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The Stuff of Legends : Playwright-actor's work looks behind what sports fans saw on their screens during the heyday of three football coaching greats.

September 17, 1993|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; T. H. McCulloh writes regularly about theater for The Times

STUDIO CITY — In an age when the personal flaws of media idols are digested each morning along with the public's breakfast muffins, playwright-actor Buddy Farmer ("Johnny Dangerously," "General Hospital") thought it would be interesting to go behind the two-dimensional newsreel images of three sports icons of the past. The result is "Coaches," opening this weekend at Studio City's Company of CharActors.

Subtitled "Off the Bench with Knute, Vince and the Bear," the show looks behind what sports fans saw on their screens during the heyday of football greats Knute Rockne, Vince Lombardi and Paul (Bear) Bryant. What has Farmer found there? More than he bargained for when he began researching the three coaches more than six years ago for what he calls actors' showcase monologues.

It wasn't long before Farmer realized that the three belonged on stage together, and that there was a definite link to bind them.

Said Farmer: "The link is that they were profoundly affected by women, both positively and negatively. There's this old axiom that behind every great man there's a woman. It goes a little further with these guys. Their wives, their sisters, their girlfriends, their mistresses--they all had a big effect on them. The more I researched them, I realized that this was something different than I had wanted to write."

Rockne was a strong family oriented man. His Norwegian parents influenced him, as did his wife, in an almost Utopian marriage, but not as profoundly as his older sister. He even might have feared her, Farmer explains.

Lombardi was a vocal, volatile man, who could frighten a player twice his size. But his wife was just as volatile, and often had the same effect on her husband.

Bryant, for whom Farmer played at the University of Alabama in 1961, was a womanizer. He was deeply in love with his wife, but, Farmer said, he "liked the skirts" and pursued them.

What attracted Farmer was that all three were the best in their field, but came from vastly different beginnings, and they all had a dream that eventually was to take them out of their humble backgrounds. Rockne was a showman, the George M. Cohan of his field, who put a sport that was little known outside the Ivy League on the national map.

Lombardi followed in Rockne's footsteps: He wanted to be as good in the pro game as Rockne had been in the college game. Bryant, who never graduated from high school, feared returning to the poverty he grew up in and dreamed of breaking Amos Alonzo Stagg's record for major college wins.

But it was the personal struggle, and the personal growth of these men, that fascinated Farmer, as it did director Richard Clayman when he decided to guide this production.

Clayman, who next year will be directing his own feature screenplay "Duke" with Peter Onorati and Rob Stone, has been going through some personal growth himself. In 1982, he left a lucrative career in television, lastly as vice president in charge of production for all Embassy/Tandem Television series and pilots, including such shows as "One Day at a Time," "The Jeffersons" and "Different Strokes."

"I decided I didn't want to be an executive," Clayman explains. "The creative impulse was too great. It was difficult to sit in meetings and say things I knew made sense, and everybody looked at me and went, 'What are you doing here?' "

One of the first things he did was enroll in an acting class "to find out what actors did," because he knew the knowledge would be invaluable. "So," Clayman said, "understanding acting, writing, producing, having done all of those things, I put them together to direct. This project fit very well because I did have a sports background as well as the acting-writing-directing background in theater, television and film."

How to approach the three subjects in "Coaches?" For most people they're icons.

"Even the icons who deserve to be carved out of bronze, or gold, are still human beings, still have foibles, still have their moments of weakness and doubt," Clayman said.

"It comes down to whether a person is a decent human being. The public can accept an icon even if he's done something wrong, as long as the motivation is the right motivation. Everybody makes mistakes. All you can do is do your best. And if that's held up as a role model, then you're going to have a healthy group of kids growing up in this society."

Where and When What: "Coaches: Off the Bench with Knute, Vince and the Bear." Location: Company of CharActors, 12655 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. Hours: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 24. Price: $10. Call: (213) 466-1767.

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