There's an interesting historical footnote to this film. It was incarnated a third time in 1926 and again employed actual college football players as extras. One in particular, a USC lineman by the name of Duke Morrison, turned this experience into quite a career as an actor -- but not until changing his name to John Wayne.
LONE'S STAR TREK
Dietz, by all accounts an eccentric showman, apparently caught the acting bug while in Pasadena. Following the Rose Bowl, a Los Angeles newspaper reported that while the team railed back to Pullman, Lone Star remained to pursue acting opportunities.
His "career" in motion pictures is fraught with discrepancies; time has made it near impossible to separate fact from fable. What is known is that Lone Star appeared in Fool's Gold, a 1919 film shot partially in Spokane's Minnehaha Park. The film was produced by the Washington Motion Picture Company of Spokane, a company Dietz had signed a contract with in 1918 to direct and star in their films. The studio folded shortly after the release of Fool's Gold and it's likely, though not certain, that this was his only film shot with the WMPC.
Lone Star's next foray into the world of celluloid would be much more successful, albeit from the production end of the business. He's reported to have worked as a sketch artist on Walt Disney's 1942 animated classic Bambi, but Walt Disney Studios recently told Cougfan.com that it was unable to confirm this.
FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS
Kay Bell, a Cougar tackle from 1934-36, has the distinction of being the first Cougar to actually etch out a "career" as an actor. First, in 1949 as Victor Mature's double in Cecil B. DeMille's Biblical epic Samson and Delilah (he would later wrestle professionally under the moniker "Samson"), to his final role in DeMille's timeless 1956 classic The Ten Commandments, starring Charlton Heston as Moses.
Bell also earned screen credits for the 1949 comedy Everybody Does It, starring Celeste Holm and 1953's forgettable musical Those Redheads From Seattle, starring Agnes Moorehead, who would later achieve sitcom immortality on TV's Bewitched. The former professional football player also appeared in the 1955 blockbuster Giant, with James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor, although his name is absent when the screen credits roll.
Incidentally, Bell is the victim of another uncredited role, this time at the hands of WSU's sports information department. In 1936, he was selected to the Kate Smith All-America team; an honor dubiously missing from the university's media guide.
THE KING AND MCQUEEN
No Cougar appeared in the classic 1963 film The Great Escape but the film's protagonist, "The Cooler King," portrayed by Steve McQueen, was based on Spokane native and WSC end Jerry Sage.
Sage starred for the Cougs in the late 1930s before being hand picked for duty as a World War II covert operative in the newly formed OSS, the original incarnation of the CIA. Shortly after beginning his life in the shadow trade, Sage was captured by the Nazis. He was dubbed "The Cooler King" due to lengthy stays in solitary confinement cells at various German POW camps following his numerous escape attempts.
Sage recalled his amazing exploits in his thrilling autobiography appropriately titled "Sage: Dagger of the OSS," published in 1985.
THE MORRELL OF THE STORY
If any Cougar could be nicknamed "Hollywood," it would without a doubt be Chuck Morrell, the scrappy fullback/linebacker who earned all-conference and all-West Coast first team honors in 1958. Following a brief stint with the Washington Redskins in '59, he headed for the lights, cameras, and action of Tinsel town.
Though never reaching the fame he had achieved on the gridiron, Morrell made a nice living in front of the camera, appearing in ten motion pictures and ten of TV's best shows. Most notable among his big-screen appearances are 1973's The Sting, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, the 1976 war-epic Midway, with Heston and Henry Fonda, and 1978's Two-Minute Warning, also starring Heston.
But Morrell's best role was in a 1972 episode of the TV show Banacek, starring George Peppard. In it, he plays a professional football player kidnapped during a game. The episode co-starred football greats John Brodie, Gene Washington, Ben Davidson, and another Cougar legend, Clancy Williams. Williams, an All-American at WSU in 1964, was with the Los Angeles Rams at the time.
Williams also likely appears in the 1968 action flick, The Split, involving a robbery at the Los Angeles coliseum during a Rams game. It starred Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, and football legend Jim Brown, and features copious amounts of actual game footage. In addition, it's a sure bet he had screen time in 1969's Number One, featuring Heston as a side-arming New Orleans Saints quarterback, which used generous amounts of NFL stock footage. Unfortunately, both films aren't currently available on video on DVD, thus making it impossible to verify.
Morrell had actually starred in an episode of TV's Traffic Court prior to his senior year at Washington State. Other small screen appearances include episodes of The Gallant Men, Chase, Ironside, McCloud, The FBI, Love Story, Cannon, and the TV movies The Deadly Dream (1971), starring Lloyd Bridges and Reunion (1980), with Linda Hamilton.
Other titles on Morrell's big screen filmography include This Above All (1960), Man-Trap (1961), starring Jeffrey Hunter; Kisses for My President (1964), with Fred MacMurray; Code Name Zebra (1984), featuring Frank Sinatra Jr., and 1987's cult-horror classic Grotesque, which he also produced, starring Linda Blair.
Morrell's teammate and roommate at Washington State, Phil Crosby, began his movie career at the age of nine, appearing with his father, the legendary Bing Crosby, in the 1945 films Out of this World and Duffy's Tavern. In 1946, he appeared with his father again in Screen Snapshots.
Following his career in Pullman, Crosby co-starred with Frank Sinatra and various members of the infamous "Rat Pack," in three films: Sergeants 3 (1962), Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964), and None But the Brave (1965).
It's also likely another of Morrell's teammates, receiver Gail Cogdill, appeared in 1968's Paper Lion, the film adaptation of George Plimpton's best-selling book. The movie was shot during 1967, when Cogdill was with the Detroit Lions. Numerous Lions players appeared in the film.
