by Gerry Lopez
The telephone rang on a lazy day, there wasn’t any surf so I was just relaxing on the couch doing nothing.
“Gerry, this is Randall Kleiser calling, I met you once with John Milius, and he suggested I call you. I’m making a movie about surfing, and I’d like you to be in it.”
I knew Randall had made some great movies that were very successful. “Blue Lagoon” was one, and I particularly liked another called “The Flight of the Navigator.” We chatted some more, agreed that a script would come to me, and after reading it, I would get back to Randall, who was spending time on the North Shore where he owned a beach house near Leftovers.
The script arrived the next day, it was a quick read and, while it needed a little work with the pidgin dialogue and surfing information, it was basically a good story. A kid wins a surf contest in the wave pool in Big Surf, Arizona; his prize is a ticket to Hawai’i. He goes to the North Shore, gets creamed by the surf, gets into trouble with the Hui, hooks up with a local haole surfer who turns him on to a surfboard shaper and surf guru, learns the ropes, meets a beautiful local girl, finds himself in a rivalry with the top pro surfer, enters the big contest at the Pipeline …. Anyway, it was a story that was a little corny but still believable.
I liked the part of the surfboard shaper and surf guru, but when I met with Randall and his director, Bill Phelps, they said they wanted me for the part of Vince, the head of the Hui. Vince was a smaller part, but looked fun. There was also a part for a big, good-looking, blond pro surfer who acts like an asshole in the story. They asked me if I knew anyone who might be right for it. I had a good idea but figured the best way would be to just bring him over and let Randall and Bill see for themselves.
I asked Laird Hamilton to fly over from Maui, and the next day took him over to Randall’s house. Before we walked in, I told Laird to take off his shirt. He gave me a puzzled look, but did as I asked. Randall and Bill took one look – the good looks, blond hair, big body, total surfer persona and enormous presence – and without any readings or other casting bullshit, they both, almost in unison, said, “He’s perfect.” That was it; Laird had the part.
The production schedule called for a six-week shoot, which is very quick for a feature film, but Randall was a pro who knew exactly what he was doing. He had a formula where shooting a film this fast kept production costs down to a minimum, and if the box office receipts didn’t pay for it, then the cable television and video sales would. “North Shore” had a no-lose guarantee before it started, practically unheard of in the movie business.
Because the Hui figured so strongly in the script, I knew Randall and Bill would need to talk with the principals in that surf club, and soon before rumors, so prevalent on the North Shore, started flying. I would have loved to attend the meeting that Randall and Bill had with “Fast” Eddie Rothman and Tony “Squiddy” Sanchez: two sets of people as different as possible who needed to find some common ground. Randall and Bill showed up at Eddie’s house with a copy of the script to present their case. Eddie was the brains of the outfit, but the first thing he did when Randall handed him the script was to pass it over to Squiddy, saying, “I don’t read, he does all my reading for me.”
It must have been an interesting meeting, but the script showed the Hui in a truthful and somewhat favorable light. It was good publicity for an organization that did not enjoy a great reputation.
The Hui O He’e Nalu, or Black Shorts as they were known on the North Shore and throughout the surfing world, are a surf club of local Hawai’i surfers; the brainchild of Eddie Rothman. Surf clubs in the 1960s were extremely popular, all the good surfers belonged to one or another. As surfing grew more popular, new clubs would spring up among friends and surfing companions from certain areas. Interclub rivalries were built up and played out in surf contests; it was all good fun. By the 1970s, almost all interest had died out, and except for some old, die-hard members in the original of them all, the San Onofre Surf Club, there weren’t any other clubs left.
In the 1980s, when surfing had grown beyond anyone’s expectations, the North Shore of O’ahu was overrun with surfers, surf media, wannabes and too many people. The crowded surf spots were just plain pandemonium. Eddie had the idea to start a surf club, just like the old days, for the local boys who were outnumbered at their home breaks by the annual surf invasion. The Hui O He’e Nalu club members in their distinctive black Quiksilver® shorts began to gain a reputation for keeping a semblance of order – or perhaps to some, disorder – in the lineup by methods labeled as intimidation.
Most times it was just the sight of a pair of black shorts – sometimes some stink-eye and occasionally a head slap or two – for visiting surfers to realize they were taking more than a fair share of the waves. Public perception quickly grew beyond the reality, and a Hollywood scriptwriter had the Hui figuring prominently in a feature film about one winter season in the life of an Arizona surfer on the North Shore.
Eddie Rothman had quite a reputation of his own. For not being a very big guy, he was as tough as they come. In an environment like the North Shore where fighting for territory was common, there were few who would stand up to him. I knew Eddie from Huntington Beach back in 1967 before he moved to Hawaii; he was always a fair person and a friend. He was not, however, above creating some fun and mischief at my, or anyone else’s, expense if the opportunity arose. As the Hui chief and since, in a manner of speaking, I was playing his real life character as the head of the Hui in the movie, Eddie and I spent a lot of time together during the filming.
