Monday, April 24, 2017

Buried Treasures: Fast Break (1979)

John Travolta, Gabe Kaplan
With the premiere of the sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter on ABC-TV in the fall of 1975, comedian Gabriel “Gabe” Kaplan became a television star, effectively drawing from elements of his stand-up act (he did routines about his childhood days in Brooklyn, many of which were featured on Kaplan’s album Holes and Mello-Rolls) in a series about a former remedial high school student who returns to his alma mater…this time as a teacher, instructing the same kind of kids in the gang (the “Sweathogs”) of which he was a founding member.  Kotter would last four seasons on the network (the first two as a Top Twenty favorite), and it continues to collect retirement checks at its new address, The Old Syndication Home (while also enjoying success on DVD).

The breakout star of the series, however, was not Kaplan—it was a young actor named John Travolta (who played Vinnie Barbarino, the leader of the Sweathogs), who parlayed his small screen success into motion pictures like Carrie (1976), Saturday Night Fever (1977), and Grease (1978).  Travolta was such a hot property that by the show’s fourth season he was only making sporadic appearances (billed as a “special guest star”).  Gabe Kaplan also turned up MIA in the last season of the show that made him a star, though this was due to his contract dispute with executive producer James Komack…but upon the show’s cancellation, Kaplan decided to see if he could achieve the same kind of motion picture stardom as co-star Travolta with the comedy-drama Fast Break (1979).

In a nutshell, Fast Break is pretty much “Mr. Kotter Goes to College.”   Which is interesting when you consider that Kaplan proposed revamping Welcome Back. Kotter’s premise in later seasons by allowing the Kotter character to teach at a community college, where he would once again encounter his “Sweathogs.”  (Kaplan believed the decline in the series’ ratings had a lot to do with the ages of the actors playing the “Sweathogs”—he didn’t think men in their mid-to-late twenties were believable playing high school students.)  Gabe plays David Greene, an ex-junior high school basketball coach who’s having to manage a New York City delicatessen to make the rent…but he keeps his hand in the sport by playing in neighborhood pick-up games, and mailing out resumes to colleges in the hopes of obtaining a coaching position.

The only nibble he gets on the job front is from Cadwallader University, a Nevada institution of higher learning whose president, Alton Gutkas (John Chappell), is interested because Greene stated in his letter he’s willing to coach for nothing.  If David can put together a team that will beat Cadwallader’s rival, Nevada State (a team that’s no slouch on the courts), Gutkas will give him a guaranteed three-year contract at $30,000 per (that’s a little over $105,000 today).  In the meantime, Greene will have to settle for room and board…plus sixty bucks for every game he wins.  David is so determined to pursue his basketball dreams that he accepts the job…but his wife Jan (Randee Heller) says “Pasadena,” electing to stay in The Big Apple.

Greene is only able to assemble four starters for his “dream team”—pool shark Leroy “Hustler” Monroe (Bernard King), con man evangelist Tommy “Preacher” White (Michael Warren), ex-high-school-player-turned-felon D.C. Davey (Harold Sylvester), and Roberta “Swish” James…who is persuaded by David to masquerade as “Bobby James,” because female.  (Okay, before calls of “spoiler warning” start to permeate the blogosphere, let me say that this plot point is telegraphed in the freaking poster for the movie.)  Greene will find his fifth man in Bull (Reb Brown), an ambitious athlete more suited for the football team—he’s designated as C.U.’s center.  The New York talent allows Cadwallader to move swiftly up through the college basketball ranks, easily beating their opponents—but it will take Hustler’s talent with a pool cue to set up that crucial Nevada State game when he successfully hustles the team’s coach (Bert Remsen).