SAMOAN NIGHT FEVER
During the disco decade, it was a part lost by a Cougar that gained the most notoriety.
In the late 1970's, movie mogul Dino De Laurentiis began an international search for a full-blooded Samoan to play Mia Farrow's love interest in his disaster epic Hurricane. The well of young Samoan actors was dry, as De Laurentiis would discover, but the producer was insistent upon placing an authentic islander in the role.
It was fast becoming a casting nightmare, when a production assistant came across a photo of Jack Thompson, WSU's legendary Throwin' Samoan, in the L.A. Times. The photo was quickly forwarded to De Laurentiis and in just a matter of days the Cougar QB was winging his way to a screen test.
The role was already being billed as a "star-maker," and word that a Samoan Heisman Trophy candidate from Pullman, WA was being considered for the part brought both the movie and Thompson national media attention.
Thompson flew down for a meeting with De Laurentiis. Bad news, Dino said. Jack was bigger than they expected and his face was too mature to play the part of a teenager. But it's doubtful the legendary Cougar ever wonders what might have been. Hurricane was a disaster at the box-office and the actor who took Thompson's part parlayed the "star-making" role into just one more film, Shark-Boy of Bora Bora.
Thompson did, however, make one appearance on the big screen. In 1978's Damien: Omen II, a color photo of Thompson from Sports Illustrated was pinned on Damien's dorm room wall. "I really didn't care for that," Thompson told Cougfan.com. "I mean how flattering is it to have a picture of yourself hanging on the wall of a kid who has the mark of the beast tattooed on his head?"
Eric Johnson, a standout Cougar defensive back from 1971-73, has definitely left his mark on show business. Following a career in the NFL and the barely-remembered World Football League, the Moses Lake native spent the better part of ten years "moonlighting" as a gridiron extra and earning as much as $1,500 per onscreen tackle.
The player former Cougar coach Jim Sweeney dubbed "Bambi" -- in reference to his deer-like quickness -- first suited up (with Morrell) for the silver screen in Two Minute Warning. Before the decade was over, he had appeared in two more football related films. In 1978, with Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson in Semi-Tough, and the following year in the gridiron classic North Dallas Forty starring Nick Nolte.
Johnson kept busy in the 1980s, as well. First, he appeared on the small screen in several episodes of the HBO series 1st & Ten. The show, a favorite with both fans and critics, co-starred John Matuszak and O.J. Simpson, and enjoyed a seven-year run. Johnson, now a prep coach in Southern California, was back on the big screen in 1986's Best of Times, a comedy headlined by Kurt Russell and Robin Williams.
TOM-CATS (HANKS, SELLECK, TUTTLE)
An innocent stroll through downtown Seattle gave Ron Claudon, a Cougar center from the late '70s, his brush with show business. A casting director plucked Claudon, whose career ended prematurely with a knee injury, from a crowd of curious onlookers during the filming of the 1982 TV movie Divorce Wars: A Love Story. It seems the tall, dark-haired, and mustachioed Cougar bore a strong resemblance to the film's star, one Tom Selleck. He was hired on the spot as the star's double, giving Claudon a great "how I spent my summer vacation" tale to tell.
The next movie on our WSU football filmography should be listed with an asterisk. It is perhaps the motion picture most associated with Wazzu yet contains nary a Cougar football player. It's the comedy that WSU All-American Mike Utley once called his favorite: Volunteers.
The 1985 film featured Tom Hanks and John Candy as a hapless pair of Peace Corps volunteers assigned to an East Asian village. Despite the star power, the laughs were few and the film fell incomplete with audiences.
But it was Candy, playing "Tom Tuttle of Tacoma," that made this motion picture so special to Utley and fellow Cougars. In some of the movie's few humorous scenes, Tuttle -- sporting a WSU jacket -- teaches the Chinese Red Army the Cougar Fight Song. The glorious hymn becomes both their battle cry and victory march, making Volunteers an endearing -- if somewhat surreal -- viewing experience for Cougar moviegoers.
Kevin Hicks, a Cougar running back from 1993-94, was a showbiz veteran long before his 135-yard performance against California in 1993. It might be stretching it to say he costarred with Ice Cube and Cuba Gooding Jr. in Boyz N The Hood, the acclaimed 1991 John Singleton film about inner-city struggles. But the movie's football scenes contain actual game footage of Hicks carrying the pigskin as an L.A. high school senior.
And finally, Cougar QB great Mark Rypien has a cameo—of sorts—in the 2001 sci-fi thriller Donnie Darko. About 50 minutes into the film, there's a scene with a Washington Redskins game on TV and although Ryp is never seen, the announcer is heard saying his name.
FIELD OF DREAMS
The relationship between Cougar football and Hollywood may fall a few film credits shy of being labeled "prolific," yet the 88-year connection could hardly be called trite, either. And while this rag-tag cross-section of Cougs appearing in movies isn't exactly a casting director's "dream team," their involvement with Hollywood is symbolic of the spirit and fortitude of Washington State football.
After all, by their mere association with the silver screen, these former Cougars have intruded -- some might say -- upon a world they really had no business being in. And over the years, how many times have we heard the same said of Wazzu football?
Yet Cougar football, like the occasional shoe-string budgeted film or unknown actor, has bucked the odds, risen above the naysayers, and given more than it's share of acceptance speeches.
But regardless of how many Cougars are found lurking in the shadows of the famous HOLLYWOOD sign, we -- as Washington State football fans -- know that for true drama and suspense, one need look no further than autumn Saturdays on the Palouse.
Know of any Cougar players caught on film not mentioned in this article? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.