Imagine flipping through the television channels late one night. The classic movie channel is about to show an old flick. The Paramount Pictures logo appears on the screen and the orchestra music swells.
Sounds like it could be a western, maybe from the 1940s.
The title of the movie is unfamiliar, but the name of the movie’s star is very familiar, just from a different context.
“Starring Paul W. ‘Bear’ Bryant,” the screen says.
Bryant, the University of Alabama’s legendary football coach, starring in a Hollywood movie? As implausible as this might sound, Bryant briefly considered a career on the silver screen instead of prowling the college football sidelines.
In his autobiography published in 1975, Bryant recounts landing a screen test with a motion picture studio when he was 24 years old and securing an offer from an agent to represent him before he decided on a different career path.
Of course, Bryant, who was born 106 years ago on Sept. 11, 1913, in Moro Bottom, Arkansas, instead earned his fame by winning 323 college football games and six national championships as a coach. He led teams at the University of Maryland, the University of Kentucky and Texas A&M University before Alabama, his alma mater, called him home, where he coached from 1958 until 1982. He died in 1983 at the age of 69.
But 82 years ago, Bryant was an assistant football coach on Frank Thomas’ staff at Alabama. The Crimson Tide had finished the 1937 season undefeated and had earned an invitation to play the University of California in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.
In “Bear: The Hard Life and Good Times of Alabama’s Coach Bryant,” co-written with John Underwood, Bryant admits that the glamour of Hollywood “definitely turned my head” during the 1935 Rose Bowl game when he played end for the Crimson Tide.
Bryant says that in 1937 he arrived in Pasadena around Christmas time with his wife, Mary Harmon Bryant. Johnny Mack Brown, a Dothan native and former UA halfback who was building a career as a star in cowboy movies, showed Bryant around Hollywood.
Afterward, Bryant was supposed to go with the team to the racetrack, but instead he secretly slipped away to Paramount Studios for a screen test, arranged through an agent named Don Gilliam.
He didn’t even tell Mary Harmon.
Bryant wasn’t exactly sure who had set up the screen test, but he recalled having lunch that day with film stars Ray Milland and Dorothy Lamour, whose father had attended UA.
He remembered the screen test this way in his biography, “Bear”:
“Then they took me to the set where they were going to have the screen test. I’m not sure what the test consisted of because I was too bewildered, but Mary Carlisle, a pretty little actress who looked like the typical college coed, sat on the side of my chair, and Buster Crabbe, the Olympic swimmer who played Tarzan, was there. We talked and they took some pictures.”
He said that during the screen test an Alabama campus newspaper reporter and some UA coeds who were touring the studio opened the door and peeked in.
″… When I got back to the hotel there was no secret about what I’d been up to. The agent had offered me $65 a week to stay in Hollywood and let him try and sell me. Mary Harmon helped me see the light, in no uncertain terms. I knew then, too, that they were trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. They couldn’t have cured my mumbling drawl if they’d given me $65 a minute. The movie industry was spared Bear Bryant.”
But the movie industry continued to make former college football players into movie stars — John Wayne, who played at the University of Southern California, Burt Reynolds, who played at Florida State University, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who played at the University of Miami, to name just a few.
While it didn’t work out on the big screen for him, Bryant did have some success on the small screen, hosting his own locally produced TV show on Sunday afternoons. “The Bear Bryant Show” featured highlights from UA’s most recent game and spawned Bryant’s “Bingo, that’s a goody” catchphrase along with the Coca-Cola/Golden Flake slogan “Great Pair Says the Bear.”
In 1979, Bryant appeared during a Bob Hope special on NBC in a skit that featured the comedian and former UA/New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath, who also dabbled in acting.
As a commercial pitchman, Bryant appeared in an ad for Ford trucks with his slow Southern drawl noticeably speeded up. He also appeared in a heart-tugging ad for South Central Bell. In the Bell ad, Bryant asks, “Have you called your mama today? I sure wish I could call mine.”
The Bell ad has been uploaded to YouTube and has been viewed more than 300,000 times, enjoying a resurgence of interest every Mother’s Day.
And the movie industry didn’t completely ignore Bryant. In 1984, Academy Award winner Gary Busey was tapped to portray Bryant in the bio-pic “The Bear.”
In the 1994 film “Forrest Gump,” Tom Hanks’ character plays football for a Bryant-like character billed in the credits only as “College Football Coach.” Sonny Shroyer portrays the coach, who wears a houndstooth hat just like Bryant did.