If you were riding motorcycles—or desperate to—when Richard Nixon was commander-in-chief, odds are you were one of the millions swept up in the cinematic wave of On Any Sunday that splashed into theaters that glorious summer of 1971. Not only was it the first real motorcycle movie ever made, it became an instant classic.
The film remains incredibly popular today because it was a pure and powerful examination of the two-wheel world, and the generations that have followed have been just as infected by its charms.
Forty years after movie projectors flickered On Any Sunday to life, Cycle World, in partnership with Monterey Media (distributors of OAS) reunited the film’s creator, Bruce Brown, and two of its now legendary stars—Mert Lawwill and Malcolm Smith—for a print-exclusive 40th anniversary feature.
Readers who can quote pieces of Brown’s narration for On Any Sunday verbatim will appreciate my personal exhilaration. After all, CW was handing me the enviable reins of interviewing the proverbial pied pipers of an entire generation of moto-heads (of which I was one).
The CW crew was invited to hang out at Brown’s ranch above Santa Barbara for two days of eavesdropping on fond recollections, doing interviews and hearing funny stories (The one Smith tells about the day he and Brown accidentally rode into fully active military exercises at Camp Pendleton in Southern California is classic). The result is a candid and revealing discussion of how On Any Sunday came to be, the lifelong friendships it spawned, and how no one involved ever imagined the impact the film was going to have.
Husqvarna (one of the mechanical stars of the original film) provided a 2012 TE250 “low” dual sport and a TXC 250 cross-country racer for Bruce, Malcolm and Mert to roost around on for old time’s sake. To be one of a handful of people witnessing this piece of two-wheel history unfolding was extraordinary. None of these guys has lost his lust for twisting a throttle.
At the end of the first day of photography, the CW crew sat on the porch of the ranch house with Bruce and Mert, watching Malcolm attempt a hillclimb on the property that had yet to be conquered. In shades of the Widowmaker scene, Malcolm, defying his 70 years, took the mountain after several attempts and launched the Husky over the top just as the sun was going down. It was an epic and surreal moment!
The second day, we recorded the trios’ commentary for the film (the first time this has been done). It was an amazing experience to be a fly on the wall as these three men watched On Any Sunday, recalling 40-year-old racing footage with a gleam in their eye. As Malcolm fondly remembered, “Back then you could buy a brand new Hodaka for $400 and enter a race for eight bucks.”
As an indication of just how much times have changed since the movie was released, consider that Mert was the reigning Grand National Champion, yet there he was in his garage, tearing apart the motor of his Harley XR-750 by himself. This was an era of true iron men, when half the national flat track field didn’t even wear gloves!
Bruce told us a story of how some of Mert’s family weren’t actually sure of what he did for a living, despite the fact that he was national champ. “He was sort of considered the black sheep,” Brown offered, “until Lawwill’s great aunt went to see the movie and in the middle of one of the scenes stood up and shouted, “That’s my grand nephew!’ Suddenly he was a big hero.”
Smith told a similar story about his mother, a proper lady and school teacher who only finally admitted he raced motorcycles for a living after the film came out.
Amidst the laughs and kidding around there were some heartfelt moments, especially whenever talk turned to their departed friend, Steve McQueen. McQueen was a key part of the film both behind and in front of the cameras. One particularly poignant recollection came from Lawwill: “Steve once said to me, ‘You’re lucky, you’re national champion. No one can ever take that away from you. I’m an actor, I’m always playing someone else.’”
Imagine, the world’s biggest movie star, the King of Cool, revealing that kind of respect and envy for someone who rode motorcycles. Amen.
The print-exclusive On Any Sunday 40th-anniversary feature appears in the January 2012 issue of Cycle World, on sale December 6. Check out the video to see what Malcolm Smith, Mert Lawwill and Bruce Brown have to say about the film four decades after its release and, as an added bonus, Cycle World interviewed current and past racing stars to get their thoughts and memories. Among them are: Nicky Hayden, Chris Carr, Jeff Ward, Ben and Eric Bostrom, Gene Romero and more. We got so much good stuff, not all of it would fit in the awesome short video below, so stay tuned for more.
In honor of Cycle World’s 50th anniversary and On Any Sunday’s 40th anniversary, we have teamed up with Monterey Media to make a special offer to Cycle World readers: Buy On Any Sunday Director’s Special Edition (or any of the other On Any Sunday titles available) and 50 percent of the proceeds will be donated to the Joseph C. Parkhurst Education Fund, named after Cycle World’s founding publisher. Through the Pediatric Brian Tumor Foundation, the fund has assisted nearly 1000 childhood brain tumor survivors in attending college. To pick up your copy, follow this link onanysundaymovie.com and relive the magic of On Any Sunday while helping pediatric brain tumor survivors achieve their educational hopes and dreams.