When first learning of the Athletes in Films Blogathon, there were some obvious choices I could make. However, having just written about Space Jam, and not holding in it in as high esteem as some in my generation and younger, the only clear choice left for me was to write about Amazing Grace and Chuck yet again. Though having written on it extensively as part of a larger piece, I didn’t focus too much on the professional athlete involved in a key role. Therefore, I will do so here.
Amazing Grace and Chuck (1987)
This is a film in which:
A little league player named Chuck refuses to ever pitch again until nuclear weapons are disarmed. Basketball star “Amazing Grace” Smith follows the boy’s example, and starts a trend.
The athlete in question in this film is:
…played by Alex English who was a player for the Denver Nuggets at the time this film was produced. We see him playing, hit a three-point shot and give his famous three fingers in the air gesture, after the game his agent/best friend, Lynn (Jaime Lee Curtis) reads him an article about Chuck and the wheels start spinning.
With the memory of his wife and daughter gnawing at his mind, Amazing decides to quit basketball and do like Chuck did, an official protest has begun. At one point someone asks Amazing “Do you really think you’re going to bring an end to nuclear weapons?” Amazing turns to him and says “I don’t know but wouldn’t it be nice.” This soon starts a snowball effect and so many athletes join the cause that professional sports are crippled and the movement spreads worldwide.
The notion of athletes as activists does have quite a few precedents in sports. Here are some examples:
- Muhammad Ali refuses induction in Vietnam.
- “Republicans buy sneakers too.” Michael Jordan on his sociopolitical neutrality as a public speaker.
- 1980s a decade of sports as politics: consecutive Summer Olympic boycotts.
- First Post-9/11 games in New York.
- “I can’t breathe” shirts in NFL.
- Athletes for Trump.
This film marked Alex English’s debut as an actor. Later he went on to play Mayor Wade on Midnight Caller, then the coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Whoopi Goldberg vehicle Eddie. The following year (1997) he was in The Definite Maybe as “The Premiere.” It was his first big screen role as a non-athlete and his second time playing some sort of leader. Despite an intermittent, free of too-much fanfare acting career, he did develop a second type aside from the most obvious one based on his first career. His most recent role was in Lumera, which was the feature film debut of his son writer/director Alexander English, Jr. who sure enough got bit by the bug during dad’s forays into the entertainment industry.
With regards the reaction to the movie, it was critically panned. Variety noted that “Amazing Grace and Chuck is destined to go down in history as the camp classic of the anti-nuke genre. As amazingly bad as it is audacious, film will live forever in the hearts of connoisseurs of Hollywood’s most memorably outrageous moments.”
Prescient words as one of my viewings of this film was an unexpected premiere on TCM not too long ago, and Warner Archive recently rescued this film and has made it available on DVD at long last I could move on from my recorded off TV version.
However, not all the reviews were as harsh as Variety‘s. Janet Maslin of The New York Times at least had gentle praise for the performers stating that “Mr. Zuehlke, who is so precocious and somber, and Mr. English, who is nothing if not sincere…” which he most certainly is. Director Mike Newell chose English well. Newell has had tremendous results from young actors in his charge. A professional athlete like a child has less craft than an experienced, trained actor — so much falls to the director to cast well, finding the right persona, and coaxing as much natural response as his trust engenders from his actor.
If limiting the casting options for Amazing Grace to contemporary basketball players of the late-‘80s English stands out as the obvious pick: as Michael Jordan would later show in Space Jam he was a bit stiff performance-wise and a bit too cool in persona to pull it off. Charles Barkley would be more suited in a comedy and would not bring the necessary gravitas to the film. Magic Johnson was too Hollywood to not be a distraction in this role. English fits.
Newell went on to imply that the audaciousness — and the Amazing Grace quote — are the very point of the film that must be taken into account when appraising its virtues and contrasting them to its deficits:
“I hope this film will leave audiences energized and with a great surge of hope. I hope it will be a reminder that the individual can make a difference and that humanity is capable of following its best instincts.”
In my initial piece I concluded by saying:
This is a film that is idealist and dares to dream. It takes the fears of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl and combines them with the hope of Glasnost and presented us with a fantasy. The poster for this film should tell you it’s a fantasy. And it’s one that only could have come out of the 80s, this film literally drips 80s. In the 1990s, and especially in the present, disarmament was the furthest thing from anyone’s mind. It’s a great film about one person can make a difference and a film with a message.
This paired with Newell’s notion of the certitude I have that English was likely the best possible choice from a shallow talent pool of professional basketball acting talent. A humility, Grace (to match the fictional nickname), believable idealism, and the ability to quietly inspire followers was a necessity for this concept to have a chance and its what Alex English could bring to the table naturally.