In 1981, Burt Reynolds, Farrah Fawcett, Roger Moore, Jamie Farr, Peter Fonda, Terry Bradshaw, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, and Dom Deluise appeared in the star-studded comedy film The Cannonball Run. Other familiar faces featured in that film were those of Jackie Chan, Adrienne Barbeau, country-music star Mel Tillis, Jimmy ‘The Greek Snyder, Blanca Jagger, Valerie Perrine, and Jack Elam.
Hal Needham, a former stuntman who proved through his body of work that he had a strong affinity for making movies where fast cars fly through the air, directed the feature.
What a cornucopia of celebrities! With a cast list like that, there was a high risk of everything spiraling into chaos. There were far too many personalities and egos in the mix. Could they even follow a script? Wait, was there even a script to follow? If the film flopped, it would have been disastrous for pretty much everyone involved.
It’s worth remembering that at the time of The Cannonball Runs release, Burt Reynolds and Farrah Fawcett were at the peak of their careers. Burt was pretty much the coolest guy in Hollywood. He was a devilishly good-looking leading man with charisma and a very healthy-looking mustache. Everything that he touched, be it comedies or dramas, seemed to turn to gold.
Farrah Fawcett, on the other hand, was the 70s swimsuit poster model with hair that every woman in America was envious of.
Even if Terry Bradshaw couldn’t act, it was clear that Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr weren’t going to take this project seriously. Peter Fonda was probably going to be weird and Roger Moore likely wasn’t going to be all that funny to Americans. Dom DeLuise would intentionally ruin takes just to draw a laugh from Reynolds, and surprisingly none of that turned out to be that big of a problem.
The Cannonball Run turned out to be an incredibly fun film that still holds up today. Or at least, it holds up today assuming that you enjoy movies like The Cannonball Run. It certainly isn’t a cerebral film or one that deserves to be nominated for any prestigious awards, but audiences seemed to love it. The same, however, can’t be said for the critics.
Critics Despised Cannonball Run
Roger Ebert had a few scathing words to say about the cast of The Cannonball Run. He likened it to a cattle call, an Actor’s Guild picket line, and Hollywood Squares on Wheels. While he acknowledged that some of the actors in the film were talented, he was quick to note that many of them were not. And that regardless, they all looked in his opinion equally awful in the movie. Ebert ended up giving the film one-half star out of four.
Critic Vincent Canby of The New York Times warned his readers to not bother seeing it unless they were already a fan of the genre. And Gene Siskel simply called The Cannonball Run ‘stupid’.
But despite the almost universal scorn of critics everywhere, audiences weren’t discouraged in the least bit. Globally, The Cannonball Run grossed over $100 million. Not a bad return for a movie that cost less than $20 million to produce. It actually was the sixth highest-grossing film of 1981.
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And don’t go anywhere just yet. Stay tuned to find out about the horrific tragedy that happened on the set of The Cannonball Run that left a stunt double paralyzed for life.
There Actually Was A Cannonball Run
The plot of The Cannonball Run was loosely based on the ‘Cannonball Baker Sea To Shining Sea Memorial Trophy Dash’ – an actual coast-to-coast race that was held not once, but five times, in the 70s. Brock Yates, the executive editor over at Car & Driver magazine, came up with the idea, and the first race was organized in 1971.
The original run was from the Red Ball Garage on 31st Street in New York City and ended at the Portofino Inn in Redondo Beach 2,811 miles away in Los Angeles. The only rules were that all competitors could drive any vehicle they wanted on any route at any speed they deemed practical as long as they started at point A and ended at the pointed B. The participant that made it to the destination in the lowest elapsed time was crowned the winner.
The first race technically was held in 1971, but there was only one team in the race – Yates’ team. So maybe it’s more accurate to call the event an exhibition instead of a race.
The event was held another four times. The last race in April 1979 established the record time for the run at 32 hours and 51 minutes. That record still stands seeing as how there hasn’t been another official Cannonball Run in the four decades since.
Not only did Yates invent the race, but he also wrote the screenplay for The Cannonball Run film.
It Made Reynolds The Highest-Paid Actor In Hollywood’s
Burt Reynolds worked for a total of one month while filming The Cannonball Run. He walked away from that project with a cool $5 million in his pocket after all was said and done.
One month doesn’t seem like a very long time to film a movie, but in fact, most of the rest of the cast only participated for a couple of days. Starring in The Cannonball Run made Burt Reynolds officially the highest-earning Hollywood movie star.