Fast Break is formulaic filmmaking (directed by Jack Smight, who helmed TDOY faves like Harper and No Way to Treat a Lady), a root-for-the-underdog movie where everything is a prelude right up to The Big Game.  That doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable, of course, there are amusing situations, including a getting-rid-of-marijuana-in-the-car scene that appears to have been cribbed from a Cheech and Chong vehicle (“One pound!”).  (The sequence that really made me smile is a conversation between Kaplan’s Greene and his student assistant [played by Richard Brestoff] in which the assistant has carried out Greene’s request to put Nevada State’s coach under surveillance a little too enthusiastically [he would have been a natural for the Nixon administration].)

I remember Brestoff as “Yeoman Hunkle” on the short-lived sitcom Operation Petticoat (he was one of the few characters to survive the massive cast shake-up ABC enacted in the show’s abbreviated second season), and I think this might be one of the reasons why Fast Break was a lot of fun for me—there are so many familiar TV faces dotting the cast.  Aside from Kaplan, the most recognizable thespian is Michael Warren (Officer Bobby Hill on Hill Street Blues), who brings some hoops bona fides to his role as Preacher (Warren played basketball at UCLA during the time they won NCAA championships in the years 1966-68).  Character great K Callan has a small but funny role as a teacher whom Greene tries to seduce to keep her from flunking D.C.; the actress is perhaps best remembered as Clark Kent’s ma on Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman but she’s had roles on scads of series (Joe’s World, Coach, How I Met Your Mother, etc.), as has Randee Heller (I think her role on Soap coincided with the release of Fast Break, but she’s also appeared on Husbands, Wives & Lovers, Mama Malone, Second Chance, etc.).

Rhonda Bates, John Chappell
I’ve seen the late John Chappell in a lot of roles (he was “Buddy Dornster” on The New WKRP in Cincinnati) …but the one I always remember best (I’m probably the only one) is “Mike D’Angelo,” the deceptively cheerful hospital administrator who made life challenging for the unfortunate M*A*S*H characters (Potter, Klinger, Father Mulcahy) who transferred to the universally reviled After M*A*S*H.   His Gutkas is married to a character played by Rhonda Bates in Fast Break—Bates playing a similar statuesque Amazon in the Don Rickles sitcom C.P.O. Sharkey.  Bates’ role in Fast Break is kind of puny, but then again most of the female parts are underwritten, particularly Heller’s; Randee is unfortunately saddled with the Marcia Strassman duties in this film (the actress showed no restraint in later interviews about how miserable her Kotter experiences were...her incredibly shrinking part on the series being just the tip of the iceberg).

If you go into Fast Break knowing there’ll be no surprises, I think you’ll get a kick out of this one despite its unevenness (it veers back-and-forth from comedy to drama and the transitions aren’t as smooth as they could be); I had never seen the movie until I downloaded it during our Epic (Vault) on Demand freeview.  It’s safe to say it represents Gabe Kaplan’s best silver screen work; his follow-ups were disappointing (I remember the terrible Nobody’s Perfekt, a 1981 release that seemed to be the only movie showing on HBO during my high school days), and after taking a stab at another sitcom in Lewis & Clark (1981-82), Kaplan eventually got into other lines of work including financial investments and poker playing (he’s a co-host/commentator for GSN’s High Stakes Poker).  Truth be told, I always thought Kaplan was a better stand-up comedian than actor but Fast Break provided a nice nostalgic wallow into the career of a performer who introduced “Up your nose with a rubber hose” into the American lexicon.


Hal Horn said...

Always enjoyed this crowd pleaser, one of the first Horn Section reviews many years ago. Pretty much rips off the template from THE BAD NEWS BEARS, but it's always enjoyable spending time with Gabe, and as you mention there's a lot of basketball bona fides on that court. In addition to Warren, Bernard King was one of the top pros of the day and Mavis Washington was a collegiate star in both basketball and volleyball (University of California at Riverside). Netflix had it for a long time, but I still don't think it is out on DVD.

hobbyfan said...

Hal beat me to the punch in re.: Bernard King. Harold Sylvester was a reliable character actor as well back in the day. Too many credits to even think of right now.