Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The World’s Greatest Athlete

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The World's Greatest Athlete

When I saw the title The World’s Greatest Athlete pop up in the Disney list, I first thought it was the third entry in the Dexter Riley series. I soon realized I was confusing it with The Strongest Man In The World, a movie we’ll get to soon enough, and that I had no idea what The World’s Greatest Athlete was about. When I read Disney’s official synopsis, my heart sank a little bit. Here it is. See if you can figure out why.

“Discovered in Africa by two U.S. college sports coaches, Nanu, a blond boy raised by natives after the death of his missionary parents, is an incredible athlete. Entered in a Los Angeles NCAA track-and-field competition, he wins all the events despite voodoo magic being used against him.”

Sounds like a recipe for some good old-fashioned casually racist stereotypes, doesn’t it? Well, the good news is that The World’s Greatest Athlete does not sink to that level. In fact, the movie refuses to engage with its complicated racial politics on any level, which is its own problem. But the biggest issue is that apart from a couple of scattered highlights, the movie simply isn’t that funny. Considering some of the talent involved, that’s a real disappointment.

The World’s Greatest Athlete was an original screenplay by comedy veterans Gerald Gardner and Dee Caruso. Gardner and Caruso had been head writers on the classic spy spoof Get Smart, created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, and had written for The Monkees and That Was The Week That Was. They were A-list TV writers but their only other feature credit had been the little-loved Jerry Lewis vehicle Which Way To The Front? This would be their only Disney credit and it seems likely they had little to do with the picture once the studio bought the script.

This would also be the only Disney feature for director Robert Scheerer, although he did have some experience with the studio. Scheerer started his career as a dancer, performing with the group The Jivin’ Jacks and Jills. He moved into directing in the early 1960s, focusing on variety shows and TV specials for acts like Spike Jones, Danny Kaye and Fred Astaire. In 1971, Disney hired him to produce and direct a 90-minute special for the grand opening of Walt Disney World featuring such stars as Julie Andrews, Buddy Hackett, Bob Hope and many others.

The World’s Greatest Athlete would be one of Scheerer’s few theatrical features. He continued to be a prolific television director, including work on Star Trek: The Next GenerationDeep Space Nine and Voyager. He briefly returned to Disney in 1988, directing Harry Anderson in a reboot/sequel of The Absent-Minded Professor for the recently retitled Magical World Of Disney.

Perhaps the most surprising name in the opening credits is composer Marvin Hamlisch. When The World’s Greatest Athlete came out in February 1973, Hamlisch was very much on the way up. He’d written some hit songs for artists like Lesley Gore and dabbled a bit in film with scores to movies like The Swimmer and Woody Allen’s Take The Money And Run and Bananas. By the end of 1973, Hamlisch was everywhere thanks to his work on two blockbuster soundtracks: The Sting and The Way We Were. In 1974, he won three Oscars for those two films, setting him on the road to show business’ coveted EGOT hat trick. Hamlisch continued to dominate the 1970s with Broadway shows like A Chorus Line and songs like “Nobody Does It Better” from The Spy Who Loved Me. His only Disney project is now a minor footnote in a huge career.

The star of the show is John Amos as Coach Archer, even though he receives third billing behind Tim Conway and Jan-Michael Vincent. Amos was an eleventh-hour replacement for Godfrey Cambridge, who had appeared in Disney’s The Biscuit Eater a year earlier. Cambridge fell ill during the first week of shooting and was forced to bow out. He never did return to Disney. In 1976, he suffered a heart attack during production of another film, Victory At Entebbe, and died at the age of 43.

Honestly, The World’s Greatest Athlete may have worked better with Cambridge. John Amos was still early in his career, gaining attention as weatherman Gordy Howard on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Around the same time The World’s Greatest Athlete hit theatres, Amos appeared as Esther Rolle’s husband on the sitcom Maude, a role that would soon be spun-off to the series Good Times. Amos has an authority and amiability well-suited to situation comedies but he was not a comedian. An actor like Amos is only as funny as his material, whereas naturally gifted comedians like Cambridge can mine laughs out of a less-than-stellar script.

Given all that, it’s no surprise that most of the laughs in The World’s Greatest Athlete come from top-billed Tim Conway. Conway shot to stardom as the scene-stealing Ensign Parker in McHale’s Navy, which ran from 1962 to 1966 including two feature films. When McHale’s Navy went off the air, Conway starred in a series of television flops: the comedy-western Rango, the self-titled sitcom The Tim Conway Show (costarring Disney regular Joe Flynn) and the similarly titled sketch comedy The Tim Conway Comedy HourThe World’s Greatest Athlete came along just at the right time for Conway, who really needed a hit.

