Rams return to Hollywood ready for second act

Fred Dryer was born a Rams fan, in Hawthorne, California, 1946, the year the team moved from Cleveland.

They were the NFL's reigning champs, with its reigning MVP. But Bob Waterfield -- from UCLA by way of Van Nuys High School -- wasn't merely a star quarterback. What stands out, at least in Dryer's recollection, was his standing as the league's leading man.

"I was always aware of that -- Bob Waterfield being married to Jane Russell," says Dryer, referring to Waterfield's high school sweetheart and then wife. If it's too much to call Russell the Kim Kardashian of her day, it bears mention that she gained fame and notoriety for her voluptuous figure, and a cleavage that tested the prevailing notions of decency. She was not only a featured attraction on the silver screen, but also in the imagination of millions of American men. But if the quarterback seemed grander by association with the pin up girl, then so, too, were the Rams made bigger by their association with The Industry. In one respect, Los Angeles wasn't unlike Pittsburgh or Detroit -- a local economy supplying the national demand. But where those other cities manufactured steel or automobiles, this one manufactured stars.

And while heavy industry withered, America's star-making industry has grown more robust than ever. What's more, as past informs present, there's a lot these new Los Angeles Rams can learn from their predecessors.

Show business isn't something to run from. Now as then, it's something to embrace.

"There's no reason to fight it," says Dryer. "It's just here."

Like freeways. Or Kardashians.

In a culture that deems branding to be sacrosanct, it's worth noting that the Rams were first to display their logo on their helmets. Long before the Cowboys christened themselves "America's Team," the Rams were the first franchise, in any sport, to have all their games televised. They were "Showtime" decades before the Lakers laid claim to the moniker. In 1951, with Waterfield and Norm Van Brocklin sharing the quarterback duties, the Rams won a title with an absurdly prolific offense that saw Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch gain an unheard-of 1,495 receiving yards in 12 games. His reward? A predictably-named biopic -- Crazylegs -- starring Hirsch and Waterfield as themselves. How's that for branding?

Dryer's every suspicion about the Rams, and their sacred place in the showbiz hierarchy, were confirmed on the afternoon of November 2, 1958, when his father took him to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

It wasn't just the crowd of 100,470, or his good fortune in seeing the Rams beat the Bears, 41-35. In his mind's eye, he can still see the starlets and movie stars on the sidelines, Bob Hope first among them. He recalls the cameras, too, as if the Coliseum itself were the world's most gargantuan movie set. It was an fantastic revelation, even to his 12-year old self.

"The thrill of it," Dryer recalls. "Hollywood was at its zenith. TV was exploding. The Dodgers had just moved here. There was a sense that everything was coming here. L.A was hip. It was cosmetic. It was like a big photo op."

The lines of demarcation between sport and entertainment? Dryer never really observed the distinction.

"I always associated the Hollywood aspect of the team with the football," he says.

No one understood this symbiotic relationship between the team and the town better than the players themselves -- real or imagined. When it was time for Warren Beatty -- whom Dryer recalls as a regular visitor at practice -- to play a quarterback, he played a Rams quarterback in "Heaven Can Wait." In New York, ex-ballplayers could become sportscasters. But in Los Angeles, players could parlay their celebrity into full-blown stardom. Hall of Fame defensive Merlin Olson went on to act in Little House on the Prairie before getting his own series, Father Murphy.

Then there was Dryer himself, who, in 1972, told the Patriots he'd quit if they didn't trade him to the Rams. He got his wish. And before he was done with a pretty sensational career (All-NFC four times, and All-Pro twice), he had graced the cover of Andy Warhol's Interview magazine, a designation usually reserved for first-tier celebs like Jagger, Sting and Travolta. And that was just the start. After losing out on the role of Sam Malone for Cheers, he got the title role in Hunter, a detective show that ran for seven years in prime-time on NBC. It made him infinitely more famous -- not to mention, richer -- than football did.

In other words, the Rams were always Hollywood -- and shall be again. That's the point, after all, of their return: to put a team at the very epicenter of American popular culture. Of course, that culture has changed in the 22 years since the Rams first left. To start with, there's TMZ, and all it represents: the new reality that paparazzi with video cameras have effectively staked out the entire town.

"It is what it is," said running back Todd Gurley, who spoke with the former L.A. Ram to whom he'll be compared, Eric Dickerson. "He told me it's going to be fun (but) you know, definitely watch yourself."

Sage advice. Still, if the risk of being famous has grown, then so have the opportunities. Sports isn't merging with entertainment. That happened long ago. Rather, you get the distinct sense, especially around this town, that sports now represent the biggest piece of the entertainment pie. The NFL Network is based here. Same for FOX Sports. And after a decade spent expanding its presence in LA, ESPN has effectively made Los Angeles its second base of operations, in addition to its Bristol headquarters. As for the talent agencies, you had WME buying IMG, the sports marketing firm, in December 2014. Meanwhile, CAA Sports now accounts for a greater source of revenue than the agency's powerful film and television divisions.

The potential windfall for the Rams is even greater when you consider the local sports landscape. The Dodgers have a star in Clayton Kershaw, but don't seem a threat to capture the city's imagination. The Angels play in Anaheim. The Clippers, no matter what, seem doomed to remain the Clippers. And the Lakers, coming off a 17-win season, haven't made the playoffs since 2013. Oh yeah, and Kobe Bryant retired.

"Doesn't matter where you're at," says Gurley. "They love you when you're winning, tell you you suck when you're sucking."

Actually, no. All sucking is not the same. When you suck in Hollywood, they ignore you, which -- ask any agent -- is the ultimate form of contempt.

To avoid such a fate -- and to fill the post-Kobe void -- a great casting call is now underway. The town is desperate for a leading man, and the great hope is that he'll come from the Rams. In turn, the Rams' greatest hope -- despite the travails of the preseason and Week 1 -- is that he'll turn out to be Jared Goff, the quarterback for whom they gave a ransom in picks to draft first out of Cal.

"There's always expectations," says Goff, the now second-stringer, who suits up for his first regular season game Sunday against the Seahawks. "But I try not to read into it. ... I just know what I need to do, and it's out on this football field getting better every day."

Sure, but what about all that leading man stuff? What about Jared Goff in the Bob Waterfield role?

"Realistically, I don't think I'd be a very good actor."

Not a problem. In fact, it's probably better that way. In today's Hollywood, unscripted is king. All you have to do is play yourself. Be your brand.

Still just 21, the unassuming Goff doesn't yet think of himself as a brand. "I have an agent. I have a marketing person," he says. "I have people who take care of that stuff."

OK, maybe that, in itself, is a sign of progress. As long as you have your people -- in Hollywood, that's a must.

In the meantime, most of the public's impression of Goff comes from Hard Knocks, which, appropriately enough, is a form of reality television (albeit the high-end kind). Only now does The Industry comprehend that which fans have understood for decades. Sports are the ultimate in reality programming.

So consider the 2016 Rams a kind of extended pilot, a time to sort the good from the merely hot.

In the hierarchy of unscripted values, reality is nice. Authenticity is better. But victory trumps everything. In other words, it's time for the players themselves to prove they're not just another reality show.

In the meantime, however, it would be nice to find Jared Goff his very own Jane Russell.

Or better yet, a Kardashian.

Follow Mark Kriegel on Twitter @MarkKriegel.

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