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  • Writer's pictureJeff South

Other Summer Movies of the 80s: The Cannonball Run

Released June 19th, 1981

Burt Reynolds: J.J. McClure

Roger Moore: Seymour

Farrah Fawcett: Pamela

Dom DeLuise: Victor Prinzim

Dean Martin: Jamie Blake

Sammy Davis, Jr.: Fenderbaum

Jack Elam: Dr. Nikolas Van Helsing

Adrienne Barbeau: Marcie

Tara Buckman: Jill

Screenplay by Brock Yates

Directed by Hal Needham

Rated PG

Sandwiched in between the release of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Superman II was the opening weekend of Hal Needham's The Cannonball Run, another of his wacky car chase stunt spectaculars. Raiders is one of the best movies ever made. Superman II is a gold standard in superhero sequels. The Cannonball Run finished fourth in box office for 1981 behind both those movies and Stripes and holds the distinction as the only movie I saw more than once that summer. Three times total. I loved it. LOVED IT. My early film viewing teeth were cut on annual televised airings of the classic It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. I loved that movie, too, for many reasons. It was funny, of course, but it was also a movie that made my dad laugh out loud and that was always nice to witness. The Cannonball Run came the closest to capturing the insanity and spirit of It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

Junior high had ended only a month prior and I was deep into another season of Babe Ruth League baseball. This time around I had to accept something I previously ignored. I had a bit of an anger problem when it came to playing sports, especially for someone who wasn't anywhere near as talented as I aspired to be. I was a below average ball player. A moderate fielder who couldn't hit. I loved the game and believed I was going to play high school ball, but this particular summer forced me to accept the reality of my lacking skill. I didn't handle it well and that combined with lingering eighth grade angst left me in a perpetual state of frustration. A much needed break came from two sources. Repeated viewings of The Cannonball Run and a road trip to Virginia with my oldest brother.

The movie's unashamed goofiness won me over and I loved getting to see a movie in the theater that featured Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr., two performers I admired. I loved Dom DeLuise's performance as Burt Reynolds' sidekick who inexplicably transformed into a superhero(?) named Captain Chaos. This was the most ridiculous and random character trait I'd seen in a movie and I thought it was a glorious choice. I imagined myself playing a character like that. Sure, Burt Reynolds was handsome and charismatic and the biggest damn star in the world, but what Dom DeLuise was doing felt like a calling. It was same feeling I had watching Tim Conway perform. I could do that, I thought to myself. I could play Captain Chaos.

A whole series of blog posts could be written about the drive to Virginia. It was the furthest I'd been from home up to that point and I soaked up seeing new sights. Since these were the days before GPS, we used a road atlas for navigation and memorized obscure town names. I thought a lot about the movies I'd seen while on that trip and about the prospect of playing basketball and baseball in school. I also had a little notebook with me to write stories in, which was something I did far more often than homework in school. Inspired by The Cannonball Run, I wrote a story about a group of kids who competed in a big race like the one in the film only with go-carts. One of the characters pretended to be a superhero because the fine line between homage and plagiarism didn't register in my soon-to-be 14-year old brain.

It occurred to me that storytelling was more enjoyable for me than baseball and basketball and I LOVED baseball and basketball. It didn't seem the cool choice to be someone who wrote stories when all the notoriety was attached to athletes and gifted students. The realization that I was neither of those sunk in on that trip to Virginia, but it would months before it forced to make a difficult decision.

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