Review by Doug Gibson
I admit it. I’m an Ed Wood fan-atic. There are
probably a few thousand of us in the world. We’ve watched Plan 9 From Outer
Space, and/or Glen or Glenda 100-plus times. Our 30-plus year copy of Nightmare
of Ecstasy is read to tatters. We own a Wood novel or two, or more. We’ve
purchased Bob Blackburn’s three volumes of Wood’s fiction and non-fiction
writing. The Ed Wood Jr. Faceback page and Dead2Rights Ed Wood Wednesday blog, are
both near-daily needs.
In short, we love the minutiae of Ed Wood’s’ life
and career. We can’t get enough of it. Any breaking new news about our idol of unfeigned
kitsch, Mr. Wood, we consume.
W. Paul Apel, a writer who lives in the Pacific
Northwest. has authored a book that is fun for Wood minutiae fans, “I WatchedFootball Early the Day I Died: The Lost Ed Wood Frank Leahy Screenplay,” Bear Manor
Media, 2023, is an insider-joke title. It’s a riff on a Wood screenplay, “I Woke Up Early the Day I Died,” a film made long after Wood’s 1978 death.
The backstory on the book is interesting. In issue
11 of the magazine Cult Movies, published a generation-plus ago, a screenplay
is attributed to Wood titled “The Frank Leahy Legend.” Fast forward many years
later and Ed Wood writer/fan Greg Javer writes more about the screenplay on Joe
Blevins’ Dead2Rights blog. It mentions that the screenplay is archived at
Loyola Marymount University. Apel reads that and is motivated to contact Loyola
Marymount, which provides him access to the “Frank Leahy Legend.” (Both Javer and Apel provide introductions to
the book, and there is a forward by Blackburn on the years he and Kathy Woods,
Ed’s wife, were friends.)
So who is Frank Leahy? (see his photo below) I’m a football fan. Frank
Leahy was a Notre Dame football coach. He is arguably one of the greatest
coaches of all time, as successful as legendary Notre Dame coaching peer, Knute
Rockne, whom Frank Leahy played for. Rockne was charismatic, and filled
newspaper headlines. He died in a plane crash heading to Hollywood to negotiate
picture deals. That tragedy added to his mystique.
Leahy was not nearly as charismatic. He’s best known
for utilizing the T formation strategy for Notre Dame football. He eventually
retired from football as his health declined, was briefly involved
administratively in professional football, then was a businessman until he died
So how did Ed Wood, who was busy writing, assistant
directing, even acting in soft- and hard-core pornography in the mid ‘70s, get
a gig writing a screenplay for an “inspirational” biography of Frank Leahy?
No one knows for sure but one can guess. Earlier a
Leahy super-fan named Bernard J. Williams had written a sort of biography of
Leahy. Much of it is interviews with Leahy before his death. Apel has read it.
It’s been published in two versions, and it can even be purchased on Amazon as
“Iron Desire: The Legacy of Notre Dame Football Coach Frank Leahy.” Kindle version is only $2.99.
Williams may have been involved as associate
publisher of an early ‘70s science fiction magazine. Forrest J. Ackerman was an
iconic genre figure who represented science fiction writers. He knew Ed Wood,
even was his agent once. Apel wonders if Williams and Ackerman crossed paths?
Who knows, but it sounds nice to think that Ackerman
mentioned Wood for the Leahy job hoping to get his down-on-his-luck friend a
nice screenplay gig. What may be just as likely is that a budget-conscious
Williams was looking for a cheap first draft and Ackerman said this Wood fellow
would be cheap.
Ed Wood was in his final years. He’d long lost the
battle with alcoholism by 1975. It would destroy his career, his body, and
eventually his life. Wood was still working for filmmaker Stephen Apostolof,
but his tenure with the more stable porn house Pendulum Publishing was about
played out. He and wife Kathy needed money. Life for Wood was a race against
bill collectors; a race Ed’s body could not take much longer.
I hope Wood got a decent four-figure payment for the
script he turned in, “The Frank Leahy Legend.” The man needed a break.
