Chances are if you’ve ever rocked a pair of parachute pants (is that even possible?), had a haircut that would make the lead singer of A Flock of Seagulls jealous (check and double check), and wore out at least one Depeche Mode cassette tape (I avoided that trap, thank God), then you might’ve grown up in the 1980s.
The ’80s were distinctive for many reasons, including the Challenger disaster, the Berlin Wall coming down, me moving to Hollywood, and the real beginning of the marriage of extreme sports and the movies.
This was not a Golden Age for Hollywood movies per se, although some of our best filmmakers were at the height of their powers (i.e. Spielberg, Scorsese, Woody Allen, etc.). The decade was mostly known in the film world for blockbuster franchises—Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, and Rocky III through XII. But the action driven films that centered on rapidly growing sports like BMX, snowboarding, skateboarding, etc., became underground cult movies, and helped spur a generation of movie fans to take these sports to the next level. (God, I hate that phrase.)
There were films like Gleaming the Cube, Solar Babies, BMX Bandits, and Breaking Away (ok, that last one was ‘79, quit bustin’ my balls) that highlighted these sports in a way that hadn’t been exploited by the movie industry in prior decades. These films exposed to the world to a new kind of athlete, with a whole new attitude. With the advent of cable TV and the newest must-have gadget, the VCR, fans could view these films repeatedly, and learn how to do the tricks themselves, from Alaska to Zimbabwe. Tricks that were invented on the Venice Beach boardwalk could be picked up by some kid in Sheffield, England, improved upon, and transmitted back to the U.S. via video osmosis, creating a global movement.
The earliest example of BMX on film was the seminal motocross documentary, On Any Sunday, released in the early ‘70s. The opening shots of the movie of kids in SoCal, racing around on their Stingray bikes in an early incarnation of BMX, created a shockwave across the world that inspired kids to start riding their bikes like motorcycles. I was nine years old when that movie came out, and I sat in a dark theater, mesmerized by these same images, although unaware of the impact they would create.
While these other films are certainly important in the development of extreme sports, and still discussed by those who were influenced by them, there’s one extreme sports movie of the era that seems to outshine them all.
As the director Hal Needham (of Smokey and the Bandit fame) noted, the film that made the deepest impact of any of his movies was RAD, even though it took in a mere fraction of the grosses of his biggest hits, and was seen by a much smaller audience.
Why is that?
A young screenwriter named Sam Bernard happened to be walking on the boardwalk one day in Venice Beach, California, when he saw some guys on BMX bikes doing things he never dreamed possible. Tail whips, flips, spins – on BIKES, for God’s sake! This was something that needed investigating, and maybe a movie.
After some digging, Sam found out more about the sport. This was the early ‘80s, and all he had to go on was BMX magazines and the athletes themselves. Before long, he and his partner, Geoffrey Edwards, finished a script about Cru, a hard luck kid and juvenile delinquent, who finds his salvation in BMX.
Soon Sam’s friend, producer Robert Levy, became attached to the project, and Robert was able to enlist his old partner, famed action movie stuntman turned director Hal Needham, to climb on board.
Some key elements were added by Hal, including Hell Track, and Cru’s character was toned down and made more sympathetic.
Amazingly, RAD was a box office flop, and panned by film critics, but this didn’t stop it from finding an enthusiastic core audience. In fact, according to Wikipedia, on the film website Rotten Tomatoes, RAD received the lowest possible rating of 0% from critics, but an audience rating of 91%, the largest discrepancy between critical and audience reception in their database, from a pool of 10,000 movies.
In my opinion, the reason RAD was so well received by audiences and fans who’ve embraced the movie, was clearly the athletes hired for the film.
Eddie Fiola, Martin Aparijo, R.L. Osborn, Brian Blyther, and Jose Yanez, were but a few of the true pioneers of the sport brought in to participate in the filming. These were the top stunt riders in the world, because THEY INVENTED THE SPORT.
Hal was able to capture the brilliance of the athletes at the height of their powers, and weave it into a palatable storyline, one we’d seen a thousand times, but these athletes were unique in all the world. To a young bike rider, seeing these stunts performed for the first time on film was a life-altering revelation.
To the film fan who couldn’t care less about bicycling, the movie became a metaphor for overcoming obstacles and sticking to one’s principals.
This book was written mostly for die-hard RAD fans. It was easy to ignore the enthusiasm for the movie until the Internet and social media made it simple for fans to congregate and get in touch with me. It was then I became aware of the impact the film continues to have on generations of people who love it and were deeply affected by it.
Since I was never allowed to own a bike when growing up, I dreamed of being a bike rider with the purity and power of a child who had yet to be told that life is hard.
For fans of The Secret, in my mind I connect those early childhood yearnings about bikes to eventually ending up in RAD and being so identified with the sport. I had simply spent too much time dreaming about it and thinking about it, even after I got a car and a girl and forgot about my strong desire to be a rider, the dreams waited for the perfect moment to manifest and weave their way into my actual life. But who’s to say?
Anyway, I am happy to share with RAD fans some of my memories, but I didn’t feel I had enough material for a whole book on the subject. However, I do have a lot of stories I felt would not only be enjoyable to the fans of the movie, but movie fans in general, including a chronicle of being an actor in Hollywood during a very dramatic period, and some of the characters I started out with (some who became household names).
Because my overprotective parents would have their way, I never played organized sports in school. I have them to thank that I am able to still walk upright in my fifties. I was the runt of any crowd I was in until I got out of high school (never to take those pesky SATs). I would’ve been crushed like a wounded June bug on a semi’s windshield if I’d dared get on the gridiron with those corn fed, overgrown football players in my school.
However, it did grate on me from time to time as a child that I wasn’t allowed to participate, and my good father, Norvin, took notice.
The local Ford dealership where he worked sponsored a Punt, Pass and Kick competition that I would never be a part of, and I would never have won so much as a ribbon if I had participated. Dad thought he would ease the pain of me being somewhat of a pariah for not playing football. (This was Dallas in the 1970s, after all – when the idea that Jesus loved the Cowboys more than any other team was born. I reckon he’s a Steelers fan now.)
So one day Dad brought home a PPK trophy for me. I suppose he wanted me to display it like I’d earned it, as if the recognition for unearned success is somehow a substitute for the real thing. I appreciated the gesture, but it made me feel even worse, especially because we were both aware he knew better.
So to receive accolades for RAD as if I was the actual hero of that movie feels a bit like getting that trophy I didn’t earn.
The real heroes were the filmmakers in front of and behind the camera. From the writers, where movies are really born, to Hal Needham, to the supremely talented cast and crew, to the brilliant riders they brought in, all to make ME look like a hero. For a lot of people, the illusion worked just as planned, and the focus, for right or wrong, falls on me as the “face” of RAD, to carry on the legacy or ignore the tidal wave it set off.
I do not take that lightly, having been inspired by actors my whole life. It’s the reason I choose to do what I do, and I find continual strength from storytellers of every discipline, not just actors. It’s my wish that someone find inspiration in these pages, either for what to do, or what definitely NOT to do. So with that, LET’S WALK THIS SUCKER!