The World's Greatest Athlete (1973)

G | 92-93 mins | Comedy | February 1973

Director:

Robert Scheerer

Producer:

Bill Walsh

Cinematographer:

Frank Phillips

Production Designers:

John Mansbridge, Walter Tyler

Production Company:

Walt Disney Productions
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HISTORY

Prior to the opening credits, there are several brief scenes in which John Amos as "Coach Sam Archer" gives pep talks to his players at various sporting events in which they badly lose to their opponents. Several scenes within the film are shown in either slow or speeded-up motion to emphasize the athletic prowess of "Nanu" (Jan-Michael Vincent).
       As noted in the pressbook and various contemporary sources, the film was shot on location near Stockton, CA in Caswell Memorial State Park, which was used for some of the Zambia sequences, and at various sites throughout Southern California, including exteriors and interiors at the Hollywood-Burbank Airport in Burbank, CA [renamed the Bob Hope Airport in 2003], the athletic field at California State University, Los Angeles and Newhall, in Southern California, which was used as the location site for China. In addition to Caswell Memorial State Park, Lion Country Safari in Irvine, CA was also used for some of the Zambia sequences.
       As noted in various news items and studio press releases, actor-comedian Godfrey Cambridge was initially cast in the role of Coach but collapsed from exhaustion on 28 Apr 1972, approximately one week into the production, which was shooting in Stockton at the time. The production closed for several days but resumed on 14 May, with Amos taking over Cambridge's role. According to the pressbook, the picture marked the film debut of Canadian-born dancer and model Dayle Haddon as well as the debut of the Bengal tiger "G.T." as "Harri." Although a press release and some reviews reported that The World's Greatest Athlete marked Amos' film debut, the actor made his feature film debut in 1971 ... More Less

Prior to the opening credits, there are several brief scenes in which John Amos as "Coach Sam Archer" gives pep talks to his players at various sporting events in which they badly lose to their opponents. Several scenes within the film are shown in either slow or speeded-up motion to emphasize the athletic prowess of "Nanu" (Jan-Michael Vincent).
       As noted in the pressbook and various contemporary sources, the film was shot on location near Stockton, CA in Caswell Memorial State Park, which was used for some of the Zambia sequences, and at various sites throughout Southern California, including exteriors and interiors at the Hollywood-Burbank Airport in Burbank, CA [renamed the Bob Hope Airport in 2003], the athletic field at California State University, Los Angeles and Newhall, in Southern California, which was used as the location site for China. In addition to Caswell Memorial State Park, Lion Country Safari in Irvine, CA was also used for some of the Zambia sequences.
       As noted in various news items and studio press releases, actor-comedian Godfrey Cambridge was initially cast in the role of Coach but collapsed from exhaustion on 28 Apr 1972, approximately one week into the production, which was shooting in Stockton at the time. The production closed for several days but resumed on 14 May, with Amos taking over Cambridge's role. According to the pressbook, the picture marked the film debut of Canadian-born dancer and model Dayle Haddon as well as the debut of the Bengal tiger "G.T." as "Harri." Although a press release and some reviews reported that The World's Greatest Athlete marked Amos' film debut, the actor made his feature film debut in 1971 in Vanishing Point (see above).
       Actress-comedian Nancy Walker, who had a brief comic role as the near-sighted landlady, "Mrs. Peterson," had not appeared onscreen since Lucky Me (see above), released in 1954. The World's Greatest Athlete marked the final film of character actor and comedian Billy De Wolfe (1907--1974), who appeared in the small role of "Dean Maxwell." Although De Wolfe had appeared periodically on television, he had not made a feature film since Billie (see above), released in 1965. HR production charts include comedian Ronnie Schell in the cast but he was not identifiable in the print viewed.
       Tim Conway, as "Milo Jackson," was featured alone in several sequences that highlighted his popular abilities as a physical comedian. One long sequence, which was periodically interrupted with scenes that advanced the plot, involved his character shrinking to three-inches tall and attempting to free himself from a cocktail glass and a woman's large purse. Despite mixed reviews, the comedy became the ninth highest-grossing film of 1973, taking in over $10,600,000 at the North American box office. More Less

