It was a rotten day for nostalgia on August 3rd. It was announced that Bubba Smith passed away in his Los Angeles home. The giant known as Hightower from the Police Academy movies was no more. Time seems to given way to the commonly held belief that the series was trash, failures as comedies, terribly written dirge, relying on its cast and catchphrases to somehow carry it through. These assessments are, for the most part, completely true and yet when history warps through nostalgia’s prism its impossible to agree with what you know is fundamentally right.
Who from my generation doesn’t remember watching the films on grainy VHS, pre-pubescent minds desperately hoping to catch some mild titillation thanks to Mahoney’s antics? Or maybe you were there for the laughs. There were a few of those when you were younger, easier to please. Certainly the title was misleading… Police Academy had as much to do with American law enforcement as Cronenberg’s Crash had to do with road safety regulations.
Pitched as some sort of bawdy adult comedy – the gay bars, the jiggling breasts at beach parties, the prostitutes hiding in podiums - instead what we were presented with were characters that were little more than broad caricatures, exaggerated to the point where they were living cartoon characters and therefore immediately appealing to the young mind. At its heart its simply a story about a collection of losers and oddballs that rely on each other’s innate abilities to protect and serve, each other as well as the public. Think of it as a retarded X-Men and the films take on a whole new light.
And if the caricatures were broad there were none broader than Bubba “Hightower” Smith. Living proof that not only might was right but that, for the most part, those who possessed it never truly needed to wield it. The giant florist turned beat cop had pretty much all the memorable moments, whether it was throwing a football hella-hard into someone’s chest, lifting a car, letting his pet dog chew Lt. Mauser’s balls or bringing back people from the dead with a chant of “yama, yama, yama”, the recurring theme in his comedy was that he didn’t want to hurt you but if he had to you couldn’t do a damn thing about it.
I wouldn’t realise until long after the franchise had died on its arse that this was a pretty accurate portrayal of his personality away from the movies. I had no idea that the man who could single-handedly stop a riot, between admittedly the lamest gangs in cinematic history, actually had an impressive sporting career before the films. While it was all you heard about where OJ Simpson was concerned (less so now) it didn’t seem to ever crop up about big Bubba Smith.
Yet his part in NFL history can’t really be downplayed. Unsurprisingly a fine physical specimen in his college days, he played in the famous “Game of The Century” on the side of the Michigan State Spartans against Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish. His contribution to that 10-10 draw was to knock out the opposition’s starting quarterback with a brutal sack in the first quarter, a not uncommon occurrence for the fan’s favourite. His college jersey, number 95, was retired by Michigan State.
The recurring theme in his comedy was that he didn’t want to hurt you but if he had to you couldn’t do a damn thing about it.
His ability made him a first draft pick when he shipped off to the NFL and he made his debut for the Baltimore Colts in 1967. He quickly established himself as the starting defensive end and come the end of the 1970 season the Colts had won the Superbowl. The game was a 16-13 scrappy affair, with a lot of turnovers. It wasn’t one for the purists, so much so that Smith never wore his ring in public feeling it hadn’t been earned. Whatever the fans thought about the game Tom Landry summed it up best when he was quoted as saying “I haven't been around many games where the players hit harder. Sometimes people watch a game and see turnovers and they talk about how sloppy the play was. The mistakes in that game weren't invented, at least not by the people who made them. Most were forced.”
Sadly they were heights he’d never scale again, being traded out to the Oakland Raiders in ‘72, then again for a single season with the Houston Oilers in ’74. His last game was a memorable performance where he made twelve unassisted tackles, sacking the opponent quarterback twice, blocking an extra point and knocking aside a field goal. It was a glimpse of what he was capable of when at his best. Yet even though he’d done something few professional footballers ever get to do, it was often clear he had felt some disappointment to the way his career had gone in the game. When asked by Sports Hollywood what had made him more famous he simply answered “apparently acting.”
He shouldn’t have felt too disappointed about the way it all panned out. Sure, the Police Academy franchise might well have been his Baltimore Colts when it came to the big screen. He might have thought to himself “what am I doing” while he was playing bit-parts in dreck like Silence of The Hams. Still, his contribution to eighties pop culture by creating a comic character that wasn’t afraid to send up his macho image, as well as being one of the greatest college footballers Michigan State ever produced and winning a superbowl… Few sportspeople even come close to that.
And perhaps he could have had a very different career had he not been so socially aware. He walked out of doing Miller Lite beer commercials because he didn’t want to send out negative messages to children. Following that he dedicated his time to working with children, even funding an engineering scholarship at his beloved Michigan State. There the fans used to chant “Kill, Bubba, Kill” from the stands while he picked apart his rivals. It went on to become the title of his memoirs, although it’s hard to believe that the genuine gentle giant was capable of doing anything so drastic and unreasonable, much like Moses Hightower.
Sit down this week then and watch the Police Academy movies. Only this time don’t watch them through nostalgia’s eyes. And after doing that go and track down some of his highlight reel footage from his days out on the field. His film character might have been a comedic caricature. Off the screen, he was anything but.
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