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August has found endless success in surfing industry

February 05, 2007|Jerry Crowe | Times Staff Writer

It was early 1964 and Robert August had just returned to Southern California after happily circumnavigating the globe on someone else's dime.

Recently graduated from Huntington Beach High and the 18-year-old co-star of the landmark 1960s surf film, "The Endless Summer," August was stoked and soaked after the surf trip of a lifetime: more than three months of searching for the perfect wave with filmmaker Bruce Brown and co-star Michael Hynson of San Diego.

The Beach Boys were all over the radio, the movie "Gidget" was being turned into a weekly television series and August had trekked, free of charge, to surf spots in Australia, Africa, New Zealand and Hawaii, among other exotic locales.

Surely he must have known the sport was about to explode.

"Not at all," August says from his shop in Huntington Beach, where the 61-year-old grandfather estimates that he has personally shaped more than 30,000 surfboards over the last 40 years. "Back then, there weren't even any reasonable jobs in the industry. I never thought I'd end up in this business, making it my life's work."

For one thing, August's pay for starring in "The Endless Summer," which opened in wide release in July 1966 and helped launch surfing into a multibillion-dollar industry, was no pay at all, other than the epic trip itself.

So August -- born in Hermosa Beach, reared in Seal Beach and introduced to surfing at a young age by his father, Blackie, a widely known lifeguard, surfer and party host -- was still planning to pursue his dream of becoming a dentist.

That is, until he consulted his dentist, who also was a surfer.

"He didn't paint a real rosy picture of being a dentist," August says. "You look at the X-ray, you dig out the hole where the cavity is, you fill it up, let it dry, sand it and polish it. He said it was pretty much like patching a ding on a surfboard."

August dropped out of Long Beach State and never looked back, turning his attention once again to the one thing he knew best: surfing.

"It's been my life, more or less," says August, who'd turned his back on dentistry before "The Endless Summer" hit big and whose signature boards and surf apparel are sold worldwide. "I've never made a lot of money doing this. My son jokes, 'If you would have been a dentist, we wouldn't be so poor.'

"But it's a great atmosphere. I still surf. I still enjoy it. I don't know why. I've ridden probably 100,000 waves, but I'm still excited when it's a nice day and the waves are 5 foot. I can't wait to get out there. It's a great sport."

August took to it early.

"I started surfing when I was a little kid," he says. "I lived right on the beach in Seal Beach. I surfed every day of my life, so when I was 13, I was really good at it, just from repetition."

By the time he was 18 and graduated from high school, where he had participated in basketball and track and was student body president, August had already appeared in several of Brown's films, which mostly were shown in high school and civic auditoriums up and down the coast, with Brown providing live narration.

August jumped at the chance to co-star in "The Endless Summer," which promised its participants an unforgettable adventure if not fame and fortune.

"Bruce's surf movies were pretty much better than anybody else's, and just the scope of it -- going all around the world -- I was sure it was going to be the best surf movie ever made," he says. "But never in our wildest dreams did we imagine it would show in every theater in the world. It was a surprise for everybody."

August claims not to be upset that he never made a cent from the film, which was a global hit and earned Brown critical acclaim as "the Bergman of the boards" and "the Fellini of the foam," or that he was paid only $5,000 to appear in the 1994 sequel, "The Endless Summer II."

"I don't even think about that," he says. "I don't look back. It was good for me, the exposure was good. I'm a recognizable person, so I'm sure that's good for my business. I don't dwell on the past.

"A lot of people have said, 'Man, you got ripped off.' 'Aren't you getting royalties?' 'How about all the videos that are being sold?' I'm not worried about that."

In fact, though August and Hynson did not stay in touch, August and Brown have remained close friends. The filmmaker, 69 and living on a 40-acre ranch north of Santa Barbara, is scheduled to join August next week on a surf trip to Costa Rica, where August owns a vacation home, spends up to six months a year and plays host to charitable golf-and-surf events to benefit local orphanages, grammar schools and lifeguards.

August's 39-year-old son, Sam, a former minor league pitcher in the Houston Astros organization, runs the business these days.

The 6-foot, 165-pound August -- he weighs the same today as he did when he was 18 -- says surfing has kept him in shape and afforded him a great life.

Of the small role he may have played in the surfing boom, he says, "If it was somebody else in the film instead of me, it would have been a success anyway. But it was great to be a part of that. It wasn't like I was in a murder Mafia movie or something like that. It was a real happy, family affair, G-rated.

"How great is that?"

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