BIBLIOGRAPHIC SOURCES
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Box Office
5 Feb 1973
p. 4562.
Daily Variety
11 May 1972.
---
Daily Variety
12 May 1972.
---
Daily Variety
26 Jan 1973.
---
Daily Variety
3 May 1973.
---
Filmfacts
1973
p. 177-79.
Films and Filming
Sep 1973.
---
Hollywood Reporter
14 May 1972
p. 14.
Hollywood Reporter
4 Aug 1972
p. 9.
Hollywood Reporter
26 Jan 1973
p. 3, 32.
Los Angeles Herald Examiner
7 Feb 1973
Section II, p. 8.
Los Angeles Times
7 Feb 1973
Section IV, p. 1, 9.
Motion Picture Herald
27 Jan 1973.
---
New York Times
5 Feb 1973
p. 25.
Variety
31 Jan 1973
p. 18.
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
PRODUCER
Prod
WRITERS
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
ART DIRECTORS
Art dir
Matte artist
FILM EDITOR
SET DECORATOR
Set dec
COSTUMES
MUSIC
VISUAL EFFECTS
Spec eff
Spec eff
Spec eff
MAKEUP
Hairstylist
PRODUCTION MISC
Athletic tech adv
Animal supv
Animal supv
Prod mgr
Unit pub
SOURCES
SONGS
"Merrivale Fight Song," music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Gerald Gardner and Dee Caruso.
DETAILS
Release Date:
February 1973
Premiere Information:
New York opening: 1 February 1973
Los Angeles opening: 7 February 1973
Production Date:
24 April--28 April 1972
14 May--early August 1972
Copyright Claimant:
Walt Disney Productions
Copyright Date:
26 January 1973
Copyright Number:
LP42086
Physical Properties:
Sound
Color
Technicolor
Duration(in mins):
92-93
MPAA Rating:
G
Country:
United States
Language:
English
SYNOPSIS

Merrivale College coach Sam Archer is frustrated by the school's inability to win competitions in any sport, from tennis to football, despite his patience and rousing pep talks to the teams. When Dean Maxwell threatens him with dismissal over his losing record, Coach has had enough and quits, as does his bumbling, but loyal assistant, Milo Jackson. Deciding that he wants to trace his roots, Coach goes to Zambia, the home of his grandparents, accompanied by Milo. One day, while Coach is marveling over the speed of a cheetah, his guide tells him that the cheetah is nothing compared to "Nanu," whom Coach soon discovers can run faster than the animal. The orphaned son of white missionaries, who has been reared in the jungle, Nanu elicits Coach’s fantasies that he would be the world’s greatest athlete and the source of countless victories for Merrivale. Coach thus becomes determined to find a way to take the young man back with him to America. Upon learning about a tribal legend specifying that, if a man saves another man's life, he must always be by his side, Coach and Milo connive to put Coach in harm's way. After several failed attempts, they finally convince Nanu and his godfather, the witch doctor Gazenga, that Nanu has saved Coach's life by running to the city for aspirin that cures Coach’s feigned illness. Although Nanu does not want to leave his jungle home, Gazenga tells his godson that he must go to America, but secretly warns Coach not to harm him. When Nanu arrives at Merrivale with Coach and Milo, he is accompanied by his beloved ... +


