|Reel Life: 'North Dallas Forty'
By Jeff Merron
Special to Page 2
"North Dallas Forty," the movie version of an autobiographical novel written by former Dallas Cowboy receiver Pete Gent, came to the silver screen in 1979. The book had received much attention because it was excellent and because many thought the unflattering portrait of pro football, Dallas Cowboys-style, was fairly accurate.
In Reel Life: The movie's title is "North Dallas Forty," and the featured team is the North Dallas Bulls.
In Reel Life: In the opening scene, Phil Elliott (Nick Nolte) is
having trouble breathing after he wakes up; his left shoulder's in pain. He
struggles to the bathtub, in obvious agony.
In Reel Life: As we see in the film, and as Elliott says near the end,
he can't sleep for more than three hours at a stretch because he's in so much pain.
In Reel Life: Mac Davis plays Seth Maxwell, the Cowboys QB and Elliott's close friend.
"Gent would become Meredith's primary confidant and amateur psychologist as the Cowboys quarterback's life would become more and more topsy-turvy as the years went on,' writes Peter Golenbock in the oral history, "Cowboys Have Always Been My Heroes."
In Reel Life: Throughout the film, there's a battle of wits going on between Elliott and head coach B.A. Strothers (G.D. Spradlin).
Though sometimes confused by Landry, Gent says he admired the man: "Over the course of a high school, college and pro career, an athlete is exposed to all sorts of coaches, (including) great ones who are geniuses breaking new ground in their game. Tom Landry was like that ... When you are young, you think you are going to meet men like this your whole life. You think the world is full of genius, and it isn't until you leave the game that you found out you may have met the greatest men you will ever meet."
In Real Life: Former Cowboys Ralph Neely (a tackle) and Larry Cole (defensive end) told Washington Post reporter Jane Leavy that the trip was real. "Football players have only one day off a week and if they go hunting, they're sure as hell going to shoot something," Cole said in 1979. "We shot butterflies, field larks ..." And, Neely added, a mailbox.
In Reel Life: Everyone's drinking during the hunting trip, and one series of shots comes dangerously close to Elliott and Maxwell.
In Reel Life: As he talks with Elliott in the car during the hunting
trip, Maxwell refers to his member as "John Henry." saying, "John Henry, the
man is just like you, he's never satisfied."
In Real Life: Meredith never really stopped fighting "those suckers," meaning, really, Landry. The quarterback suffered through the early years with the Cowboys and Landry, and ended up leading Dallas to within minutes of NFL championships in 1966 and 1967. Still, Landry replaced Meredith with Craig Morton during a 1968 playoff game, and that was, apparently, the last straw. Meredith retired at age 29, hoping that Landry would ask him to continue playing. Landry didn't, saying. "Don, I think you are making the right decision."
In Reel Life: At a wild postgame party later that night, a date
(Nanci Roberts, credited as "Bunny Girl") is lined up for Jo Bob. She's
described as last year's "Miss Farm Implements," and she's wearing a Playboy Bunny outfit.
Easterbrook should be able to find a shot or two of Roberts, though. She was married to Bob Cowsill (of the singing Cowsills), and appeared in the TV series "Playboy After Dark" in 1969 and 1970. Which probably explains the costume.
In Reel Life: Elliott and Maxwell go to a table far away from the
action, and share a joint. A man in a car spies on them.
In Reel Life: At the party, and throughout the movie, Maxwell moves
easily between teammates and groups of players, and seems to be universally respected.
In Real Life: The Cowboys were small time during the first half of the 1960s, but when they started winning under Landry, everything changed. "In 1964, if you bought an adult ticket, you got five kids in for nothing and a free football," says Gent in "Heroes." "The only time we filled the stadium was when Green Bay came. By '66, we were sold out every game. In just two years, we went from our not being able to get a seat in a restaurant in Dallas to literally being America's guest."
In Reel Life: Elliott meets with B.A. The coach sits down in front of
a computer, scrolling through screen after screen of information. He stops
and points to the monitor. "Now that's it, that's it," he says. "Phil, that's
what it all boils down to, your attitude."
In Reel Life: Elliott, in bed with Joanne Rodney (Savannah Smith),
says he's got the best hands in the league. Elliott's high regard of his
own abilities is a continuing theme throughout the film, and there's plenty
of screen action to back up the assessment.
Gent stands by his self-assessment, and says that Landry agreed about his ability to catch the ball. "Tom actually told the press that I had the best hands in the league," says Gent. "And I did." Gent, who played basketball in college, adds, "Catching a football was easy compared to catching a basketball."
Gent, who was often used as a blocker, finished his NFL career with 68 catches for 898 yards and four TDs. In his best season, 1966, he had 27 catches for 484 yards and a touchdown.
In Reel Life: During a meeting, the team watches film of the previous Sunday's
game. In the film, Elliott catches a pass on third down, and everyone cheers.
Except B.A., who says, "No, Seth, you should never have thrown to Elliott
with that kind of coverage. Look at Delma. He's wide open. I don't like this
buddy buddy stuff interfering with my judgment."
In Reel Life: The game film shows Stallings going offside. B.A.
castigates the player: "There's no room in this business for uncertainty." Later, Stallings is cut, his locker unceremoniously emptied.
In Real Life: Lots of folks have played the guessing game about who Hartman "really" is, with Roger Staubach being the most frequently mentioned candidate. But Gent denied it after the film came out. "It's not Staubach," he told the Washington Post in 1979. "But don't tell him, it'll break his heart. That character was based on any number of players who got into all that religious bull."
