Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood/Dziawer Odyssey, Part 14 by Greg Dziawer

Notre Dame coach Frank Leahy caught the attention of Ed Wood in the 1970s.

"Show me a gracious loser, and I'll show you a failure."
-Knute Rockne

In post-revolutionary 1837 France, Blessed Father Basil Moreau founded the Congregation of Holy Cross. Within a few years, he sent six Brothers—four of them of Irish descent—to the United States to extend the mission. In 1842, they established the University of Notre Dame du Lac, the first permanent foundation of the Congregation in the United States. Today, you'll recognize this cultural institution simply as Notre Dame.

A little over a hundred years later, in 1946, the Holy Cross Fathers extended their mission to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, They created King's College, a small liberal arts school I attended from 1986 through 1990. Many of my professors were priests, and they were a funny, smart, and encouraging bunch. I received a wonderful education there, and the curiosity they inspired in me then remains with me to this day. The school's connection to Notre Dame was never brought up, nor was football, as the school did not have a team. (It does now, as King's College has grown over time.)

I recognized just how important the legacy of Notre Dame football was to many people, long before I attended King's. When there were only four channels on the television dial, it was hard to avoid college football games on a Saturday. Everyone drank the same Kool Aid. Notre Dame football was a sacred tradition; the program seemed to possess a magical gravitas.

Notre Dame coach Frank Leahy
Ara Parseghian was coaching the Irish in the early '70s when I was a wee lad. Little did I know back then about the storied lineage of Notre Dame football coaches—especially Knute Rockne (1888-1931), the coach to whom all others would be compared. Rockne's life was tragically cut short by a plane crash in March 1931, supposedly while on his way to participate in a film called The Spirit of Notre Dame. At the time of his death, the coach was at the zenith of his powers, having won back to back national championships in 1929 and 1930. 

One of Rockne's tackles during his final three years as coach was a tenacious Nebraskan named Frank Leahy (1908-1973). After his playing days were over, Leahy served as a line coach at Georgetown, Michigan State, and Fordham before becoming head coach at Boston College. Finally, in 1941, he assumed the role of head coach at his beloved alma mater, later ludicrously claiming that "noder dame" were among the first words he ever spoke as a child. At Notre Dame, Leahy shepherded the team to four additional national championships while toiling in Knute Rockne's long shadow. Interestingly, the story of Frank Leahy intersects with that of Edward D. Wood, Jr., the man whose life and work I began strenuously researching about six years ago.

I'd never even heard the name Frank Leahy prior to seeing an undated screenplay called The Frank Leahy Legend listed in a resume that Ed Wood supplied to budding filmmaker Fred Olen Ray in 1978. While the coach's name was unfamiliar to me, Joe Blevins noted at this very blog that Leahy was a Notre Dame football coach and that a book with that title had been released in 1974, the year after Leahy's passing. For years, I accepted this as just about all we would likely ever know. The project was not even mentioned in Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy (1992). The only additional information came from the resume itself. Ed parenthetically noted "Scotty Williams Ent." alongside the listing, suggesting that the film got far enough along to atttract a producer. Unfortunately, that name and production company drew blanks in my searching.

With no more leads to follow, I set Frank Leahy aside for a few years and focused on other aspects of the Wood story. But just a few weeks back, I was listening to a new episode of These Days Are Ours: A Happy Days Podcast, cohosted by Joe Blevins. Joe mentioned Leahy as one of the main candidates responsible for the famous sports quote, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going." This spurred me to do a little digging, and although I found little, a March 1975 article in the Chicago Tribune suggested that perhaps the film almost got made. Other than this one article—a mish-mash of Chicagoland entertainment snippets by a local columnist—there is no evidence that it did. The article claims that a film titled The Frank Leahy Legend was slated to begin filming in Chicago that summer. Could this be Eddie's screenplay?

Was The Frank Leahy Legend almost produced?

While that's plausible and seems to fit, there's no direct evidence that this movie would have been based on Eddie's script. Leahy passed in 1973, and the following year saw no fewer than three books devoted to his "legend." Published by JCL Services of Torrance, California, The Frank Leahy Legend is a collection of interviews with the coach conducted by one of his "closest friends," Bernard J. Williams. The book was republished in 2009 with modernized language as Iron Desire: The Legacy of Notre Dame Football Coach Frank Leahy.

(left) An ad for the book in the March 1974 edition of American Industry; (right) the book jacket.

Reading Williams' book today, it's hard to imagine what may have attracted Ed Wood to write about Frank Leahy in the first place. Was it simply an opportunity that presented itself? Did Eddie note that, in the immediate wake of Leahy's passing, a nostalgic interest and veritable (albeit tiny) cottage industry had grown up around Leahy? Or was he, unbeknownst to us all, a secret Notre Dame football fanatic? 

As for Ed Wood's screenplay, Joe Blevins recently clued me into the fact that it apparently still survives, held in an archive at Loyola Marymount University and credited as 1975. The book itself is largely mythmaking on Leahy's part, while Williams' fawning wraparound text is never shy to remind us of Leahy's greatness. We're told how tough and persistent he was, how legendary he is, etc. Frankly, the book is barely readable alpha-male claptrap, unless perhaps you are a dyed-in-the-wool Notre Dame football junkie. It's puzzling to me to understand this staunch allegiance, where Notre Dame football trumps even God, country and flag. Was this the original intent of the Holy Cross Fathers' Mission?

Finally, it's worth noting what is almost certainly a strange coincidence. The fabled "Four Horseman of the Apocalypse"—Notre Dame's legendary backfield—led the Fightin' Irish to their first National Championship in 1924. Among them was Don Miller. If that name rings a bell, yes, it was the pseudonym under which Ed Wood produced and directed the adult feature Necromania (1971). In a related note, Frank Leahy was utterly obsessed with the death of Knute Rockne and at times refused to believe his mentor was truly dead.

Notre Dame's Four Hosemen, with Don Miller at left. Inset: Ed Wood's credit on Necromania.

While these are just a few crumbs of information, they do give us something to chew on. A few things, really:
  • Did The Frank Leahy Legend, based upon Eddie's script, make it to pre-production? Could it have even gone into production?
  • Is Eddie's script truly extant?
  • Was Eddie really a football fan? Did he look up to Leahy, whose warped "win at all costs" value system was so antithetical to how Ed lived his life?
  • Why does just about every Wood tangent somehow end up intersecting some other aspect of my life?
Persistence is key, folks, as Frank Leahy often noted. And don't forget, it's a game of inches and the vast majority of plays don't result in a touchdown.

You can grab Iron Desire for your Kindle for just $2.99 at Amazon. Don't say I didn't warn you. And special thanks to Joe Blevins for his invaluable contributions to this little-known dark corner of Woodology.