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11 Prominent Authors Who Excelled in Sports

Some of the most important literary figures of the last century had previously made a name for themselves in athletics. Here are the stories of a halfback who became a beatnik, an Olympic-hopeful wrestler who became leader of the Merry Pranksters, and nine other athletically gifted writers.

1. Ken Kesey

Reading Tom Wolfe's anatomical account of Kesey in The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, with his "thick wrists and big forearms," "big neck with a pair of stemocleido-mastoid muscles," whose "jaw and chin are massive," it's little surprise he was a standout football player and wrestler as an Oregonian schoolboy. Kesey's prowess on the mat landed him at The University of Oregon where, competing in the 174 lb. division, he earned the Fred Lowe Scholarship, awarded annually to the Northwest's most outstanding wrestler.

A shoulder injury sustained during preliminary qualifying for the United States Olympic team effectively ended his wrestling days while simultaneously kick-starting his literary career: The same day Kesey was notified by the military that the injury classified as 4F, thus disqualifying him for service in Vietnam, he was also granted the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, which allowed him to enter Stanford's writing program.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons user MDCarchives

2. David Foster Wallace

Like Kesey, Wallace's imposing stature in the literary field was equal parts metaphorical and literal. Author David Lipsky observed the late writer walking with "...an ex-athlete's saunter – a roll from the heels, as if any physical thing was a pleasure."

A football enthusiast in his youth, Wallace spent his post-pubescence pursuing and maintaining a level of, as he put it, "...near great junior tennis player." As a 14-year-old, he enjoyed a U.S. Tennis Association ranking of 17th in the Midwest, 4th in his home state of Illinois, and, by his own estimation, "around one hundredth in the nation." Even in his athletic twilight, he continued to possess unwavering confidence in his abilities, confessing, "deep down inside, I still consider myself an extremely good tennis player, very hard to beat."

The subject of tennis—its beauty, intricacies, participants, etc.—permeates the late post-modernist's bibliography, so it's of little surprise when Wallace, in an Esquire profile of tennis pro Michael Joyce, submits "...that tennis is the most beautiful sport there is and also the most demanding." A man known for footnotes, his life in tennis was anything but.

Photo by Flickr user claude le monde (Claudia Sherman)

3. Jack Kerouac

The protagonist of Jack Kerouac's first novel, The Town and The City, enjoys success as a high school football star before accepting an athletic scholarship. As is the case with the majority of the Beat writer's works, it's largely autobiographical.

The Lowell, MA, native ran track and played in the outfield for his hometown school, but it was in the backfield for Lowell's football squad where he enjoyed the most success. Several top universities, including Boston College and Notre Dame, expressed interest in his services before he accepted a scholarship offer from Columbia University. However, constant clashes with his head coach and a major tibia injury in the season's second game ended his football career.

A recent piece on Kerouac's childhood, entitled "Another Side of Kerouac: The Dharma Bum as Sports Nut," reveals the author's childhood passion for fantasy sports decades before the concept entered into the collective consciousness of American sports fans: "He obsessively played a fantasy baseball game of his own invention, charting the exploits of made-up players... He collected their stats, analyzed their performances..."

Photograph by Tom Palumbo, via his Flickr stream

4. Samuel Beckett


Beckett's obituary in the New York Times features the sub-header, "A Star in Study and Sports," a fitting summation of the cricketer/rugby player/light-heavyweight boxer turned novelist/playwright/theater director.

Beckett's affection for cricket remained long after his playing days ended, and it's as a cricketer that he enjoys his most noteworthy distinctions. As a student at Dublin University, the lefty bowler/batter twice participated in 'first-class' cricket matches ('first-class' referring to the highest level of domestic cricket as sanctioned by the game's governing body). Upon receiving the 1969 Nobel Prize for literature, Beckett earned the double-distinction of "only Nobel laureate to have played first-class cricket" and "only laureate to have an entry in Wisden Cricketeers' Almanack," which is considered the foremost authority on the game.

5. Jim Carroll

By the age of 13, Jim Carroll was cementing his legend on the basketball courts of New York City's Lower East Side and writing, in the words of Jack Kerouac, "better prose than 89 percent of the novelists working today."

Carroll's family moved to the northern Manhattan neighborhood of Inwood, and his raw, prodigious talents on the court and in the classroom earned him a half-academic, half-athletic scholarship to Manhattan's Trinity School, one of the nation's elite prep schools. A three-time All-City performer while at Trinity, he was selected to play in the National High School All-Star Game in 1966.