The female lead character and love interest in “North Shore,” Kiani, was written as a 16-year-old local girl and cousin of Vince. She comes across as a sweet girl who falls for the haole surfer and gets hassled by Lance Burkhart, the dickhead pro surfer played by Laird. The first girl Randall and Bill cast for the part was a Hollywood actress and quite a bit older than the 16-year-old character she was intending to play. I met her one afternoon with Matt Adler and John Philbin, the two male leads in the film. I was sitting in my yard at the Pipe house when I saw them all walking the beach and invited them up.
She seemed like a nice girl, but knowing the script, I couldn’t see her in the part of Kiani. I was, however, completely out of my depth in this. Casting selections, which seem odd sometimes, come across very well on film. Somehow Eddie got wind that I had met her and called me later to get the scoop.
“So what’s she look like?” he asked without preamble of any kind.
“She’s nice,” I said. “But kinda Hollywood,” I added by qualification.
“So, good or what?” Eddie grilled me further. I could see he wasn’t going to let it go easily.
“Yeah, not bad, not bad,” I answered, but he must have heard something in my voice that I didn’t even know was there. Eddie is a shrewd operator; not much gets by him.
“So not that great then, huh?” he sounded a bit disappointed.
“No, no, she’s fine, she just might be a stretch playing a 16 year old,” I tried to add, hoping to regain some dignity for the poor girl we were discussing like so much chopped liver, but it seemed as though Eddie had already dropped the subject.
A few nights later, Randall Keiser threw a big welcome party for the cast and friends. He had a nice beachfront home off Kam Highway, and I brought my mother, my wife and two of her girlfriends. It turned out to be one of the best parties I had been to on the North Shore. Randall was an extraordinarily gracious host, and there was a good mix of surf and movie people. Eddie corralled me and demanded I introduce him to the female lead.
I tapped her on the shoulder and said, “Hi, I want you to meet the real life head of the Hui, Eddie Rothman.”
She was very cordial, giving Eddie the Hollywood greeting like they were old friends. I heard Eddie say, “It’s very nice to meet you, I’ve heard so much about you.”
“Oh, really,” she was puzzled.
“Yeah, you know Gerry told me you had a big ass, but you look great to me,” Eddie replied straight-faced.
I almost fainted when I heard Eddie say that, and as I turned quickly to say it wasn’t so, I saw daggers in her eyes – very sharp ones. I’m sure she saw in mine that Eddie and I had indeed discussed her attributes, and that only made it worse as my friend let the moment hang before he spoke.
“Nah, nah, I was only joking, he never said that.” Eddie was laughing, but she wasn’t. I was trying to find a hole to crawl into.
As it turned out, after the first few days of shooting, reviewing the daily film shot, both director and producer decided that she just wasn’t right for the part. Hollywood can be a cut-throat industry, and apparently things like this happen often. They let her go and hired Nia Peeples, who did a terrific job as a beautiful Kiani character. I never saw the other girl again; I doubt she would be happy to see me anyway. Eddie and I still laugh about it. I keep telling him he’s got one coming for that, and he always says that he told her he was only joking.
The filming went well. Randall had a terrific crew who knew what they were doing. The only regret I have about the entire film was that the waves didn’t cooperate. We had permits for the Pipeline, and normally spring is the prime season there. But the storms just didn’t happen and the surf never got very big. We had some nice small days, but there is nothing like big Pipeline on the big screen to capture the audience.
Don King was the principal water cameraman, and late one afternoon when we were shooting some pick-up shots, one good wave, bigger than anything else that day, did come my way. Don happened to be in the right spot and we got a beautiful backlit shot that they used for my character in the movie during the final surf contest scene.
Recently I saw the movie “Blue Crush,” a similar Hollywood surf movie. They got some great Pipeline waves and it was, in my opinion, what made the movie a financial success.
“North Shore” did not have great box office results upon release. But in much the same way as “Big Wednesday,” after a few years passed, it was much more appreciated and became a cult classic with a big influence on many young people. Randall Kleiser sends my wife, Toni, and I a Christmas card every year. John Philbin and I have gone to G-land together as he has become a surfer for life since the film, claiming the movie changed his whole reason for living. Greg Harrison, who played Chandler the surfboard shaper and surf guru, lives in Oregon, and we stay in touch. Nia Peeples and I see each other every so often and she is still, every bit Kiani, my sweet, little, island-girl cousin.
Surfing continues to grow in popularity. Hollywood, which avoided it in the past, embraces it now. When “North Shore” was being filmed, young surfers had little interest in anything beyond what had occurred in the last several years. Now there is a retro movement in both surfboards and surf fashion. I guess as they say, what goes around, comes around.
I still have the black shorts I wore and the surfboard I used in “North Shore,” but I have had to pull that pair of shorts out of the garbage more than a few times; my wife’s spring-cleaning instincts don’t allow her to see them as anything more than taking up space. Meanwhile I live, not so much with the last wave, as for the next wave. Life goes on. Keep surfing.
If you're interested in more stories from Gerry, check out his new book Surf Is Where You Find It – a hardbound collection of 38 stories with new and vintage photographs. Choose from the regular edition or the boxed, limited edition that has extra photos and is signed and numbered by the author.