Disney was evolving in the seventies. Nearly a decade had passed since the Old Maestro ruled his magic kingdom and the Mouse House was trying to compete in Hollywood's brave new world. Veteran writer/producer, Bill Walsh came up with a very funny concept about a black coach who travels to Africa in search of a superior athlete. Of course there’s a punch line to this joke. The African athlete happens to be white. (Rim shot, please) You've probably already guessed the title of the film, right? “The World's Greatest Athlete.”
Okay, not necessarily a bad idea. Some actually thought this was a very funny movie, although I found this Disney comedy somewhat flat. Not that they didn't try, mind you. The movie makers did their best with a serviceable screenplay. The film did boast an impressive cast, including Jean-Michael Vincent as the star athlete from the dark continent. The coach and his wacky assistant were played by John Amos and Tim Conway. The cast was rounded out by newcomer, Dayle Haddon as the love interest and veterans, Roscoe Lee Brown and Billy De Wolf. The legendary black actor, Clarence Muse provided good support as a tribal elder. Finally, sportscasters, Howard Cosell and Disney Legend, Frank Gifford also make an appearance in the movie.
This was the seventies, and Disney was still trying to find its way in a rapidly changing Hollywood. Reflecting this change, the Disney company had finally gotten around to using black extras in the crowd scenes. Not something the average person would even notice. However, being a person of color I was keenly aware of the significant change in attitude. Like American television of the fifties and sixties, ethnic types were pretty much invisible in mainstream media. This led me to launch some good natured ribbing on occasion. While visiting the jungle set on stage three one afternoon I saw comic Tim Conway playing a scene with a group of spear wielding African natives who had taken him captive. I joked that Disney had come a long way from “Song of the South.” Finally free from the southern plantation, black people were now back in the jungle where they belong.
It's a shame, but it seems we had more laughs on the set than in the movie. Those who remember the film might recall that Jean-Michael Vincent's character had a pet tiger that he brought with him from Africa. Yeah, I know there are no tigers in Africa, but I guess the scriptwriters somehow found a way around that little problem. Anyway, there were a number of scenes where Tim Conway had to interact with this “ferocious beast” and he wasn't always comfortable doing so. Even though the trained tiger was a pussy cat at heart there was no mistaking the fact that this was one huge kitty. Though well trained, the large cat sometimes really got into the spirit of the scene. Or, maybe he just wanted to play with Mr. Conway. One particular scene with Tim and the tiger was being filmed on stage Two one late afternoon and I stopped in to enjoy the fun. Finally the director called, cut! The large cat had so enjoyed his romp with Mr. Conway he wanted the fun to continue. Having had enough of the big cat, Tim Conway sprinted off the set with the happy tiger hot on his heels. Unfortunately, Tim Conway and the tiger was headed in my direction. As the hapless actor came running toward me he was yelling, “holy crap” along with other colorful terms. Another very amusing bit that never ended up in the movie was a scene with veteran character, Clarence Muse and Roscoe Lee Browne who played the Witch Doctor. John Amos and Tim Conway find themselves in a secret cave guarded by several foreboding African warriors. Conway's character was suppose to come rushing up to the Witch Doctor with an urgent message as the spear wielding natives glower menacingly at him. Each time the director called, "Action!” Conway would run pass the guards and make a funny comment that would invariably send the “scary savages” into fits of laughter. Naturally, the scene had to be reshot several times but the very funny Tim Conway could not be restrained. He continued to ad lib sending the cast and the crew into hysterics. I’ll remind you, the making of the Disney movie was a lot funnier than the completed movie you saw on the big screen.
Eventually, the football coach arrives back in civilization with his “African” star and pet tiger. The action then moved to the university set on Disney’s stage 2 where college professors match wits with the witch doctor who was more Rhodes scholar than a jungle primitive. Sadly, the scenes that seemed so funny in the script and on the story boards fell flat once they went before the cameras. I learned an important filmmaking lesson as well. If you’re doing a comedy it’s important to have a director who knows how to direct a funny movie. I’m no genius when it comes to movie making but I do know what “funny” is. I’ve been doing gags all my life and I’ve learned what works. Heck! I even made Walt Disney laugh. If the Disney Studio had been just a little bit smarter they would have had an animation veteran direct this motion picture. Think I’m joking? Top live-action comedy directors, Frank Tashlin and Bud Swift began their careers in the animation business writing cartoons.
“The World's Greatest Athlete” joins the long list of what's become known as Disney's low budget comedy programmers. Movies that weren't all that bad - but sadly not all that good either. There's not a lot I can say about this lackluster seventies attempt at comedy. I do remember all the laughs we had on set while making the film. It's just too bad that the special craziness of “The World's Greatest Athlete” never made it into the Disney movie.