But schoolboy exploits only tell half the story. As is the case with all too many NYC hoop legends of the era, his playground exploits are left to the subjective memory of oral historians who recall Carroll's rivalry with fellow Inwood resident Lew Alcindor, among other greats.

While his addiction to heroin—famously chronicled in The Basketball Diaries—adversely affected his chances of playing college ball (he once recalled nodding off during dinner with a representative from Notre Dame), Carroll maintained that it was literature, not dope, that killed his basketball game.

Photograph by Eric Thompson, via the Jim Carroll fan site

6. Tom Wolfe

Prior to his career as New Journalist and writer, Tom Wolfe's foremost aspiration was to play professional baseball. After starring on the mound at Richmond's St. Christopher's School, Wolfe found himself on the pitching staff at Washington and Lee University. Possessing, in his own words, "a great screwball," he would go on to play a couple of seasons of semi-professional baseball until 1952, when he was granted a tryout for the New York Giants. Having been cut by the Giants after only 3 days, which he attributes to a lack of a fastball, the writer was prompted to forgo his baseball dreams and pursue a PhD in American Studies at Yale.

Upon reflection of his failed diamond pursuits, Wolfe remarked, "The only thing that saved me from a very poor career as a professional baseball player is the fact that I wasn't good enough."

Photo is from the White House Salute to American Authors in 2004

Honorable Mentions

7. Malcolm Lowry
Author of Under the Volcano, he won the junior golf championship at the Royal Liverpool Golf Club at age 15.

8. John Fowles
A member of The Times' "50 Greatest British Writers Since 1945" list, Fowles attended the Bedford School and was a standout on the rugby, fives, and cricket teams.

9. Roald Dahl
Acclaimed author of several of the greatest modern children's books, as well as screenplays for You Only Live Once and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the 6'6" Dahl played football, boxed in the heavyweight division, and captained the fives and squash teams at Repton, a famed public school.

10. Stephen Crane
Author of The Red Badge of Courage, he played baseball as a catcher at three different colleges: Claverack, Lafayette, and Syracuse.

11. James Dickey
Former U.S. Poet Laureate and author of Deliverance, he played tailback at Clemson Agricultural College of South Carolina.

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© 2017 USPS
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Pop Culture
Speedy Delivery: Mister Rogers Will Get His Own Stamp in 2018
© 2017 USPS
© 2017 USPS

USPS 2018 Mister Rogers stamp
© 2017 USPS

After weeks of mailing out this year’s holiday cards, postage might be the last thing you want to think about. But the U.S. Postal Service has just given us a sneak peek at the many iconic people, places, and things that will be commemorated with their own stamps in 2018, and one in particular has us excited to send out a few birthday cards: Mister Rogers.

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Fred Rogers’s groundbreaking PBS series that the USPS says “inspired and educated young viewers with warmth, sensitivity, and honesty,” the mail service shared a mockup of what the final stamp may look like. On it, Rogers—decked out in one of his trademark colorful cardigans (all of which were hand-knitted by his mom, by the way)—smiles for the camera alongside King Friday XIII, ruler of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

Though no official release date for Fred’s forever stamp has been given, Mister Rogers is just one of many legendary figures whose visages will grace a piece of postage in 2018. Singer/activist Lena Horne will be the 41st figure to appear as part of the USPS’s Black Heritage series, while former Beatle John Lennon will be the face of the newest Music Icons collection. Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, will also be honored.

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Grant Lamos IV/Getty Images for the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival
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entertainment
15 Surprising Facts About Steve Buscemi
Grant Lamos IV/Getty Images for the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival
Grant Lamos IV/Getty Images for the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival

With his meme-worthy eyes, tireless work schedule, and penchant for playing lovable losers, Steve Buscemi is arguably the king of character actors. Moving seamlessly between big-budget films and shoestring independent projects, he’s appeared in well over 100 movies in the past 30 years. But if you think he’s anything like the oddballs and villains he regularly plays—well, you don’t know Buscemi. In celebration of the Brooklyn native's 60th birthday, here are 15 things you might not have known about the Golden Globe-winning actor.

1. HE WAS BORN ON A FRIDAY THE 13TH.

It only seems appropriate that Buscemi, who dies on screen so frequently, would be born on such a foreboding date. Growing up in Brooklyn and Valley Stream, New York, Buscemi also experienced plenty of real-life misfortune. As a kid, he was hit by a bus and by a car (in separate incidents). On the plus side, he used the money from the legal settlement following the bus accident to attend the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute in New York City.