Burt And Dom’s Shenanigans
Burt Reynolds played the character J.J. McClure who along with his partner, Victor Prinzi, played by Dom DeLuise, drove a tricked-out Dodge ambulance in the Cannonball Run race. Throughout the film, those two also provided much of the movie’s comic relief.
Having starred in 60s TV dramas like Gunsmoke, Riverboat, and Hawk, Reynolds had firmly established himself as the macho type. After his career really started to take off, he was cast in several films including 1966s Navajo Joe, 1969s 100 Rifles, and 1969s Sam Whiskey. His breakout role, however, was when he was chosen to play Lewis Medlock in the rural nightmare flick Deliverance in 1972.
Reynolds’s comedic talent wasn’t discovered until the mid-1970s when he started appearing in comedies like 1977s Smokey and The Bandit which incidentally was also directed by Hal Needham.
Dom DeLuise teamed up with Reynolds once again in 1980s Smokey and the Bandit II.
Dom DeLuise Also played Captain Chaos
Being the naturally gifted comic that he was, DeLuise had the uncanny ability to turn almost any line into a punchline. In The Cannonball Run, DeLuise played Victor Prinzi and his masked alter-ego, Captain Chaos.
Captain Chaos was a deranged, wannabe superhero, who was obviously just Prinzi in a mask and cape. He would show up out of nowhere to save the day but most of the time he actually just made things worse. Victor was very meek and self-defeating while Captain Chaos was pretty much the polar opposite of that character.
Roger Moore As Seymour Goldfarb
Roger Moore was selected to play Seymour Goldfarb Jr in The Cannonball Run. Humorously, Moore’s Goldfarb constantly referred to himself as actor Roger Moore, because after all, he looks just like him.
Goldfarb’s car had a UK license plate number as 6633 PP, exactly the same one displayed on the Bond vehicles in 007 films Goldfinger and Thunderball. The only time Moore’s character is ever referred to as Seymour in the movie is by his mother played by Milly Picone.
Since James Bond had already developed quite a large following by the time Cannonball Run was released in 1981, Moore delivered a pretty believable performance. In fact, the whimsical race movie that was torn apart by critics ended up doing better at the box office than Moore’s 1981 Bond film, For Your Eyes Only.
After learning that Frank Sinatra had agreed to appear in The Cannonball Run II, Roger Moore reportedly regretted his decision to not reprise his role for the sequel.
Farrah Fawcett Stole The Show
Farrah Fawcett played a photographer-environmentalist named Pamela Glover in The Cannonball Run. J.J. Refers to her as ‘Beauty’ in the movie and that moniker seemed to fit her well. Fawcett had previously found success as a model and television actress. She was most famous for her roles on Charlie’s Angels and The Six Million Dollar Man.
Pamela started off as the partner of Mr. Foyt, a man intent on shutting down the race, but by the end of the film, she had fallen for J.J. Fawcett wasn’t known for being the brightest lightbulb in the box, and despite the film’s success, she was nominated for a Razzie Award for Worst Supporting Actress.
The Film’s Production Wasn’t Always That Fun
On June 25, 1980, a 24-year-old stunt double named Heidi Von Beltz was seriously injured in an onset accident when one of her stunts went terribly awry. To make matters worse, Heidi was standing in for the intended stuntwoman who was called away on a family emergency.
The stunt was supposed to be a fairly simple one, but unfortunately, the vehicle that she was riding in was mechanically unsound and lacked seatbelts. Heid ended up breaking her neck in the accident which left her as a quadriplegic.
Interestingly, Heidi shares a birthday with Christopher Reeve who was also a quadriplegic. After she was injured, Heidi’s career pretty much ended. Her doctors only gave her a few months to live, but she was determined to prove them wrong. And that she did. She passed away on October 28, 2015, in Tarzana, California – more than 30 years after her tragic accident.
Warner Brothers has since acquired the rights to The Cannonball Run – and for years there have been rumors about a remake being on the horizon. Of course, many of the details of this tentative project are still very much so up in the air, but one thing we do know is that there will never be another cast that compares to the collection of talent featured in the original Cannonball Run.
But do you think a modern remake of The Cannonball Run would even appeal to today’s audience, or do you think they should stick to creating original material instead of regurgitating old ideas from decades ago? Let us know in the comments section below.
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