When A COACH AT HEART was taking shape I could detect certain patterns developing that caught my attention. When lead character George Steele found himself in the middle of some of the critical games of the old Pacific-8, key Rose Bowls and some other major events in and out of football, I pictured Cmdr./Capt./Adm. Victor “Pug” Henry, the fictional primary character of “The Winds of War.” It should be noted that Herman Wouk’s masterpiece is one of my favorite novels.
Henry found himself on the periphery of some of the momentous events of World War II. In “Winds” and its sequel, “War and Remembrance,” Wouk found a way to get Pug from Berlin at the start of the conflict to London during the Blitz — there’s a football term for you — to Moscow, Midway, the Solomon Islands and Leyte Gulf without it seeming contrived.
That became my challenge. Once I recognized the connection, my job was to get Steele from place to place, event to event, without it appearing forced. I think I was relatively successful, although I had to do a little more juggling than I would have preferred. The big difference between the characters, as things ended up, is that while Victor Henry managed to be near all these world-changing events without actually taking part in them, George Steele was all-in when it comes to football. You’ll feel the ball slipping off George’s fingers, his unrequited love of the end zone and the motivation of his players in a pregame locker room.
On the other hand, there was no questioning Pug’s core competency. Self-doubt was at the core of the man of Steele. Kind of similar characters, but not exact matches. As it should be.
“Forrest Gump” is a story I also thought about as I wrote, and the one most often mentioned to me by readers. The intellectually limited Gump somehow ended up involved in so many key cultural moments of the 1960s. And, at least in the movie version that everyone is familiar with, it’s gloriously contrived! The contrivance is celebrated. I didn’t want to go that far, but it’s part of what makes Forrest’s story so fun.
Sometimes, the inspirations come retroactively. Here’s an admission from the author: perhaps my favorite movie, ever since I was a kid, was the original “Airport,” the oft-spoofed film based on the Arthur Hailey novel and starring Burt Lancaster and Dean Martin. The movie, a melodrama of a bygone era, can be difficult for modern viewers to appreciate because they’ve already seen the parodies, like the deliciously hilarious “Airplane,” heard about the truly awful sequels, and suffered through all the movie cliches it spawned. Serious-minded critics can’t stand the film, of course, but movie fan posts are favorable. For all it’s faults, it’s an entertaining way to spend a couple hours.
Despite what the critics say, Airport garnered 10 Oscar nominations and one victory, Best Supporting Actress for Helen Hayes. Maureen Stapleton also won raves for her portrayal of the distraught wife of a suicidal passenger. Like A Coach at Heart, it blends the thrills, chills and emotional roller-coaster rides with plenty of dashes of humor, and makes the minor characters count.My dad later became friends with Hailey, but I never met the prolific and successful author. The interesting thing is that while I loved the movie version of Airport, I thought the novel was mediocre. Hailey seemed to go one step too far with each character. It’s one of those rare occasions when the film ended up being better than the book.One thing for sure, a creative work that leads to spoofs and cliches is by its very nature successful. Maybe one day we’ll see send-ups of A Coach at Heart!