Golden boy Jan-Michael Vincent stars as the Tarzan-like title character. Vincent started acting in 1967 and he’d been plugging away in movies and TV shows without really breaking through. He began to gain momentum in the early 1970s, first as a hippie draftee trying to make it through boot camp in the TV-movie Tribes, then earning a Golden Globe nomination for his role in the film Going Home. Vincent was still trying to find his screen persona in 1973. Nanu is not the kind of role you take after you’re an established movie star. But he’d go on to star in such cult hits as White Line FeverDamnation Alley and Big Wednesday.

Sadly, Vincent went through a whole series of rough patches as he became more famous. He struggled with addiction throughout his life and found himself behind bars on more than one occasion. In 1992, he was involved in a near-fatal car accident, the first of three very serious car crashes in the 1990s alone. In 2012, his right leg was amputated after it became infected due to peripheral artery disease. Jan-Michael Vincent died on February 10, 2019, at the age of 74. It’s difficult to reconcile the perfect physical specimen we see in this movie with the drug-and-alcohol ravaged man he became.

Scheerer doesn’t waste much time setting up his movie. Coach Archer presides over the losingest teams in college athletics. All of them, from football to baseball to basketball. I’m no sports nut but perhaps they’d do better with individual coaches with particular specialties? Anyway, fed up after his latest loss, Coach abandons his post at Merrivale College (not to be confused with Dexter Riley’s Medfield College or Merlin Jones’ Midvale College) and goes on safari in Africa to get back to his roots.

When assistant coach Milo (Conway) points out that Archer was born in Cincinnati, Archer clarifies that his great-grandparents came from this part of Africa. And that is the extent of that discussion. It’s a Disney movie, so Archer’s ancestors were just regular old immigrants chasing the American dream like everybody else and let’s speak no more about it.

Archer catches sight of Nanu outrunning a cheetah and can’t believe his eyes. As he admires Nanu from afar, Archer envisions how easily his natural gifts could transfer to the various sports he coaches. He offers the jungle boy a full scholarship but Nanu is perfectly happy right where he is. Not willing to take no for an answer, Coach resolves to get Nanu out of Africa one way or another.

After he learns that tribal custom dictates a man who saves another man’s life becomes beholden to that person, Coach comes up with a scheme to get Nanu to “save” his life. Nothing works and, on one of these attempts, Nanu takes Archer to see the local witch doctor, his godfather Gazenga (Roscoe Lee Browne, a distinguished character actor known for dozens of film and television appearances but will forever be best known to me as the narrator of the album The Story Of Star Wars, a record I played into the ground in the days before VHS). Gazenga sees right through the coach’s ruse but allows Nanu to believe he must go with him anyway. Gazenga studied abroad himself and thinks it’s time for his godson to broaden his horizons.

Back home, Archer and Milo first have to figure out how to move Nanu and his pet tiger, Harri, into their no-pets-allowed boarding house under the nose of their landlady, Mrs. Peterson (TV legend Nancy Walker, who surprisingly did not appear in any Disney features after this one). Fortunately, Mrs. Peterson’s eyesight is so bad that simply dressing Harri in a trenchcoat and a hat is enough to persuade her that he’s just another student.

Next, Archer sets Nanu up with a tutor, comely coed Jane (see what they did there?). Model Dayle Haddon makes her film debut as Jane. When The World’s Greatest Athlete was in theatres, Haddon was also on newsstands on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. Later that same year, she posed nude for Playboy, all of which may have something to do with why Haddon didn’t make any more movies at Disney. She hasn’t acted recently, today focusing on philanthropic causes like UNICEF and her own organization, WomenOne. She seems pretty awesome.

Nanu’s burgeoning relationship with Jane catches the jealous eye of the dean’s weaselly son, Leopold (Danny Goldman, whom you may recognize as the weaselly medical student who needles Gene Wilder about his grandfather’s experiments in Young Frankenstein and later went on to become the voice of Brainy Smurf). Leopold vows to get rid of his rival and arranges for Dr. Gazenga to deliver a guest lecture at the college.

Gazenga arrives, acting more like he’s workshopping material for a gig in the Catskills than a visiting scholar. (A typical exchange goes something like this: “We don’t have as many doctors in Africa as we would like but we are currently building new facilities to attract more.” “Oh, more hospitals?” “No, more golf courses.” Gazenga, ladies and germs! He’ll be here all week!) Leopold corners the witch doctor and expresses his concern that Archer and his publicity machine are having a bad influence on poor Nanu.

After temporarily shrinking Milo down to three inches in a hotel bar for reasons so contrived I can barely remember why it happened, Gazenga finally tracks down Nanu and exposes Archer’s lie. Nanu is so disillusioned that he’s ready to walk away from the NCAA Track & Field Championship, where he’s poised to make history competing in every event. But after Archer gives him a pep talk comparing him to Jim Thorpe (someone Nanu definitely has never heard of), Nanu agrees to give it the old college try.

Nanu immediately wins his first few events, with Jane and Harri (in his person disguise) cheering him on from the stands (and Disney regular Vito Scotti throwing popcorn all over the place behind them). But Leopold convinces Gazenga that Nanu must lose if he ever wants him to set foot in Africa again. So Gazenga uses his occult powers to throw some bad juju at Nanu, who begins losing spectacularly.