In Reel Life: Elliott catches a pass, and is tackled hard, falling on
his back. Someone breaks open an ampule of amyl nitrate to revive him. Amyl is used in other scenes in the movie.
"In about 1967, amyl nitrite was an over-the-counter drug for people who suffered from angina," Gent told John Walsh in a Feb. 1984 Playboy interview. "I talked to several doctors who told me it basically didn't do any damage; it speeded up your heart and pumped a lot of oxygen to your brain, which puts you in another level of consciousness. At camp, I explained that this drug was legal and cheap -- it cost about $2 for 12 ampules of it -- everybody tried it and went crazy on it."
In Reel Life: Elliott is constantly in pain, constantly hurt.
In Reel Life: Elliott wears a T-shirt that says "No Freedom/No Football/NFLPA."
In Reel Life: Elliott and Maxwell break into the trainer's medicine cabinet, and take all kinds of stuff, including speed and painkillers.
In Reel Life: At a team meeting, B.A. scolds the team for poor play the previous Sunday. "We played far below our potential. Our punting team gave them 4.5 yards per kick, more than our reasonable goal and 9.9 yards more than outstanding ..."
In Real Life: Landry rated players in a similar fashion to what's depicted in the scene, but the system, in Gent's opinion, wasn't as objective as it seemed. "They literally rated you on a three-point system," writes Gent in "Heroes." "On any play you got no points for doing your job, you got a minus one if you didn't do your job, you got a plus one if you did more than your job. And a good score in a game was 17 ... And they would read your scores out in front of everybody else. That was another thing. Tom thought that everyone should know who was letting them down. Right away I began to notice that the guys whose scores didn't seem to jibe with the way they were playing were the guys Tom didn't like."
Meredith was one of those players. "He truly did not like Don Meredith, not as a player and not as a person," writes Golenbock.
In Reel Life: North Dallas is playing Chicago for the conference championship. The owner says, "If we win this game, you're all invited to spend the weekend at my private island in the Caribbean."
In Real Life: Gent, like many pro athletes, would go to extreme lengths to play, even when badly injured. He even expresses some guilt over not playing in the "Ice Bowl," the 1967 NFL Championship Game which the Cowboys lost in the final seconds, 21-17, to the Packers in Green Bay. The game-time temperature was minus-13. "I would have played the whole game for Bobby Hayes. [Hayes put his hands in his pockets when he wasn't the intended receiver, a tipoff exploited by the Packers.] His hands had swollen and cracked by the second quarter. I was used to playing in cold weather, but I was in the hospital with a broken leg.
"I have always felt that it [the loss] was partly my fault. Go figure that out."
In Reel Life: Delma Huddle (former pro Tommy Reamon) watches Elliott take a shot in his knee. He says, "No shots for me, man, I can't stand
needles ... All those pills and shots, man, they do terrible things to your body." Later, though, the peer pressure gets to Huddle, and he takes a shot so he can play with a pulled hamstring.
"Maybe Ralph can't remember," Gent responds in his e-mail interview. "Maybe he forgot all those rows of syringes in the training room at the Cotton Bowl. They seldom tell you to take the shot or clean out your locker. They leave you to make the decision, and if you don't do it, they will remember, and so will your teammates. But worst of all, so will you -- what if the team loses and you might have made the difference?"
In Reel Life: After one play, a TV announcer says, "I wonder if the
coach called that play on the sideline or if Maxwell called it in the huddle."
In Reel Life: In the last minute of the game, Delma pulls a muscle and goes down. Elliott goes over to see how he's doing. B.A. yells, "Elliott, get back in the huddle! The doctor will look after him. Mister, you get back in the huddle right now or off the field."
In Reel Life: Elliott catches a TD pass with time expired, pulling North Dallas to within one point of Chicago. If they make the extra point, the game is tied and goes into overtime. But Hartman fumbles the snap, and the Bulls lose the game.
In Reel Life: After the loss, O.W. reams out Coach Johnson: "Every
time I call it a game, you say it's a business. Every time I say it's a business, you call it a game!"
In Reel Life: Elliott has a meeting the day after the game with Conrad Hunter (Steve Forrest). B.A., Emmett Hunter (Dabney Coleman), and "Ray March, of the League's internal investigation division," are also there. A league investigator recites what he saw while following Elliott during the week, including evidence that Elliott smoked a "marijuana cigarette."
In Reel Life: Elliott gives a speech about how management is the "team," while players are just more pieces of equipment.
In Reel Life: The film stresses the conflict between Elliott's view that football players should be treated like individuals and Landry's cold assessment and treatment of players.
In Real Life: This scene was fiction -- Gent wasn't suspended. But the NFL didn't take kindly to those who participated in the making of "North Dallas Forty." Hall of Famer Tom Fears, who advised on the movie's football action, had a scouting contract with three NFL teams -- all were canceled after the film opened, reported Leavy and Tony Kornheiser in a Sept. 6, 1979, Washington Post article. And the Raiders severed ties with Fred Biletnikoff, who coached Nolte. "Freddy was not even asked back to camp," writes Gent. Reamon, who played Delma, was cut by the 49ers after the film came out, and said he had been "blackballed."
NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle denied any organized blacklist, but told The Post, "I can't say that some clubs in their own judgment (did not make) decisions based on many factors, including that they did not like the movie."