Big Wednesday (1978) Classic Movie Review 153

Big Wednesday (1978)

Big Wednesday (1978)

I don't wanna be a star. Have my picture in magazines, have a bunch of kids looking up to me. I'm a drunk, Bear, a screw up.




Today’s movie is Big Wednesday (1978). This is another on my list of favorite movies. It is a great buddy story with a lot of surfing action. I have to say that they did a great job cutting the stunt surfers in and making it look like the stars were doing their own surfing. rates this movie at 7.3[1] and has it at 67 percent on the Tomatometer. However, the audiences rated it at 88 percent. This movie was selected as Best Foreign Language Film by the Japanese Academy in 1980. It is a good movie, but some parts of their privileged lives and excesses do not translate well.

At the time of release, New York Times film critic Janet Maslin didn’t care for the film, and she wrote:

“The surprise is not that Mr. Milius has made such a resoundingly awful film, but rather that he’s made a bland one…the movie often seems even more uneventful than material like this need make it, and Mr. Milius’s attention to his actors focuses more closely on their pectorals than on their performances.[2]

Director John Milius, who co-wrote the story, said that the character Matt (Jan-Michael Vincent) was based on a surfer he knew in the 1950s who also struggled with booze. It is also sadly reflective of the future for Jan-Michael Vincent. This was Barbara Hale’s final movie. It is also said that this movie influenced Point Break (1991) and was partially responsible for Gary Busey’s casting.



Jan-Michael Vincent played troubled surfer Matt Johnson. Vincent was covered in Episode 15 – The Undefeated (1969).

Frank McRae played a tough Army Sergeant at the induction center. McRae was covered in Episode 17 – Hard Times (1975).

Hank Worden for some reason took a small role as a guy that pushed a shopping cart around. Worden was covered in Episode 49 – The Alamo (1960).


William Katt played surfer and good guy Jack Barlow. Katt was born in LA in 1951 to a pair of actors, Barbara Hale and Bill Williams. Katt started out in television and made his first movie splash as the boyfriend in the terror flick Carrie (1976). This was followed by surfer cult favorite Big Wednesday (1978). He was the star of the television series “The Last American Hero” 1981-1986 which had the premise of a superhero without an instruction book.

Katt worked in the Perry Mason TV movies with his mother, Barbara Hale. He continues to make movies and save for Naked Obsession (1990) and The Man from Earth (2007) nothing really stands out.

Big Wednesday (1978)

Big Wednesday (1978)

Gary Busey played surfer Leroy Smith AKA Leroy the Masochist. Busey was born in 1944 in Goose Creek, Texas. He was raised in Oklahoma and graduated high school in 1962. After high school, he became a professional drummer and toured with the likes of Leon Russell, Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson.

Busey’s first film was Angels Hard as They Come (1971) but he didn’t really make a splash until he played the lead in The Buddy Holly Story (1978). This was followed by Big Wednesday (1978). This was followed by a line-up of less than stellar films like werewolf flick Silver Bullet (1985) and Let’s Get Harry (1986) which received an Alan Smithee. There were a few nuggets such as Foolin’ Around (1980) with a great cast.

Busey climbed right back to the top when he played sadistic killer Mr. Joshua in Lethal Weapon (1987). He got a series of good roles after this including Predator 2 (1990), Point Break (1991), and Under Siege (1992).

His roles have declined to films like The Firm (1993) and Rookie of the Year (1993). He has made himself a fixture on reality television and acts batshit crazy. However, he is still working and making films.

Patti D’Arbanville played the role of Sally Jacobson. Patti began modeling for Andy Warhol sometime between 13 and 17. Her early career which featured a lesbian love scene in Flesh (1986) consisted of many roles that required her to perform nude. One role where she played on her beauty and kept her clothes on was Real Genius (1985). Patti is still acting and making films.

Lee Purcell played Peggy Gordon. Purcell was born in 1947 in North Carolina. She is an actress, known for Mr. Majestyk (1974), Big Wednesday (1978), Stir Crazy (1980), Airplane II: The Sequel (1982), Eddie Macon’s Run (1983), Valley Girl (1983), and Kids vs Monsters (2015). Purcell is still working in television and making movies.

