40 Years Ago: ‘Cannonball Run’ Takes Good Times Out for a Spin
Sometimes it's clear that a movie, no matter how good or bad it ends up being, was a pain in the ass to make: Every day on set was agony, no one had any fun and everyone involved was relieved when it was finally in the can. Other times, as with The Cannonball Run, it's obvious that the whole process was fun as hell.
The movie, which premiered on June 19, 1981, was the brainchild of Brock Yates. A lifelong automobile fanatic, Yates began publishing his first articles in magazines like Science and Mechanics when he was in his teens. He would go on to be a pit reporter for events like the Daytona 500 and eventually the executive editor of Car and Driver.
In the spring of 1971, Yates come up with the idea for a race across the continent that he dubbed the Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash. The competition was named after celebrated motorcyclist Erwin "Cannonball" Baker, and called the Cannonball Run for short. It would take place on regular roads, have no rules at all, and be subject to the vagaries of law enforcement.
Yates ended up running the race himself when all the other competitors dropped out, arriving in just under 41 hours. He wrote about the journey in Car and Driver, and the idea caught on. He sponsored another race in November 1971, with actual competitors this time, and then several times more over the decade of the '70s.
Watch the Opening Scene From 'Cannonball Run'
By 1979, famed Hollywood stuntman Hal Needham had gotten involved, running one of the races with Yates in a converted ambulance. Their effort was something of a failure – the transmission gave out 50 miles short of the finish line in Redondo Beach, Calif. – but an idea was born. Why not make a movie out of the event? Yates would write a script and Needham would direct, and it was sure to be a hit.
Needham's story is as interesting as Yates'. As a stuntman, he had first risen to prominence in movie and television Westerns in the '60s. He became highly sought after in Hollywood and had began a long friendship with actor Burt Reynolds, which served as inspiration for Quentin Tarantino's characters of Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth in Once Upon a Time In Hollywood. With Yates' script in hand, Needham was able to convince Reynolds to star in the movie version of The Cannonball Run. From there, other famous actors piled onboard, and the movie was born.
The huge ensemble cast is the highlight of the film. Reynolds plays J.J. McClure, a retired race-car driver. Dom DeLuise plays McClure's mechanic Victor Prinzi, who also has a costumed alter-ego named Captain Chaos that emerges occasionally to perform heroic deeds. They drive a converted ambulance – as Yates and Needham had done – and hire a crazy doctor named Nikolas Van Helsing (Jack Elam) to ride along with them in case they get pulled over. To complete the disguise, they kidnap a female photographer (Farrah Fawcett) to be Van Helsing's fake patient.
The other contestants are equally batty: Roger Moore plays Seymour Goldfarb Jr., heir to a girdle empire, who likes to pretend that he's the famous actor Roger Moore and competes in the race in an Austin Martin. Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin play a pair of drunks who disguise themselves as Catholic priests (as a pair of real contestants had done in one of the early races) and drive a Ferrari. Adrienne Barbeau and Tara Buckman drive a Lamborghini and use their looks to get out of traffic tickets.
Watch the Trailer for 'Cannonball Run'
Elsewhere, Jamie Farr plays a wealthy sheik who races in a Rolls Royce, while Jackie Chan (in his second Hollywood role) and Michael Hui play a pair of Japanese drivers who pilot a high-tech Subaru. Mel Tillis and ex-NFL players Terry Bradshaw and Joe Klecko also have roles, and Peter Fonda shows up as, of course, the head of a motorcycle gang, calling back to his roles in Easy Rider and other biker pictures.
The Cannonball Run might be remembered as an absolute classic, if more could have been done with all this talent. But what plot there is mostly consists of the various characters having run-ins with the law, when they're not smashing cars and trucks through buildings or jumping them over things. The depictions of the sheik and the Asian characters are (as was almost always the case at the time) pure stereotypes played for the laughs of the white audience, and the most that can be said for the dialogue is that it exists.
Despite all of this, though, there is something in The Cannonball Run that captures the freewheeling mood of the moment. The '70s and early '80s produced a large number of movies about the open spaces of America, from attempts at serious fare like Two Lane Blacktop and Scarecrow to comedies like Bustin' Loose and Lost In America. There was a feeling of rootless possibility in the air, like you could just get in your car and go anywhere, do anything.
Sure, sometimes it would be a drag, but sometimes, as in The Cannonball Run, you might have a good time – and maybe that was enough.