2. HE WAS A NEW YORK CITY FIREFIGHTER.

As a teenager, Buscemi worked a series of odd jobs: ice cream truck driver, mover, gas station attendant. He even sold newspapers in the toll lane of the Triborough Bridge. When Buscemi turned 18, his father, a sanitation worker, encouraged his son to take the civil service exam and become a New York City firefighter. Four years later, in 1980, the future star became a member of Engine Co. 55, located in New York City's Little Italy district. While he answered emergency calls during the day, at night Buscemi played improv clubs and auditioned for acting roles.

After four years working for the FDNY, Buscemi landed one of the lead roles in Bill Sherwood’s Parting Glances (1986), a drama set during the early days of AIDS in New York. Buscemi took a three-month leave of absence during filming, and afterwards decided not to return.

3. HE FORMED A COMEDY DUO WITH SONS OF ANARCHY’S MARK BOONE, JR.

For a brief while, Buscemi tried his hand at stand-up comedy (he bombed). In 1984, he met fellow aspiring actor Mark Boone, Jr., and the two began performing together. Part improv, part scripted comedy, the two would often carry out power struggles that pitted thin-man Buscemi against the larger Boone. The New York Times called their act “theater in the absurdist vein.”

4. HE DID NOT AUDITION FOR THE ROLE OF GEORGE COSTANZA.

Like any hard-working actor, Buscemi has had his share of failed auditions. His tryout for Alan Parker’s Fame lasted less than 30 seconds. In the late ‘80s, Martin Scorsese brought him in four different times to read for The Last Temptation of Christ. (Buscemi ended up reading every apostle’s part before being turned away.) He also auditioned for the part of Seinfeld’s George Costanza—at least according to numerous sources, including Jason Alexander himself. But it turns out this tidbit—fueled, no doubt, by the thought of a very twitchy, bug-eyed Costanza—isn’t true. On a recent episode of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, Buscemi addressed the rumor in his typical good-natured way: “I never did [the audition] and I don’t know how to correct it because I don’t know how the Internet works.”

5. TREES LOUNGE WAS BASICALLY HIS LIFE AT 19.

After gaining momentum with roles in Mystery Train, Reservoir Dogs, Barton Fink, and other films, Buscemi took a turn behind the camera with 1996’s Trees Lounge. The movie, which he also wrote, follows a bumbling layabout named Tommy who spends most of his time at the title bar in the town where he grew up. It’s a classic flick for Buscemi fans and, according to the actor, it was pretty much his life as a teenager living on Long Island. “I was truly directionless, living with my parents,” Buscemi said in an interview. “I was driving an ice-cream truck and working at a gas station… The drinking age was 18 then, so I spent every night hanging out with my friends in bars, drinking.”

6. HE IS FULLY AWARE THAT HIS CHARACTERS OFTEN DIE.

Steve Buscemi in 'Fargo' (1996)
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

He’s been shot numerous times, stabbed with an ice pick, riddled with throwing knives, tossed off a balcony, and fed to a wood chipper. Yes, Buscemi’s characters have died a variety of deaths, and the actor isn’t without a sense of humor about the whole matter. He’ll often joke in interviews that he’s living longer and longer as the years go by. Before the 2005 release of The Island, in which the aforementioned balcony-tossing occurs (and into a glass bar no less), Buscemi said he was happy his character lived almost a third of the way through the movie. Buscemi admitted that he will actually read ahead in any script he receives to see when and how he dies.

7. HE HAS A FAVORITE DEATH—AND IT ISN’T FARGO.

For connoisseurs of Buscemi's movie deaths, the demise of Fargo’s Carl Showalter by way of axe then wood chipper is the crème de la crème. But when asked about his own favorite onscreen death, Buscemi references another Coen brothers film: The Big Lebowski. In that movie his character, Donny Kerabatsos, succumbs to a heart attack. It’s a surprise for viewers, and so out-of-the-blue that Buscemi can’t help but be tickled at the randomness of it. “They thought, ‘Well, Buscemi’s in it, so we’ve gotta kill him,'" the actor said in an appearance on The Daily Show.

