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Last week, legendary NFL linebacker Dick Butkus passed away. I have fond memories of Butkus from my youth, but perhaps weirdly (and to some even blasphemously), I neither knew nor cared much about this football career. In my defense (which I think is a good one), I was only one or two years old when Butkus retired from the sport.
My father’s generation, of course, remembers Butkus as an absolute barbarian on the football field — a player of whom defensive end Deacon Jones once said, “every time he hit you, he tried to put you in the cemetery, not the hospital.” But to many of us children of the 1980s, Butkus was a good-natured entertainer, with a funny name, whose appeal came largely from not taking himself too seriously. That’s the Dick Butkus I’m going to write about this week.
After retiring from the sport, the Hall of Famer widely recognized as the most feared tackler of all time parlayed his football stature and persona into a successful acting career that further established him as a pop-culture icon. Butkus appeared in a number of feature films in the 70s, but found more visible success as a television performer, including as an ad-man. He was often partnered with fellow football-player-turned-actor Bubba Smith, and the two hulkish figures had unmistakable comedic chemistry.
Some of you may remember the Miller Lite commercials they starred in. The ads ran for years and were hugely popular. They drew living-room smiles whenever they came on, even from those who’d already seen them a dozen times. My classmates and I would talk about the latest ones, and I even remember some of our teachers doing a Butkus/Smith spoof during a school assembly.
The partnership was so well regarded, in fact, that the two were cast on the 1984 ABC action-drama television series, Blue Thunder. It was a television adaptation of the film starring Roy Scheider, centered around a futuristic police helicopter.
Blue Thunder felt like it had all the makings of a super-successful mid-80s cop-show, including an irreverent protagonist (James Farentino), a wise-cracking sidekick (Dana Carvey before his SNL days), a high-tech vehicle, tons of fire-power and explosions, and of course big, tough guys (Butkus and Smith) who knew how to kick a whole lotta ass.
As Sean Coleman Thriller readers could have probably guessed, I watched the show and remember it quite well. But just between you and me, it wasn’t especially good, and couldn’t hold a candle to another series about a futuristic helicopter that premiered on CBS just two weeks later: Airwolf. Lots of viewers agreed. While Airwolf ran for four seasons, Blue Thunder only lasted only 11 episodes.
Butkus moved on to other series after that, including My Two Dads and MacGyver. He also showed up in a few more movies and television one-offs, where he continued to take on the self-satirizing tough-guy role his fans loved… like in this particularly memorable scene from 1991’s Necessary Roughness:
Butkus may have scared the crap out of his opponents on the field, but as an entertainer he was extremely hard not to like. My age and passive interest in football may have kept me from properly admiring his gifts as an athlete, but the smiles and laughs he drew from me over the years were genuine and very much appreciated.
Rest in peace, Mr. Butkus.
Have a favorte football-player-turned-actor? Tell me who in an email or in the comment section below.
Between how hard it was to get tickets, and another trip to the emergency room (and even a health scare with one of our dogs) on the day of the show, I had to wonder if a higher power really didn’t want me to see Tool again. But it panned out with some much appreciated help from my wife, and the concert in Loveland last Tuesday was fantastic.
The band has a very strict policy about no photos or videos during their shows, but they’ve been known on occasion to lift the ban for their very last song of the night. Fortunately, that was the case last week. So, enjoy some sights and sounds on me.
Obligatory Dog Shot
Waiting on her tea.
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