Sam Melville played surfboard maker and mentor to the surfers, Bear. Melville was born in Utah in 1936. Melville was basically a television actor that did a few films. He is best known for the police show “The Rookies” 1972-1976. His best-known films are The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) and Big Wednesday (1978). He died in LA in 1989.

Joe Spinell played the Army psychologist. Spinell was born in 1936 in New York City. A real tough guy, Spinell began stage work in high school including stints on Broadway. He got a contract with MGM, but the wages were so poor he had to take side work.

He got his first break playing the really scary killer Willi Cicci in The Godfather (1972). This was followed by more tough guy roles in The Seven-Ups (1973), The Godfather: Part II (1974), Rocky (1976), and Taxi Driver (1976). He played a standard role in Big Wednesday (1978), but was right back to the tough guy in Paradise Alley (1978), Rocky II (1979), Brubaker (1980), Maniac (1980) playing a serial killer, Nighthawks (1981), comedies Night Shift (1982), Losin’ It (1983), and Married to the Mob (1988). His final film was Rapid Fire (1989).

Spinell was working on a sequel to Maniac (1980) when he suddenly died of a heart attack. He was 52 years old, and the cause of his death is still debated.

Barbara Hale played the mother of surfer Matt, Mrs. Barlow. Hale was born in 1922, and following her education, she became a model for a comic strip. Hale began making movies in 1943. Notable roles include The Window (1949), Jolson Sings Again (1949), Airport (1970), and Big Wednesday (1978). One film that stands out above all of the other is The Houston Story (1956). In this film noir film, Hale played sexy singer Zoe Crane who reinvents her past through song. However, she meets a sad fate at the end[3].

However, none of the above matters much because she is and will always be Della Street from the television show “Perry Mason” 1957-1966 and around 30 made for TV movies focusing on Perry Mason. He son William Katt even replaced William Hopper following his death. This was Barbara’s last film role. This beloved actress died in 2017 at the age of 94.

Fran Ryan played Lucy. Ryan often played grouchy tough female characters but always with a lovable side. Ryan had a number of film roles including Big Wednesday (1978), Rocky II (1979), Stripes (1981), and Pale Rider (1985). However, she was more familiar as a television actress. She played the maid on “The Doris Day Show” in 1968. She replaced Amada Blake on the last season of “Gunsmoke” in 1955 as Miss Hannah and replaced the original pig owning Doris Ziffel on “Green Acres” in 1965. Ryan died in 2000.

Charlene Tilton was one of the background party girls, and I only mention her because of the large role she later had on televisions “Dallas” 1978 – 1990.

Big Wednesday (1978)

Big Wednesday (1978)

Stacy Keach, Sr. had a small role as an Old Man by the beach. He had a long career but at this time is better known as the father of Stacy Keach.

Celia Milius had a small role as the bride of surfboard maker Bear. It is nice to be married to the director.

Director John Milius made a cameo as the pot dealer in Tijuana


The South Swell 1962

The movie begins with the seasonal swell of 1962 at Malibu. A strong wind is turning the waves into mountains of water.

Matt the Enforcer (Jan-Michael Vincent) is hung over. His two friends, Jack (William Katt), and Leroy the Masochist (Gary Busey) are taking him to the beach, but he has to make his way down on his own, even though he is too drunk to walk, much less surf. Leroy forces a kid to lend a board to Matt. Finally, the drunken Matt catches a wave, and he is the best surfer around.

Waxer (Darrell Fetty) and Peggy Gordon (Lee Purcell) are encouraging Jack to have a party for the end of the summer. They spend their days suffering and partying with friends. At the old pier, Bear (Sam Melville), an older guy, that builds surfer boards, keeps the guys connected with the traditions of the past. Bear tells the younger kids that no one surfers forever. Except may Old Shopping Cart (Hank Worden), a bum that pushes a shopping cart and fishes for food. Bear talks of surfing in Hawaii as he fiberglasses a board designed for big waves. Bear talks of the big wave coming again, and it will be Matt, Jack, and Leroy’s time.

