In the Company of Champions
If you haven’t found the time to see The Great Eight yet, these notes from the director (and Roots TV founder) Marcy Brown may just be the motivation you need:
Being the one who had the great privilege of orchestrating the making of The Great Eight documentary, I speak from experience when I say I know what it's like to be a mere mortal in the midst of living legends. I was surrounded by champions, both on and off-screen, and it seems fitting to offer up a personal tribute to those who made it happen.
First, there’s the Great Eight crew. What an extraordinary group of men! Those who have seen the film know their 1952 Olympic story. What is not so well known is that they made an attempt to go for the gold in ‘56 as well. It was a long shot, given the fact that they had gone their separate ways and only had a short time to prepare. A few days before the qualifying race, Willie Fields broke his hand playing softball, and on the day of the race Wayne Frye woke up with a blistering fever. Undaunted (apparently none of them knew the word “quit!”) they entered the race, Willie with his arm in a cast and Wayne doubled over in pain. No, they didn’t win, but they came in a close third behind Cornell and Yale, the crew that went on to win the gold medal in Australia. After the race, Wayne was rushed to the hospital with a ruptured appendix.
Behind the scenes there were other champions. Executive Producer Stephen Peet was a veteran BBC producer who pioneered the art of oral history filmmaking. His life and achievements will be honored at a special program in London next month.
Co-producer Valerie Anders claims a husband who has been to the moon! Astronaut William Anders was part of the Apollo 8 crew that delivered the historic 1968 Christmas Eve reading from the Bible’s Book of Genesis. Bill and Valerie have been lifelong friends and fans of the Great Eight, and their support in making this film was invaluable.
And finally, Gregory Peck. Gregory Peck rowed with the Cal crew during his college years and often said he considered himself more of a rower than an actor. A true gentleman in every respect, he graciously declined providing a picture of himself for the closing credits. He said the film was about the greatest American crew that ever raced, and he wouldn’t think of pretending to be in their class.
A highlight for me was the "chat" after the recording session when I raised the topic of my favorite scene from To Kill A Mockingbird. Mr. Peck casually leaned across the hood of his Mercedes, assumed his Atticus Finch character, and flawlessly delivered lines from his famous jury scene. He finished with a commanding 'Do Your Duty!'
It was a pinch-me-because-I’m-sure-this-can’t-really-be-happening moment for me, but also a perfect capstone to an incredible experience. "Do your duty," is an everyday way of life in the company of champions. Hopefully this film has captured in some small way just a portion of the true "greatness" behind it.
Marcy Brown with Gregory Peck and Bob Detweiler