Sportsflicks: Gus, The Kicking Ass

A tale of a Yugoslavian mule, a very desperate football team, and romantic love. From Disney, naturally.
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To paraphrase one Professor Lyle Lanley, a mule with a football is like a mule with a spinning wheel. Nobody knows how he got it, and danged if he knows how to use it.

1976's Gus is typical Disney fare for its era, as much as any Disney film about a placekicking mule can be typical. Gary Grimes plays Yugoslavian farmer Andy Petrovic, whose soccer star brother Stepjan gets all his family's love. (Their basketball-loving kid brother, Drazen, oddly receives no screen time at all.) Andy's jealous of Stepjan, but soon the world wiill be jealous of Andy's mule, Gus, who routinely kicks 100-yard field goals when Andy yells "Oyage!"  Who knows what oyage actually means, but I guess it’s Croat for Schieß dem Fenster.

The California Atoms are the worst team in a mid-70's NFL that presumably still contains the expansion Buccaneers.  They are coached by Don Knotts, although miraculously this appears to be the least of their concerns. Owner Hank Cooper (Ed Asner) has built pro football's first entirely spunk-free franchise, and a key backer calls Lou Grant’s bluff that a mule shall lead his team to a winning season, and raises him the Super Bowl. This villain, by the way, is played by the late Howard Gould, best known for playing Rose's boyfriend Miles on The Golden Girls.

Knotts, Asner and Gould are only the beginning of Gus’ cavalcade of Ford Administration Dad-Aged TV Stars. Knotts’ longtime (onscreen) companion Tim Conway is on the other side of the law, with Tom Bosley acting as the Louise to Dorf’s Thelma. Dick Van Patten portrays another unspecified baddie, although time has told us that he has since left the game to focus on creating and marketing his own line of natural pet foods. The late Danny Wells also cameos as a referee; if the name doesn’t sound familiar, picture a lanky dude with green overalls and an “L” on his hat.

Whatever chemistry the Atoms managed as a team is undermined by a love triangle. Thankfully this does not involve the mule, largely because no one has time to explain the reproductive challenges of a horse/donkey hybrid to the audience. Andy is smitten with his Yugoslavian-American handler, Debbie Kovac (Louise “Liberty” Williams), who is already attached to “star” player Rob Cargil (Dick Butkus); if Cargil had the real-life knees of the man who played him, it would do much to explain the Atoms’ on-field problems. Fred Dryer is on the team for some reason; his two safeties in one game for the Rams in 1973 would have placed him second on the Atoms’ all-time points list. Cargil tries to catch the couple canoodling, but winds up pissing off Richard Kiel, who in this universe presumably stopped playing football after being released from jail in 1974. Butkus does manage to hit Andy in the nuts with a football a couple of times, so there’s also that.

For being the crappiest team in pro football (if only because the WFL folded the year before), the California Atoms at least has some respect in the media. How else would you explain Dick Enberg broadcasting their local games, wearing donkey ears at one point? ESPN was at that point still a few years from existence and two decades from becoming a Disney property, or else Enberg would have had to wear the donkey ears at all times. Johnny Unitas cameos as half of the national play-by-play team, joined in the booth by Bob Crane as Pepper Allen.

It’s amazing that Crane, the inspiration for Paul Schrader’s saddest-sex-basements-in-history epic Auto Focus, continued to make Disney films as his personal life spiraled out of control. It’s freakin’ glorious that his final (professional) role would be in a film that also features the talk radio host George Putnam, best known outside of Los Angeles for the 60’s anti-pornography filmstrip Perversion For Profit. The film is most offensive in its inoffensiveness, but it must have made for the most awkward wrap party of all time.

Anyway: Andy’s parents are assholes, plain and simple.  They give all this love to their oldest son, and basically tell Andy he’s useless, that his mule does all the work, et cetera. For most of the movie, Andy has such low self esteem that one worries less about him becoming egotistical than becoming suicidal. He only gains his family’s respect by winning the freakin’ Super Bowl; at least the dad from Rudy was happy with Rudy just making the damn team.

Field goal kickers have long been the butt of football jokes, but the horrendous mistakes they can make often act as their legacy. How else would you explain Garo Yepremian’s blunder during Super Bowl VII, or Rolf Benirschke’s stint hosting Wheel Of Fortune? European kickers have had to put up with a lot of crap since Pete Gogolak become the first pro to kick soccer-style in the 1960’s, and later became a catalyst for the NFL/AFL bidding war and merger which soon followed. Andy and Gus Petrovic didn’t need to know about any of this history. I’m guessing the people behind Gus didn’t need to know much about Yugoslavia at the time, either.

Within twenty years, the world, and especially Eastern Europe was a much different place, and the horrible events occurring in the former Yugoslav republics made setting a Disney movie about a placekicking mule there seem somewhere between inappropriate and inexplicable. This is probably why they went with Tony Danza instead for The Garbage Kicking Field Goal Kicking Philadelphia Phenomenon.

The more I watched Gus, the more I despised it, to the point that, at one point in the writing of this article, I turned it off and instead watched that film where Charlton Heston fights a colony of ants. Gus has it all, and yet it has nothing. If you want to watch a mediocre sports movie with fat cheerleaders and a clueless announcer named Pepper, just watch DodgeBall instead. It’s not good, but it’s a lot better than this.

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Tom Bosley acting as the Louise to Dorf’s Thelma. Dick Van Patten portrays another unspecified baddie, although time has told us that he has since left the game to focus on creating and marketing his own line of natural pet foods.
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