Archer and Milo realize who must be behind all this and begin searching the grandstand for Gazenga. They’re unable to track him down and things look grim until Milo remembers he’s carrying a voodoo doll Nanu made earlier. Sticking a feather in it to turn it into a mini-Gazenga, they turn the tables on the witch doctor. Free of the curse, Nanu wins the final race, then keeps going to re-do all the other events one right after the other. Nobody is more impressed than the announcers in the booth, Howard Cosell (giving one of the funniest performances in the film as himself) and Buzzer Kozak (played by Joe Kapp, who was a real-life pro football player but evidently not famous enough to play himself).

Nanu and, by association, Coach Archer appear to be set for life. But Nanu doesn’t get what the big deal is. He’s had a taste of fame and found the whole thing hollow and meaningless. He gives Archer a call, letting him know he’s decided to return home to Africa. Archer and Milo race to the airport but Nanu’s mind is made up. He, Jane and Harri leave Merrivale for good, while Archer does what he always does in times of stress: grab Milo and board the first plane that’ll take him the farthest possible distance. This time, they end up in China where Archer spots another young man outrunning another wild animal. Here we go again!

On the one hand, I have to admit that I’m relieved that the fact that The World’s Greatest Athlete blithely ignores the racial dynamics of its story isn’t a bigger issue than it is. There’s a time and a place for everything and I recognize that a G-rated Disney comedy probably isn’t the venue for a nuanced look at the history of slavery or the exploitation of college athletes. There is an interesting and funny movie to be made about a Black man who exploits a promising white athlete he discovered in Africa. This is not that movie and that’s OK.

However, the casting of John Amos or Godfrey Cambridge or any African-American actor in the role of Coach Archer does feel like an attempt to kill any conversation about race rather than start one. It’s easy to imagine how badly a movie about a white coach recruiting a Black player from Africa would go. Actually, you don’t even have to imagine it. Just watch the 1994 Kevin Bacon flop The Air Up There from Disney subsidiary Hollywood Pictures (or, better yet, don’t). The World’s Greatest Athlete presumes that making the coach a Black guy makes everything OK. The movie is so naïve about these issues, it’s almost cute.

As I said at the outset, the bigger issue here is the lack of laughs. If one of the funniest performances in a comedy comes from Howard Cosell, you may have a bit of a problem. Incidentally, Cosell is just one of several real-life sportscasters who appear, including Frank Gifford, Jim McKay, Bud Palmer and Olympian Bill Toomey. The announcers all work for UBC, the chimp-run network from The Barefoot Executive. If this movie had taken place at Medfield College, it would have blown the whole shared Disneyverse wide open.

Considering this is a movie about sports, there’s a surprising lack of actual sportsmanship on display. Scheerer relies heavily on montage, which is standard operating procedure for most sports movies. But they’re all very quick and don’t do a great job selling Nanu as the world’s greatest athlete. It’s even worse during the championship sequence when Nanu starts losing. Scheerer obscures everything with optical effects showing the action in the stands, making it difficult to even figure out what’s happening on the field. Robert Stevenson did a much better job staging his slapstick track meet in Blackbeard’s Ghost.

At least Tim Conway scores some laughs with his deadpan physical comedy. But the elaborate setpiece where Milo is shrunk down is strangely not Conway’s funniest scene. The special effects and oversized props are impressive but they literally overshadow Conway’s performance. He’s funnier in quieter scenes, like when he’s slowly submerged in quicksand or flown around the background of a scene thanks to Nanu’s voodoo doll.

Most critics did not have a good time with The World’s Greatest Athlete but audiences sure seemed to. It went on to become one of the most popular movies of 1973 and the Disney studio’s second highest-grossing film of the year. (We’ll get to their biggest hit of ’73 in a few weeks, which means we’ve got a couple of potential duds to get through first, so hang in there.) In 1974, it was re-released as a double feature with last week’s movie, Snowball Express. Somewhat surprisingly, Disney has never attempted to remake it, even during that window in the 90s when they seemed obsessed with redoing their entire live action catalog for TV. Probably just as well. I do think the right filmmaker could make something smart and funny from this material but I have no faith that Disney would allow it to happen.

Most of the folks involved with The World’s Greatest Athlete were one and done with Disney after this. Even longtime stalwarts like producer Bill Walsh were getting close to the end of their Disney careers. The one exception, of course, was Tim Conway. After several years of flops, Conway had finally landed a hit. In 1975, he cemented his star status when he officially joined the cast of The Carol Burnett Show, a series he’d been a popular guest star on since 1967. That same year, he returned to the Disney lot. We’ll see him again soon.

VERDICT: Three or four laughs do not a Disney Plus make. It’s a Disney Minus but at least not for the reasons I feared it would be.

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