Godspeed, Bruce Brown, 1937-2017

Bruce Brown, a documentary movie icon who transformed two misunderstood and shunned activities, surfing and motorcycle racing, into popular American pastimes died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 80.

I made a request to interview Bruce in 1996 for Motocross Journal (November/December 1996). My motivation was not an On Any Sunday 25th anniversary feature (On Any Sunday was released in 1971). I simply wanted to meet the man who helped shape my lifelong love of motorcycling and at the time, not a lot was being published about Bruce in motorcycle publications (he would later get well-deserved V.I.P. treatment at On Any Sunday screenings in Southern California). He agreed to a 40-minute sit down at his ranch in Goleta, California. We ended up staying close to four hours!

The late Tom White interviewing Bruce at a special screening of On Any Sunday.

Photographer (and surfer) John Ker and I were welcomed by Bruce and his wife Pat (who proceeded Bruce in death) at their secluded ranch just off the 101 Highway. Bruce was easy to talk to (although I never remember being so intimidated while conducting an interview) and he made both John and I feel welcome. Got to admit, it was one of the highlights of my life to meet this icon and become a friend.

Bruce with retired racer Jim Rice (who was featured in On Any Sunday) and Jim’s son Kyle (who is now 24). Jim says, “Bruce was a lot of fun, and a very interesting person! He will be missed by myself and many other people.”

I got a call from Bruce a few years later asking if I would sit down for another interview. This time, the interview would run at the end of On Any Sunday’s DVD release as a DVD bonus feature. I jumped at the chance. We recorded the interview in a studio in Thousand Oaks, California, and I still cringe when listening to it. You hear Bruce Brown’s golden voice responding to questioned asked by a squeaky-voiced and obviously nervous Jimmy Mac.

Mert Lawwill and Bruce sign autographs at a flat track race in Ventura.

What set Bruce apart was his vision and determination to do things his way. He operated outside of Hollywood (and New York, where Bruce said most of the movie industry funding decisions were actually made in the 70’s), following the advice of his close friend, Steve McQueen. He made films he wanted to make and in doing so, had a tremendous influence on my generation (and generations to come).

Godspeed, Bruce. I’m going to watch On Any Sunday tonight for the 36th time.

Bruce Brown, an outlaw of the movie business. Bruce always carried a baby photo of himself in his wallet, an inside joke to his friends (and I ain’t telling).

Bruce Brown and the Hitchhiker
There is one Bruce story that has nothing to do with his movies, but it still fascinates me. Here is how Bruce told it to me….

I’m driving the Coast Highway and there is this long-haired guy with a surfboard hitchhiking. I pick him up and as I start driving he says to me, “I guess you don’t remember me, Bruce.” I was startled and said to him, “No, am I supposed to know you?” The passenger then introduced himself. It was Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys and we had met at an event for one of my surfing movies. I asked him what he was doing hitchhiking instead of driving his own car. He explained that the popularity of the Beach Boys was isolating and he wanted to stay in touch with real people. I was impressed with that.

I wish I had a shot of these two icons riding in a pickup sharing a beautiful California summer day. Bruce’s story (and his movies) captures the essence of a time now lost. Thanks Bruce, for preserving this special time.

It was privilege to meet the guy who helped shape my life and an honor to work with him. 

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