On the way back from the beach, they stop at a café run by Lucy (Fran Ryan). There Jack meets a new waitress Sally (Patti D’Arbanville). The surfers get thrown out for food fighting. Later, Jack comes back to ask Sally out to the party. The party is full of drunken silliness. Jack’s mother (Barbara Hale) is calmly waiting in her room while the party goes on. New York Times film critic Janet Maslin wrote of  Mr. Milius’ directing:

“…encourages such stiffness in his players that Barbara Hale, for instance, is quite unconvincing as Mr. Katt’s mother. This is a faux pas of no mean eminence; after all, Miss Hale actually is Mr. Katt’s mother.[4]

She is reading “Catch-22.”

Finally, some guys crash the party and cause a big fight. They go for an Animal House (1978) moment as all the surfers scream “crashers” and leave what they’re doing, even having sex. After the fight, the party slows down. Matt and Peggy are drunk out of their minds as Bear happily watches over.

The three surfers, Sally, and Peggy head to Tijuana where they spend their time drinking beer under a bridge. Peggy announces that she is going to have a baby. Later they cruise the strip, and the director makes a cameo as a pot dealer. Leroy takes off with a cab driver, and Matt and Jack take their dates to the worst bar in Mexico to take a date. A local that knows Matt calls Peggy a whore and another fight starts. It ends with a knife fight and the Federalies shooting a man. As Matt runs away, he sees another body. In the morning, their car has been vandalized. Of course, they left it parked under a bridge in Mexico. Leroy shows up with a girl he has married. They leave her behind.

Big Wednesday (1978)

Big Wednesday (1978)

Sometime later, they go to the beach for an end of summer party. Jack takes Sally to see Bear, and he says the pier has been condemned, and they are living under a government state. Bear says he has to go live like an in-lander.

The West Swell 1965

Jack is working as a lifeguard, much to Bear’s chagrin. He gets his draft notice. Later he sees a drunk sleeping on the beach. It is Matt. Jack calls his old friend to the lifeguard station, but Matt leaves. Leroy has a draft notice for the same date. Sally shows up at the beach with her now three-year-old daughter. She says Matt got a draft notice as well. Matt plays bullfighter with the cars and causes a bad wreck. Later Jack finds Matt and knocks him senseless before ordering him off the beach.

Bear is back in business and more successful than ever. He is getting married. Waxer works in the shop. Matt comes sheepishly into the shop. Bear utters the essential truth – you need a friend when you’re wrong, not when your right. Matt is still the best surfer, but he can’t get past his own drinking. Bear gives Matt a hard lesson about growing up. In the background are Bear’s purple heart and bronze star possibly from the Korean Conflict.

At the wedding, Bear says friends are the most important thing anyone has got. Jack and Matt reconcile under the mentoring of Bear. The bride is Celia Milius. It’s good to know the director.

Matt, Leroy, Waxer, and another guy all show up for their physical on the same day. Matt wears a brace and lets someone hit him on the knee, Leroy puts on oil-soaked clothes and rubs a dead fish on himself, while Waxer sheds his traditional Nazi uniform jacket to pretend to be gay, which was disqualifying in those days. The four surfers march to the entrance, and it is said to be modeled after The Wild Bunch (1969) where they went to fight the Mexican soldiers. Matt’s bum leg works, and he is released. The Army Sergeant (Frank McRae) doesn’t fall for Waxer’s trick, and he is drafted into the Marine Corps. Gray Busey as Leroy seems really crazy as he works with Army Psychologist (Joe Spinell). I’m not sure Busey is acting. Matt joins the Army without any evasion. Matt goes for one last surf before the Army.

By the time of the Watt’s Riots in 1965, Jack is already an Army Ranger. His friends say a sad farewell to him before he leaves for Vietnam. Jack tells Matt to take care of the people at home. Jack calls Sally’s name with no response before the screen fades.

The North Swell 1968

Waxer was killed in Vietnam. Matt goes to the funeral, and when he talks to Waxer’s father, he realizes that the man didn’t know anything about his son’s interests. Matt has a pool business and surfers when he can. Matt meets Peggy at Lucy’s café, but hippies have taken over. Matt is invited to a surfer movie, and the letter says there is footage of him. Matt is surprised they remember him. Matt, Peggy, and their daughter go to the movie, and it is mostly about Gary Lopez (he played Subotai in Conan the Barbarian (1982)), who plays himself. The footage of Matt is very short. He leaves sad and feeling forgotten.