Apel presents a copy of the entire screenplay, which
is manna for us Wood fan-atics. The author has crafted an interesting book,
with the screenplay interrupted often for observations from Apel. They are
insightful comments, pointing out where in the script Ed utilizes scenes and
verbiage that are unique to his previous work. Apel also describes where Wood
has done his homework, independently researching his subject to include
screenplay events that are not in the book hagiography.
So how is “The Frank Leahy Legend” screenplay? Well,
it’s very long, close to what would translate as a near three-hour movie. It
desperately needs at least 80 pages trimmed. This is a story that cries out for
the 72-minute 1970s’ TV Movie of the Week treatment.
However, Wood was enough of a professional to not
turn in a hatchet job that just follows the book. “He actually created his own structure …,”
Wood changes events in the book into sequences that translate better into a movie. Examples include Wood having a young
Leahy taking his long first journey to Notre Dame on horse. Another example is
Wood portraying Leahy’s father’s violent death more dramatically. Wood also did
extensive research on the vast amount of characters in the non-fiction
screenplay, a tedious task in a pre-Internet world.
But the screenplay has flaws. Apel notes Wood
includes scenes that do not move the story forward, thereby bogging the
narrative down. Major events, such as getting a scholarship to Notre Dame, have
no real set up. Also, other important portions, such as Leahy’s wife’s struggle
with alcoholism, are only touched on the surface, with little narrative depth. There
is the (endearing) odd Woodian syntax, such a Leahy saying, “I’m out only to win.”
In what becomes farcical, Wood’s screenplay about a
football player and coach does not even depict a football game until roughly
half the script is completed. Just like a low-budget, ineptly produced horror
cheapie provides more talk than action, Wood’s script talks football without
offering much game action.
Still, as I read the script, I started to enjoy it,
as a Wood fan. It is tedious but it’s
the work of a veteran writer who plugged on. There are scenes that Wood goes
into autopilot a bit (perhaps the alcoholism was bad that day) but there’s
enough to understand why Wood was able to make a living for decades as a
writer. He knew his craft until the end. He provides a life story.
Readers are fortunate, though, that Apel provides
commentary from time to time. It provides respite from the overly long story structure.
There are “Ed Wood moments” for minutiae lovers,
which Apel includes in his comments. An illicit paramour of a married Leahy is
wearing angora. There is a scene of a young Leahy about to bed down with a girl
that reads like a mild version of a scene from one of Ed’s hundreds of adult
short stories. There’s a father who does not approve of his son (think “Glen or
Glenda). There lots of drinking in the screenplay, and descriptions of women’s
clothing, such as garters.
Wood creates a conflicted character in Leahy, a man
willing to be deceitful to win. Some call him a cheater. I would not go that
far. It’s more unethical sports chicanery, like having players fake an injury
to get more time to stop action and plan strategy.
Besides his marital infidelity, there’s a tasteless
early scene where high school athlete Frank Leahy, and his much older coach,
discuss plans to go out tomcatting for teenage girls. I was waiting for a cop
to enter the page and arrest the coach.
These “adult” subjects in the screenplay seem a bit
muddled because the screenplay starts with narrator (Bernard Williams) talking
about Leahy to his young son. That opening narration seems to go off the charts
early as the film moves into narrative style and includes topics a father would
not mention to a young son. Nevertheless, the narrator makes infrequent returns
to the screenplay and Williams actually becomes a character late in the script
that interacts with Leahy.
I have read reviews where it’s claimed Wood just did
this for the money. True, but this was an assignment so different from the
usual porn writing that I think Wood might have hoped this would lead to a
credit on a respectable film, perhaps a 90-minute TV movie. That might have had
a chance given that Leahy – legitimately famous -- had only recently passed
away. But the script probably disappointed Williams, and we know it was
shelved, eventually stored at a Hollywood Catholic church before being donated
to Loyola Marymount.
So “The Frank Leahy Legend” ends up as an interesting footnote to the Ed Wood life story, which of course has been made as a feature film; something Frank Leahy never accomplished.