Thursday, August 4, 2011

Bubba Smith 1945-2011

Sorry to hear of Bubba Smith’s passing. He was only 66. I worked with Bubba on two shows. Interestingly, neither of them are included in any of the obits I’ve seen. I guess he was more well-known for POLICE ACADEMY and the Oakland Raiders. But I worked with him on OPEN ALL NIGHT and THE MARY SHOW.

He was a series regular in OPEN ALL NIGHT -- a 1980 sitcom about an all-night convenience store. My writing partner, David and I wrote two episodes and guested in one of them. So yes, I acted in a show with Bubba Smith. He generally played the soft-spoken big man who you did not want to cross. In person he was just the soft-spoken big man. Of course I never said to him, “Y’know, the Oakland Raiders are just a bunch of pansies”. But he was a delightful guy. And what impressed me most was how serious he was about acting. It wasn’t just a lark. He put the same effort into learning how to play comedy as he did crushing quarterbacks into powder. You’d think directors and producers would be intimidated giving this 6' 8" bruiser notes but he was extremely receptive. And the results paid dividends. He was very funny, in an understated way that fit perfectly with his giant presence.

Bubba also guested for us on THE MARY SHOW. He played himself. I still love the premise. John Astin, as the theater critic, panned Bubba’s performance in a play that had just opened. So Bubba, furious, comes up to the newsroom to the beat the crap out of John. Name me one actor who hasn’t fantasized that same scenario. In the show, John talks him out of it and instead winds up coaching him. Watching Bubba Smith try to give a performance using John’s acting method was a hoot.

We had Bubba regale us with many football stories from his glory days in the NFL. Yes, that world is as violent and brutal as you imagine. Little things like broken bones and pain pale in importance with gaining an extra yard. They say he died of natural causes. I didn’t realize that the Baltimore Colts, Oakland Raiders, and Houston Oilers are considered natural causes.

He had dropped out of sight of late. I hope his last years were happy ones. I’m sure the tributes will talk about how big he was, how fierce he was, how popular he was. But I want to add how funny he was.

So long, Bubba. Thanks for the hits… and the laughs.

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