Gervase Duan Spradlin was born in rural Oklahoma in 1920. He earned a degree in education from the University of Oklahoma and taught for a brief period just before the outbreak of World War II, where he served in China. After the war, Spradlin earned his law degree and quickly rose through the ranks of the legal team for Phillips Petroleum. In the early fifties, he started his own oil company, struck it rich, and retired by the end of the decade. After trying his hand in politics, Spradlin became interested in acting – now in his forties – when his daughter started auditioning for local productions. He soon moved to Los Angeles, where he broke into the business playing guest roles on many of the popular series of that era. His big break came when he was cast as Senator Pat Geary in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather: Part 2. After that, he mostly played authority figures in films like One On One, Apocalypse Now, North Dallas Forty, and finally, in Dick, Spradlin’s last movie, where he played famed newspaper editor Ben Bradlee.
If you grew up in the ‘70’s and watched a lot of TV and movies, then you might have a negative reaction at seeing Spradlin’s photo – not because of his appearance, but by how effectively he portrayed men who were the embodiment of “the system” gone wrong.
In The Godfather: Part 2, watch how Senator Geary seamlessly glides from glad-handing politician to tough-talking power broker and back again at the beginning of the story when he meets with Michael Corleone. It’s a chilling portrayal of corruption that perfectly and more nakedly mirrors Michael’s own slide into darkness.
Godfather 2 was released during the Watergate era, and as that incident forever wiped away our insistence on the goodness of our elected officials, Spradlin’s performance eerily anticipates a cascade of scandals that have now become cliché.
One On One is a movie that’s largely forgotten now, but because of its star, teen heart-throb Robbie Benson, it was a surprise hit in 1977. The movie is a coming-of-age tale about a bumpkin (Benson) who earns a scholarship to a large basketball factory, much like UK or North Carolina. Spradlin plays the coach, a my-way-or-the-highway dictator who is equal parts Wooden and Patton. Spradlin’s coach resorts to brutal tactics to get the attention of, and ultimately scare off, Benson’s character, who must learn to be a man.
One On One is an interesting time capsule. The way the student athletes are given preferential treatment with grades and jobs is played as absurd comedy, but it wasn’t long afterwards that programs like UK were being hit with crippling penalties for doing pretty much the same thing. Leading the charge is Spradlin, the coach as CEO.
For Apocalypse Now, Spradlin teamed up with Coppola once again for a small but powerful role as the General who gives Martin Sheen his orders to kill a fellow officer, played by Marlon Brando.
Spradlin is effective as the polished professional soldier who can quote Lincoln on the fly, exhibit a courtly manner, and disarm the nervous junior officer with a warm sense of humor – all to mask a sense of desperation in how to handle one of their own, who has seemingly gone mad, a victim of the fog of war.
Spradlin looked the part, probably relying on his experiences as a soldier and high-powered attorney, to be a stand in for The Military. He sets the tone for the movie, even if it becomes discordant when contrasted with the madness to come.
Finally, there’s North Dallas Forty, the freewheeling comedy based on America’s Team – the Dallas Cowboys of the 1970’s. Spradlin is B.A. Strothers, a stand-in for Tom Landry, the successful but distant coach of the team.
Who better to play the buttoned-down, IBM-like innovator than Spradlin? He was perfect as a cold and calculating numbers crunching leader whose allegiance was to data over something as unquantifiable as heart or big play capability.
In the late seventies, football was well into becoming the money-generating behemoth it is today, and North Dallas Forty was a light-hearted attack on how the fun was being bled from the league in favor of turning it into Big Business. Spradlin’s portrayal of the Landry-esque coach perfectly embodies this transition from seat-of-the-pants entrepreneurialism to corporate sameness.
Rarely has an actor so successfully monopolized a niche for himself. In an era that worships the chameleon-like abilities of a Daniel Day Lewis, it’s nice to take a moment and honor the career of an actor who supported great film talents of his era with equal craft.