Merrivale College coach Sam Archer is frustrated by the school's inability to win competitions in any sport, from tennis to football, despite his patience and rousing pep talks to the teams. When Dean Maxwell threatens him with dismissal over his losing record, Coach has had enough and quits, as does his bumbling, but loyal assistant, Milo Jackson. Deciding that he wants to trace his roots, Coach goes to Zambia, the home of his grandparents, accompanied by Milo. One day, while Coach is marveling over the speed of a cheetah, his guide tells him that the cheetah is nothing compared to "Nanu," whom Coach soon discovers can run faster than the animal. The orphaned son of white missionaries, who has been reared in the jungle, Nanu elicits Coach’s fantasies that he would be the world’s greatest athlete and the source of countless victories for Merrivale. Coach thus becomes determined to find a way to take the young man back with him to America. Upon learning about a tribal legend specifying that, if a man saves another man's life, he must always be by his side, Coach and Milo connive to put Coach in harm's way. After several failed attempts, they finally convince Nanu and his godfather, the witch doctor Gazenga, that Nanu has saved Coach's life by running to the city for aspirin that cures Coach’s feigned illness. Although Nanu does not want to leave his jungle home, Gazenga tells his godson that he must go to America, but secretly warns Coach not to harm him. When Nanu arrives at Merrivale with Coach and Milo, he is accompanied by his beloved companion, Harri, an affectionate Bengal tiger, who is accepted as another boarder by their extremely near-sighted landlady, Mrs. Peterson. That night, Nanu, angered by Milo's suggestion that Harri be sent to a zoo, makes a voodoo doll in Milo's image. Coach, not realizing that the doll is patterned after Milo, throws the doll out the window, causing the hapless Milo to follow suit. The next day, Coach and Milo ask Merrivale College student Jane Douglas if she could tutor someone in five subjects. She politely declines, but changes her mind when she sees that her pupil will be the handsome Nanu. Throughout the semester, Jane and Nanu grow closer as their tutoring sessions continue, but Nanu re-assures the jealous Harri that he prefers him to Jane. Nanu begins to participate in various collegiate sports, excelling in all, much to Coach's delight. Nanu’s prowess is soon recognized by national sportswriters, who interview him and Coach. On one television sports program, commentator Frank Gifford travels to Zambia to interview Gazenga, who says that he now regrets allowing his godson to leave. The program is seen by Dean Maxwell's son Leopold, who is jealous of Jane's attention to Nanu and determined to get rid of him. Leopold immediately calls medical school dean Dr. Bellamy, suggesting that he invite Gazenga to speak at an upcoming medical conference. By the time Nanu is to participate in an important NCAA track and field tournament, he and Jane have fallen in love. Although Nanu questions the value of competition, he feels that he must continue for Coach. On the same afternoon that Nanu, Milo and Coach fly to the tournament, Gazenga arrives at the Merrivale airport and is greeted by Leopold and Bellamy. At the medical conference reception, Gazenga initially plays the role of a primitive witch doctor, but soon lets everyone know that, in reality, he has had extensive formal education abroad. During the reception, Leopold privately tells Gazenga that Coach is exploiting Nanu, prompting Gazenga to go to the hotel where Nanu and the others are staying. Annoyed by Milo, whom he encounters at the hotel bar, Gazenga uses his mental powers to shrink Milo down to three inches tall, but suggests that it is merely an illusion. While a miniaturized Milo desperately tries to call Coach to tell him that Gazenga is there, Gazenga runs into Coach in the hallway outside Milo’s room. After lying to Gazenga that Nanu is at the stadium, Coach goes to Nanu’s room and warns him that Gazenga is in town and wants to take him home. Concerned, Nanu then asks Coach if he really did save his life, and Coach admits that he deceived him. Later, returned to his normal size, Milo joins Coach in his search for Nanu, whom they find in the elephant’s lair at the zoo. Coach gives Nanu a pep talk, telling him that, in a way, he did save his life because before Nanu came to Merrivale, Coach was a failure. He adds that Nanu could win every event the next day, something even noted Olympian Jim Thorpe never accomplished. Now realizing how important the tournament is to Coach, Nanu agrees to enter the competition. The next morning, Nanu is the hero of the day’s early events. Even though Gazenga, who is watching in the stadium, has begun to suspect that Leopold is lying and Nanu enjoys the competition, he creates a voodoo doll to make Nanu come in last in the next few events. Realizing what must be happening, Coach attempts to find Gazenga in the stands, but is unsuccessful. Milo then finds the old voodoo doll, dresses it to look like Gazenga and throws it into a bucket of water, thus causing Gazenga to be catapulted into a nearby pool. With Nanu now free from Gazenga’s voodoo, he begins to win again and, spurred on by Coach, re-enters the competitions he had lost. When he is victorious in every event, even Gazenga is happy and proud. Back at Merrivale, while Nanu shows Harri his extensive press clippings, he wonders aloud why he feels no different than he did before. He also wonders whether he should enter the Olympics and why Coach thinks that winning is so important. Later, the coach receives a phone call from Nanu, who is about to board a plane for Zambia. After rushing to the airport, Coach realizes that Nanu’s decision is final when he sees that Jane has decided to return to Zambia with him. After wishing them well, Nanu shakes his hand, calling him the world’s greatest coach. With Milo in tow, Coach then determines to go as far away as possible and immediately boards a plane. Some time later, at a café near the Great Wall of China, Coach sees a young man surpassing a pony in a race and immediately calls after him. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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