I don’t remember if I saw the 1940 movie “Knute Rockne All American” when I was a youngster. I do remember the first time I saw it at Notre Dame. As my parents were driving me to enroll at Notre Dame at the end of the Summer of 1962, I read Street and Smith’s College Football magazine along the way. When I looked up the article on the Irish, the prediction for our success that year was not good. I filed away the name Bob Lehman, who was projected as a potential All American candidate. The year before, Bob had taking over the left guard spot held by graduating Nick Buoniconti, after playing behind him for a year.
Shortly after getting settled in at room 128 Breen Phillips, we got one of those flyers under the door, advertising a movie that night. For 25 cents, “Knute Rockne All American” was showing in the Engineering Auditorium. I hightailed it over there and was one of the last students to get in to the packed auditorium. Last row, on the aisle.
The guy sitting in front of me had the rugged kind of physique I imagined for a Notre Dame Football Player. I wondered who he was. When he leaned forward, I could see that his name was stitched into the back of his shirt collar. In those days we all had either our names or our student ID’s on our shirts for the Notre Dame Laundry. Curiosity got the better of me, so when he leaned forward, I leaned forward and lightly peeled back his jacket (taking my life in my hands) so I could get a glimpse of the name on his shirt collar. It was Bob Lehman. That’s the closest we ever came to meeting. I later learned that besides being a great football player, he was a Dean’s List engineering student and highly respected guy. He became Captain of the 1963 team. I told this story to Jim Carroll, the outstanding player who was Captain of Ara’s first squad, in 1964, and he told me that Lehman had been a role model to him.
There was not a dry eye in the room at the end of Knute Rockne All American. We were all so fired up after watching the movie that we could have suited up ourselves to play for the Irish!
Over the years, I have seen the movie 8-10 times. I have also seen an outstanding play based upon the movie. I’m sorry this play did not get more attention.
Now that I’m an old retired guy, one of my hobbies has been watching some of the great movies of the 40’s. With the advantage of a lot of free time, I have also done research on the movies and the actors who performed in them. Knute Rockne All American had some interesting actors in it, beyond the extraordinary Pat O’Brien as Rock and the future President as the Gipper.
Two of the Producers of the movie were Hollywood giants Jack Warner and Hal Wallis.
Here’s some info about some of the performers in the movie you may not have noticed:
George Reeves, who was also in “Gone with the Wind” and “From here to Eternity” and would later star in the TV series “Superman”, played a Notre Dame Football Player who was distraught after the death of Rockne. Reeves was not listed in the credits.
Nick Lukats, who was ND’s starting left half back (Gipp’s ND position) in 1933, played QB Harry Stuhldreher of the 1924 Four Horseman Team. Nick was also listed in the credits as a “technical advisor”, as was long time Notre Dame employee Art Haley.
The young Knute Rockne was played by Johnny Sheffield. Sheffield went on to play “Boy” son of Tarzan and also Bomba, in a bunch of vine-swinging movies.
A young boy football player was played by Dickie Jones, who later went on to a long TV and movie career, mostly in westerns. He was Jock Mahoney’s sidekick in the TV series “The Range Rider”.
Brian Keith had a long and distinguished career as an actor, perhaps best known as the father on the TV series “Family Affair”. He played an uncredited role as a student at the train station. Back in Rockne’s days, the students would meet the victorious team as it returned to South Bend by train.
William Hopper also had an uncredited role in the movie as a New York reporter. He was best known as private investigator Paul Drake on "Perry Mason." Hopper also had a baseball connection: his father was DeWolf Hopper, who first performed Casey at the Bat, in 1888, and did it more than 10,000 times after that. His mother was famed Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper.
There were several real College Football Coaches in the movie playing themselves: Bill Spaulding, Howard Jones, Pop Warner, and Amos Alonzo Stagg.
There were several other actors with bit parts and uncredited roles in the movies who had long acting careers. The next time you see the movie, you may want to play close attention to some of these performers.