“I think Gary Busey tried as hard as he could. But realistically, ah, it just didn’t look like coach Bryant.” – Gene Stallings
TUSCALOOSA, Alabama — Critics panned it. Box office numbers were poor. Though Bear Bryant retired as the all-time wins leader in college football, the first movie about his life was a dud.
Now, 30 years later, almost no record of it exists.
Released in the fall of 1984, “The Bear” was poorly received. Legendary Sports Illustrated writer Frank DeFord said the script had “no structure, no story; instead of scenes, a series of disconnected, random vignettes has been strung together.”
The film was also barely seen. Starring Gary Busey as Bryant, ticket sales ranked No. 132 out of 168 domestic films released that year. It made $2.6 million at the box office with a reported budget of $8 million.
Not surprisingly, “The Bear” remains the only attempt at producing a biopic from his time at Alabama. The 2002 TV movie “Junction Boys” (ESPN) primarily focused on his time at Texas A&M and Tom Berenger played Bryant.
Still, “The Bear” lives on as a bit of a cult classic among Tide fans. One of Bryant’s last Alabama signees, Kevin Welniak, owns the rights to DVD sales. A medical salesman in Tampa, Welniak said he sells a few hundred copies a year, mostly at Christmas. ($29.99 on TheBearDVD.com.)”It’s certainly not ‘Gone with the Wind,’ but it’s not a total disaster, either,” Welniak says, “I keep going back to the word nostalgic. It’s very nostalgic, much more now than when it was made.”
Original copies of the film were lost, but Welniak was able to dub a copy from a copy after making the DVD deal with the wife of the film’s producer, James Hearns.
Issues plagued the film from the beginning when the Bryant family objected to its production, though the coach reportedly approved the script before his death. It was denied approval to film in Tuscaloosa, so the film, directed by Richard Sarafian, was shot mostly in Georgia, most at Agnes Scott College, a women’s school in Decatur, Ga.
Tommy Brooker, a former Bryant player who was another technical advisor on the film, remembers sneaking the crew onto the Alabama campus on a foggy day. They shot footage of Denny Chimes and the president’s mansion. Historical game footage was interspersed with simulated action filmed footage.
For scenes of the 1982 Liberty Bowl, Eric Hipple, a quarterback for nine NFL seasons with the Lions, played the part of Illinois’ Tony Eason. Wes Neighbors played the role of his father Billy Neighbors. Brooker remembers the younger Neighbors accidently breaking the ankle of a stunt man playing Bryant’s role.
Though he had been an Academy Award nominee, Busey was not a popular pick to play the legendary coach. He even received death threats when attempting to film scenes in Alabama on the one-year anniversary of Bryant’s death.
Gene Stallings, a player and coach under Bryant (who later won the 1992 national title at Alabama), was a technical advisor for the film. He spent a week working on the Texas A&M portion of the story and enjoyed his time with Busey. “I don’t think anybody could play coach Bryant very well,” Stallings says. “I think Gary Busey tried as hard as he could. But realistically, ah, it just didn’t look like coach Bryant.”
Busey later even apologized to the people of Alabama for his role in the movie. “I was in over my head,” Busey said in a 1992 Associated Press story. “I’d like to make amends for the failure of the film to be what coach Bryant was in real life. I wasn’t able to surrender to the role. I was very much afraid of the responsibility that came with playing a man like Bear Bryant. I was worried about what the people of Alabama would think.”
Brooker says Busey was solid in the role, but other actors may have been more accepted. “But John Wayne wasn’t available,” he said. “The guy who played in ‘Gun Smoke’ (James Arness), he might could have looked more like him, but Gary Busey picked up on his characteristics, his walk, his gait.”
A 1982 Birmingham Post-Herald readers’ poll tabbed George C. Scott as the top choice to play Bryant, followed by Burt Lancaster and Arness. Stallings said Wayne was the only one capable of the role.
Stallings, who was portrayed Michael McGrady (CSI-Miami, Prison Break, 24), wasn’t surprised when it turned into a box office flop. “I was disappointed by that, but you know,” Stallings said, “it wasn’t all that good a movie.”
It may not have help with fans that there were also a few curious errors in the final cut. Among them: a scene portraying a game coached by Bryant while he was at Texas A&M tenure (1954-57) played on the Astroturf, which was invented in 1965.
All that aside, Brooker still takes pride in their contribution to the film. He liked it better than “Junction Boys,” which he said portrayed Bryant as cruel.
Welniak, too is proud to be associated with the film. “You’d be surprised,” he said. “We advertise in (BAMA magazine) and around Christmas time and during the season, we get a lot of orders. Most who order it are my age or older, 45 or older. Not that anybody’s forgotten coach Bryant, but he doesn’t cast the shadow he used to have now that [Nick] Saban’s there.”
“If someone in Los Angeles asks you and you say 'I played at Alabama,' everyone knows what that means. If you had to say 'I played at Auburn,' that would be about like saying 'I played at Rutgers.' People aren't even sure where it is.”