When Charlton Heston suited up for the New Orleans Saints

By Mike Scott

It’s a story that should sound familiar to Saints fans: The team’s beloved veteran quarterback, revered for leading the black-and-gold to an NFL title years earlier, goes down with an injury, leaving him to defy Father Time and stage a comeback.

Actor Charlton Heston, wearing Saints QB Billy Kilmer’s No. 17, goes under center in an image from the 1969 gridiron drama “Number One,” which was filmed in New Orleans with a number of real-life Saints players portraying themselves. (Image via NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune archive)

No, this isn’t a story about Drew Brees, whose snapped thumb ligament forced him to the sidelines for most of the first half of the 2019 season. It’s about Ron “Cat” Catlan, the hairy-chested — and fictional — Saints quarterback played by Charlton Heston in the 1969 gridiron melodrama “Number One.”

Brees, of course, completed his comeback Oct. 27 by leading his team to a 31-9 victory over the Arizona Cardinals. But with the 7-1 Saints on bye this weekend — and with this year marking the 50th anniversary of the release of “Number One” — it’s as good a time as any for an instant replay of director Tom Gries’ film, which can be streamed via iTunes ($3.99), Vudu ($3.99) and Amazon ($5.99).

For Saints fans, there are a number of good reasons to relive it. For starters, there are those Brees-Catlan similarities. There’s also the amusement to be gleaned from the knowledge that the team, for the movie’s purposes, was supposed to be a championship team. In reality, they were only a year old and embarking on what would be more than four decades of relentless futility.

(Yeah. We can all laugh about that now.)

There’s also the nostalgia factor, including the chance to see game film of the 1968 Saints, as well as time-capsule shots of the French Quarter and Tulane Stadium. Even Al Hirt, then a Saints part-owner, gets a couple of scenes in which to blow his horn. A number of Saints players also play themselves.

Almost as much fun is the ripe-for-mockery dialogue — and precisely the type of behind-the-scenes stories you’d expect for a movie about the Saints.

A taste of the latter: Co-star Bruce Dern has long been an avid long-distance runner, often hoofing 15 to 20 miles a day during his time in town. One day, according to a story in The States-Item, he decided to run across the Huey P. Long Bridge.

One problem: Pedestrians are illegal on the bridge. Dern was stopped and ticketed.

When the production was shooting in St. Tammany Parish, he was stopped again, this time while running down U.S. 190 in Mandeville. What he didn’t realize was that he was running past the Southeast Louisiana Mental Hospital. Authorities apparently suspected he was an escapee.

He was released when it was discovered he was just from Hollywood.

Back to Brees and Catlan: Yes, they’re both championship-winning Saints quarterbacks. Yes, they’re both coming off an injury. And, yes, they’re both 40.

But the similarities end there.

For starters, Heston’s Catlan is clearly over the hill. When a bum knee forces him into sideline duty, he’s left grappling with the existential crisis around which “Number One” revolves.

It’s actually an intriguing theme for a movie: a once-elite athlete watching as the thing that has defined him for so long wanes. With its melancholy and melodramatic tone, “Number One” offers a fairly interesting study of the fragility of the male ego.

To be more specific: It’s a study of the fragility of the late-1960s male ego.

Interesting though it is, that’s also the most cringe-inducing aspect of the film’s distinct period patina, and far less fun than the clothes, music and general filmmaking sensibilities on display.

One of the love scenes, for example — which starts with a slap fight and a struggle — is exactly the sort of thing that might land somebody in the calaboose today.

Another feels torn straight from the Hugh Hefner playbook, all brandy snifters, bearskin rugs and sexytime music. The only thing missing is the bracing smell of Old Spice.

Just as jarring is the weirdly artificial on-the-field banter. In one scene, Catlan connects on a pass as he marches his team ever closer to the end zone. Returning to the huddle, he growls to his teammates: “We kissed ’em. Now let’s take ’em to bed.”

Wait, WHAT?

Also artificial: Heston’s throwing motion. (This despite his having worked with former USC quarterback Craig Fertig before shooting began and with Saints QB Billy Kilmer once it started.)

As a workaround, producers had his character wear jersey No. 17, which was also Kilmer’s number. They then shot real game footage from the Saints’ 1968 campaign — against the Rams, Cowboys, Eagles and others. At key moments in the film, they inserted cutaway footage of Heston, captured during scrimmages at Tulane Stadium.

So, a typical in-game sequence looks something like this: A wide-angle shot of the Saints lining up against the opposing defense. The ball is snapped, and Kilmer — whom we see only from behind and at a distance — fades back to pass. Just as he cocks his arm, a medium, frontal shot of Heston throwing the ball out of frame is inserted. The film then cuts to a shot of Danny Ambramowicz catching Kilmer’s pass for a touchdown.

And the crowd goes wild.

It falls something short of seamless, but the chance to see that vintage game film — and those crowd shots — should be worth it for most Saints fans.

Speaking of fans: To pack the stands at one of those scrimmages during which Heston was filmed on the field, producers held a drawing in which five lucky people — of the estimated 10,000 in attendance — were offered their choice of either a new color TV or a part in the movie. All five took the TV.

As a bonus, they got to see two overeager extras high-low Heston, leaving him with a broken rib.

Soon after, a taped-up Heston dressed out for a game between the Saints and the Dallas Cowboys so producers could get footage of him stalking the sidelines. With the Saints behind in the fourth quarter, Saints fans — being Saints fans — started chanting: “We want Heston!”

He never went in. The Saints lost 17-3.

Local production on “Number One,” which was shot under the title “The Pro,” wrapped in December 1968, but the cast and crew returned eight months later for the world premiere, held at the Loew’s State Theatre on Canal Street on Aug. 21, 1969.

It wasn’t the most festive event for Heston and company, coming just days after Hurricane Camille decimated the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Tickets were $10 to $25, and part of the proceeds went to relief efforts. The Saints organization reportedly matched the amount raised.

Before the screening, Heston was mobbed by fans outside the theater. Several police officers were reportedly required to extricate him. Later that night, the hotel in which he was staying was evacuated because of a fire.

It all could have been seen as an omen.

“Number One” went on to become a box office afterthought. Critics were divided. Outside of New Orleans, crowds were ambivalent.

Poor Cat. He should have seen it coming.

“Cat, Graham couldn’t beat the clock,” he’s told at one point in the film. “Tittle couldn’t beat the clock. Conerly couldn’t beat the clock. And, Daddy Cat, you can’t beat the clock, either. You’re 40 years old, man. The party’s over. The king is dead.”

Nobody tell Drew Brees that.

This story was originally published Oct. 30 on NOLA.com and in The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate.

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