How former Auburn football player Roy Tatum found God, stopped cussing, and changed the script to ‘Cannonball Run’

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

How former Auburn football player Roy Tatum found God, stopped cussing, and changed the script to ‘Cannonball Run’

In the late 1970s, Roy Tatum, former Auburn football star turned world-famous Burt Reynolds lookalike turned bigfoot turned ordained minister, stopped cussing. It was kind of a miracle. The language he’d grown up hearing and using was, as he put it, “flowery.” That’s how it goes when you bounce with your dad from construction camp to construction camp. Certain words just kind of embed themselves in your code. He couldn’t break it, but there was never a real reason to. Until the night he spent at home in Atlanta with Billy Graham.

Tatum was growing disillusioned. At least a little. There was good money in bit roles and commercials. Land a spot that ran nationally and you might get $10,000. But playing cops and cowboys didn’t do a lot in terms of personal fulfillment.

It was actually the baseball player gig that finally did it.

“I’d been over to Georgia Tech and had shot a beer commercial,” Roy says. “It was just one of those quick in and out things. I was a baseball pitcher, threw a couple of balls, took a beer, drank it, and boom—it was over. Good money, but just quick. And I thought, ‘man, there wasn’t much to this today.’ So I was just getting kind of bored, kind of jaded with it to some degree. Because it’s not what you think it is.”

In other words, Roy Tatum was thinking there was more to life than television. And he found it in a television.

“I remember going home and it was night and I think my wife was out of town or something, and I was sitting there just thinking through it,” Tatum says. “All of a sudden the TV just came on by itself. It was back before we had remote controls, and I looked up and Billy Graham came on the TV.”

Billy started reading Roy’s mind.

“He said, ‘there’s more to life than what you’re doing.’ He said, ‘I know you know that.’ And I said, ‘this guy’s talking to me.”

Thirty minutes later, Roy was talking to God.

“At the end of his sermon, he said ‘I want you to come up here if you’re really serious about your walk with the Lord, or even if you just want to get saved. Put your hand on the screen.’ He said, ‘there’s nothing mystical about this, it’s just a point of contact, and just pray with me.’ And he prayed the salvation prayer and I thought, ‘you know, that’s something.'”

But what? What did he feel? And was it real? He was skeptical. He needed a sign. He asked for one. It didn’t take long.

“I got up the next morning and an old buddy of mine came over and we were sitting around thinking about what we’re going to do for the day. And something happened.”

He can’t remember what it was. Maybe he dropped a hammer on his toe. Maybe he and the old buddy got into an argument. Whatever it was, it was something that typically would have given bloom to flowery language.

“Normally, I would have cussed a blue streak. And I started to do that, but it kind of hung up in my throat.”

As in, almost physically hung up in his throat. 

“I thought, ‘well, that could have been nothing.’ But it happened again about an hour later, and I thought ‘this is crazy, what’s going on here?'”

Not long after, Tatum flipped through a Bible. He stopped at Ephesians 4:29.

Let no filthy talk be heard from your mouths, but only what is good for building up people and meeting the need of the moment.

“I thought, ‘well, that’s real stuff'”—so real that two years later it kind of changed a tiny bit of Hollywood history.



He didn’t even have to read for the part in Cannonball Run (that movie with the Auburn shirt). That’s a good thing about being established in the industry. Casting directors remember that you were there on time for all your Norma Rae scenes and remembered your lines and stuff. You don’t have to prove yourself. You just show up.

His agent called. “Connecticut Patrolmen” sounded innocent enough. It sounded like a part he’d played a million times before without offending the Lord.

It wasn’t, at least in Roy’s mind.

There was nothing PG about Connecticut Patrolman’s reaction to the Lamborghini Girls, not originally. Not that Adrienne Barbeau’s… wallet… wasn’t worthy of flowery language. That was part of the plot. But repeatedly taking the Lord’s name in vain—like, really in vain—wasn’t part of Roy’s plot. Not anymore.

So he did what he had to, paycheck be darned.

“This is something you never really do, but I had to walk up to (director) Hal Needham, and I said, ‘look, nobody sent me the (script) sides here, so I didn’t know what the dialog was until I just got it.’ I said ‘I have a real problem with this.’ I said, ‘listen, I’m a Christian, and I’ve got children at home and people that see me,’ and I said ‘I can’t do this. I can’t say that.'”

“OK,” Needham replied.

“He said ‘you make it work,'” Roy says.

Roy made it work. Connecticut Patrolman still had to obviously enjoy the view when he the Lamborghini Girls got out of the car, but Roy whittled it down to a “hell” and a “damn,” words he wouldn’t use now, “but I was kind of caught in a situation.”

Sure, but c’mon, Roy—it was a nice situation, right? It had to be a pretty fun scene to shoot, right? I mean, Adrienne Barbeau? Dressed like that? How was that?

Matthew 5:28.

“She was a nice gal.”

from The War Eagle Reader

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