Peggy is at the beach with her daughter, and Jack comes back wearing his shiny jump boots. He has a Ranger tab, CIB, master jump wings, and pathfinder on his uniform. Jack goes out to surf with Matt. Leroy is on the pro-pipeline surfer circuit. They tell Matt that Bear has lost his money and his wife. He is a drunk and living on the street. Matt says he thought about Bear a lot when he was away. Matt goes to see Sally, and she is married to somebody else.

Matt, Jack, and Leroy go to see Waxer’s grave and have a drink with him. Jack talks about being scared and wonders how his friend died. Matt gives a good surfer eulogy for Waxer. Jack says he is ready to move inland.

Big Wednesday (1978)

Big Wednesday (1978)

The Great Swell 1974 – Big Wednesday

That one Wednesday the biggest swell ever starts rolling in. Matt goes to see Jack’s mother trying to find Jack. Jack has a cushy federal job. Matt apologizes for the things he did at the house while growing up.

Matt heads to the beach all alone and goes out on the condemned pier to see the waves at night. Bear is their drinking, but he is happy to see his old friend. Bear asks if Jack and Leroy will be there. Bear has the big wave board he had made so long ago for Matt to ride. Bear says the most important thing was that the three surfers respected him. Matt says he and Bear should go home and that the other two will not be there. He says everything is gone and nobody is left. Bear gets mad and sends Matt away with the board.

At sunup, the waves are crashing as Matt leaves for the beach. This time, he has Peggy’s full blessings. People are being crushed, and the lifeguards are trying to keep people off the beach. Rescue boats and helicopters are pulling people out of the water.

Matt comes down the road with his board. He sees that Lopez is there to surf. Matt walks down the destroyed steps leading to the beach. At the bottom, Jack and Leroy are waiting with their boards. The three surfers make their way along the beach like they are going to war. Bear is digging in a garbage can and tells a kid the waves will get bigger. As the three surfers paddle out, other surfers are being destroyed by the waves. Lopez is riding the wave.

Leroy heads out first and gets in the pipeline. Jack goes next and gets a good ride. Bear watches from the beach. Finally, Matt catches a wave. Lopez admires the other surfers. They spend the day surfing as the waves get bigger. At last the waves are too much for Leroy and he goes in. Jack watches from the side as Matt takes on a great wave. The wave finally takes Matt down. He is twisted and torn underwater. Jack surfs to Matt and dives in to help. Leroy goes in as well and they, at last, recover their friend.

On the beach, a kid returns Matt’s board. Matt tells the kid to keep the board and if the swells come again for him to ride it. This keeps Bear’s legacy alive. Another kid asks Bear if he is a surfer and Bear says “no, he is just a garbage man.” Lopez is still surfing.

Big Wednesday (1978)

Big Wednesday (1978)

Matt says “Lopez. He’s as good as they always said he was.” Leroy comes back with “So were we.” The friends depart, with a part of their lives over and vow to stay in touch

World-Famous Short Summary – Nobody surfs forever

I hope you enjoyed today’s show. I really appreciate you spending the time listening. You can find connections to social media and email on my site at There are links in the podcast show notes as well. Remember this show is completely free and independent. All I ask is that you jump over to Apple Podcast and give me a review. It really helps the show get found.

Beware the moors

[2] Maslin, Janet. The New York Times, film review, “Big Wednesday Gets Caught in Some Rough Surf: Buddyhood of Surfing”, July 28, 1978. Accessed: August 7, 2013.
[3] Keenan, Vince. “Songbirds: A Musical Survey of Romance, Ruin, and Remorse” In Noir City, Vol. 6., No. 1, Spring 2011. San Francisco, CA.
[4] Maslin, Janet. The New York Times, film review, “Big Wednesday Gets Caught in Some Rough Surf: Buddyhood of Surfing”, July 28, 1978. Accessed: August 7, 2013.


Big Wednesday (1978)

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