When news spread about the passing of Robin Williams on Monday in northern California people of all ages shared memories about what the actor and comedian meant to them over the years.
But the first time I remember seeing Williams in a movie was when he played Jack Dundee in The Best of Times (1986). Dundee, a mediocre wide receiver at Midway Union High School in Taft, California dropped the game-winning touchdown pass in the final seconds of a rivalry game in 1972. After 13 years of living in agony as a banker in his blue-collar town, Dundee gets one more shot at hated rival Bakersfield High School.
The narration by Williams in the opening moments of the film is a bit bittersweet, considering what took place Monday, as he talks about a town persevering through tough times with a trademark humor thats all his own as black and white footage sets the stage.
While Dundee is the only person seemingly haunted over the outcome of the game, the rematch becomes important enough to the town that even disgraced local boxer Kid Lester comes home to witness one final shot at redemption in the twilight of his years.
And that’s really what the film is all about. Making up for lost time and the mistakes that we make along life’s journey. Williams is still early in his movie career at this point, so the nerd-with-glasses thing easily transitions from his television and stand-up routines to this film.
Kirk Russell plays Reno Hightower, the popular high school quarterback (in the vein of Joe Namath) at peace with his football mortality while running an auto shop in his hometown.
At one point Dundee and Hightower attempt to reconcile with their wives over dinner before things go wrong when they’re caught sneaking a peak at a Monday Night Football game between “the winless” Atlanta Falcons and Minnesota Vikings.
Turns out that although neither team was winless at the time they played in 1985, they did meet that season Sunday, December 15 in what was a 14-13 win for Atlanta. The Falcons finished 4-12 and the Vikings went 7-9 that year. The film was released the very next month.
The underdog story plays out with the Taft Rockets trailing the Bakersfield Tigers 26-0 at halftime when a thunderstorm approaches and a series of locker room conflicts alter the course of the game. As you might expect, Williams’ character comes up with a huge play down the stretch, making all things right in the land of Taft.
It’s nice to remember Robin Williams in this way.
Of note: Oldies music carries the film well throughout, avoiding the cheesy aspects of the era. A young Kirk Cameron and Tracey Gold of Growing Pains fame make brief appearances.