Hollywood Rams Reborn: A Look at the Rams' Showbiz History as 'Hard Knocks' Comes to LA

The first time the Rams were in LA, Hollywood was seen as a distraction. As the new season of 'Hard Knocks' proves, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
August 9, 2016, 1:00pm
Roman Gabriel in The Undefeated with John Wayne

Tuesday night, the recently reborn Los Angeles Rams take their turn as the stars of Hard Knocks, HBO's award-winning series that follows a NFL team through training camp and leading up to the regular season. Next month, six Rams players and their families star in Hollywood & Football, a six-part reality show on E! about building new lives in Los Angeles. The two television shows have led some to wonder whether the team will be distracted as it enters the season:

"As if the Los Angeles Rams didn't have enough going on this offseason as they transition from St. Louis to Southern California," wrote Joe Curley, of the Ventura County Star.

"What are there, 27 reality shows?" teased former Rams beat writer Jim Thomas in a video called "Life after the Rams" for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

"Distractions Piling up," declared a headline on SB Nation's Rams Blog, Turfshow Times.

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Whether we realize it or not, the notion that Hollywood could prove distracting for pro athletes has a long history, a history that might have started when the world champion Cleveland Rams first moved to Los Angeles in 1946.

As Bud Shrake wrote of the early Los Angeles Rams in Sports Illustrated:

"One does not move from Cleveland to Los Angeles without being profoundly affected. One does not give up Lake Erie, Euclid Avenue, eight feet of snow, an occasional visit to Shaker Heights and accept instead the crashing Pacific, sunshine, orange trees, ladies pushing lawn mowers, Bing Crosby asking for a locker-room pass, without being penalized in one way or another. The West Coast was an entirely new way of looking at things. No chains on the tires. No antifreeze. Rather, one rolled over and staggered outdoors into the scent of oleander, crawled into the convertible and cruised among the palms, chummed with movie actors instead of the cop next door and became a different man, a Los Angeles Ram, not a Cleveland football player."

The transformation of the Cleveland Rams to the Los Angeles Rams coincided with the emergence of television and Hollywood's golden age—both of which impacted the culture of the franchise. The Rams became the first NFL franchise to televise all of its games, both home and away, and players regularly embraced opportunities presented by the entertainment industry.

Halfback Glenn Davis, who starred in 1947's The Spirit of West Point, dated and was briefly engaged to Elizabeth Taylor. Halfback Tom Harmon married B-movie fixture Elyse Knox. Fullback Gerald Cowhig married the actress Jean Willes, best known for playing "hard-boiled painted ladies and tough-as-nails saloon girls." The 1949 Victor Mature vehicle Easy Living cast the entire Rams team as the fictional New York Chiefs, and perhaps most famously, in 1953 Elroy Hirsch starred in his own biopic, Crazylegs.

And then there was, of course, local boy quarterback Bob Waterfield, who might have single-handedly turned the quarterback into a glamor position. He and his wife, Hollywood starlet Jane Russell, were the Tom Brady and Gisele of their time, frequently photographed out and about among the Hollywood rank and file. Russell appeared on the sidelines at Rams practices and Waterfield on the set of Russell's films. At one point, the normally shy Waterfield even seemed to harbor big-screen aspirations, co-starring in the 1951 Johnny Weissmuller vehicle Jungle Manhunt.

"Hollywood Rams" soon emerged as a euphemism for the Rams' off-the-field pursuits and as an explanation for why the vaunted teams of the late 1940s and 50s only won one NFL championship. As the late great Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray quipped, "This team was put together by Irving Thalberg, right? It originally starred Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Pat O' Brien was the coach and Ronald Reagan was the halfback who died in the end."

The Rams have portrayed headhunters, gladiators, and national heads of Lamda Lamda Lamda. Rosey Grier starred on The Rosey Grier Show, Merlin Olsen in Father Murphy, and Fred Dryer in Hunter. Hollywood responded with full embrace, making the Rams its de facto team, inviting them to play themselves on the big screen: Jon Arnett, Les Richter, and Sid Gillman on The Donna Reed Show; Frank Coral, Jim Youngblood, and Ray Malavasi on Fantasy Island; and Jack Snow, Les Josephson, and Deacon Jones in Heaven Can Wait.

All of this left the team even more vulnerable to criticism when they didn't exhibit star qualities on the field. "We were regarded as playboys from Hollywood who didn't have enough guts for professional football," wrote former Rams quarterback Roman Gabriel in his autobiography.

The "Hollywood Rams" reputation was strange considering how many professional football players not on the Rams got into show business. Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, Joe Namath, and of course O.J. Simpson accrued substantial screen time as actors, but when the Rams did it, it tended to call into question their football status rather than enlarge it. Sportswriters who covered the Rams used tones that nowadays are reserved for reality stars. "They're due in makeup a half-hour before game time," Murray wrote. "They play in sunglasses. The timeouts are catered. The quarterback once sent the wine back…. The players cast their horoscopes in the huddle."

Hard Knocks and Hollywood & Football aren't the only modern incarnations of the Hollywood Rams' star-studded past. RB Todd Gurley was cast as a modern-day Rob Tidwell in a Jerry Maguire spoof for Carl's Jr. and starred in a NFL photo shoot last month on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The national media has repeatedly compared the looks of rookie QB Jared Goff with those of Ryan Gosling, a resemblance that members of the Rams organization haven't exactly downplayed. Gurley and Goff may have star qualities, but the jury is still out as to how the current crop of Rams will adjust to their newspotlight.

A Hard Knocks' preview video titled "Hollywood lifestyle" curiously depicts punter Johnny Hecker, kicker Greg Zuerlein, and four other teammates go-carting while William Hayes, Aaron Donald, Eugene Simms, and Robert Quinn play cards. Meanwhile, among the storylines Hollywood & Football promises to capture include that of Cory and Bianca Harkey, who recently welcomed their first child together. According to the E! "Cory is a tough guy on the field but how he will handle changing diapers, feeding a newborn and all-night crying sessions remains to be seen." If you were hoping for Kardashian-fueled pool parties or dionysian spectacles at the Viper Room, you might be disappointed.

That being said, no matter how banal the depiction onscreen, the players will likely endure plenty of criticism.

(R-L) Rosey Grier with the Rams Cheerleaders, Jimmie Walker, and Willie Tyler and "Lester" on "The White Shadow."

The current Los Angeles Rams are ranked among the league's worst teams, they are playing in the nation's second largest media market, have two national television shows airing, and a head coach who still somehow insists, "We want them to be football players, not actors."

It all seems like a perfect recipe for disaster. If the Rams get off to a slow start, it will seem natural for many to wonder whether Hollywood distractions had some impact on the team's performance. But in doing so, they ironically will be participating in a conversation as authentic to the team's Los Angeles legacy as any other. Turning the Los Angeles Rams into reality stars and then criticizing them for being reality stars might be the closest that most of us get to remembering Elroy Hirsch, Bob Waterfield, and the Rams of yesteryear.

Josh Neuman hosts The Greatest Show on Grass, a podcast about the Rams and their Hollywood past.

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