8. HIS CHARACTER IN CON AIR WAS WRITTEN SPECIFICALLY FOR HIM.

In Con Air, the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced action movie filled with muscled-up prisoners, Buscemi played the most dangerous con of them all. His Garland Greene—a serial killer whose exploits “make the Manson family look like the Partridge family,” according to one character—enters the film strapped to a chair, Hannibal Lecter mask affixed to his face. Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg, a friend of Buscemi’s, wrote the part with him in mind, and was tickled when Buscemi accepted the role. To this day, fans will still serenade the actor with “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”

9. HIS CHARACTER IN DESPERADO IS NAMED AFTER HIM.

Steve Buscemi in Desperado
Columbia Pictures

Although he inevitably dies (courtesy of Danny Trejo’s throwing knives), Buscemi commands the opening of Desperado, Robert Rodriguez’s stylish revenge movie, regaling bar patrons with the story of the title gunslinger, played by Antonio Banderas. Because his character’s name is never mentioned, Rodriguez decided to have some fun and name him "Buscemi" in the credits.

10. HE WON’T FIX HIS TEETH.

Buscemi’s crooked smile has helped him portray lowlifes and losers throughout his career. Dentists have offered to fix the actor’s teeth, but he always turns them down, knowing how valuable those chompers are to the Buscemi brand. In a guest starring role on The Simpsons, Buscemi poked fun at the matter after a dentist offers to straighten his character’s teeth: “You’re going to kill my livelihood if you do that!”

11. THERE’S SOME CONFUSION OVER HOW TO PRONOUNCE HIS LAST NAME.

Many people pronounce his last name “Boo-shemmy,” but it turns out Buscemi himself pronounces it “Boo-semmy.” In interviews, Buscemi says he’s following his father’s pronunciation, and says he doesn’t begrudge anyone who says it differently. It turns out, though, that his fans have it right—or at least mostly right. On a trip to Sicily to visit family, Buscemi recounted recently on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, he noticed everyone saying “Boo-SHAY-me.”

12. HE GOT STABBED IN A BAR FIGHT.

Steve Buscemi in 'Trees Lounge' (1996)
Live Entertainment

On April 12th, 2001, while filming Domestic Disturbance in Wilmington, North Carolina, Buscemi, co-star Vince Vaughn, and screenwriter Scott Rosenberg went out for late night drinks at the Firebelly Lounge. After Vaughn traded insults with another patron (whose girlfriend had apparently been flirting with Vaughn), the two stepped outside, and a brief scuffle ensued before the two were separated. Buscemi, who was among the crowd that had gathered, was then confronted by a man who, after a brief exchange, attacked the actor with a pocketknife. Buscemi suffered stab wounds to his face, throat, and hands, and had to return to New York to recuperate. His attacker, Timothy Fogerty, was charged with assault with a deadly weapon. In typical good-guy fashion, Buscemi declined to press additional charges and instead insisted Fogerty enter a substance abuse program.

13. HE REJOINED HIS FIRE ENGINE IN THE WAKE OF 9/11.

After the horrific attack on New York City’s Twin Towers on September 11, Buscemi—like many Americans—was desperate to help. Although it had been nearly 20 years since he had strapped on his fireman’s gear, the actor reunited with his Engine 55 brethren and for days scoured the towers’ debris for survivors. Buscemi didn’t want his actions publicized; when people asked to take his picture, he declined. It took more than 10 years, in fact, before word got out, thanks to a Facebook post from Engine 55. “Brother Steve worked 12-hour shifts alongside other firefighters digging and sifting through the rubble,” the post read. “This guy is a badass!”

14. HE NARRATES THE AUDIO TOUR AT EASTERN STATE PENITENTIARY.

People who take a tour of the historic Philadelphia prison may notice a familiar voice coming through their listening device. So how did Buscemi end up lending his talents to such a seemingly obscure place? It turns out Eastern State is a popular location for film and photo shoots. Scenes from Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys were filmed there, as were album covers for artists like Tina Turner. In 2000, Buscemi scouted the penitentiary for a film project. The location didn’t work out, but the actor fell in love with the history and grand architecture of the 190-year-old prison. When officials asked for his help to celebrate the prison’s tenth year running tours, he agreed.

15. HE DIDN’T BELIEVE TERENCE WINTER WHEN HE OFFERED HIM THE LEAD IN BOARDWALK EMPIRE.


HBO

After years of playing disposable villains and losers on the periphery, Buscemi had grown accustomed to being passed over for leading roles. So when Boardwalk Empire creator Terence Winter offered him the part of corrupt politician Enoch “Nucky” Thompson in the award-winning HBO series, Buscemi offered his usual reply. “When Terry did call me and he said that he and Marty [Scorsese] wanted me to play this role, my response was, ‘Terry, I know you’re looking at other actors, and I just appreciate that my name is being thrown in,’" Buscemi recalled. "He said, ‘No, Steve, I just said we want you.’ It still didn’t sink in.” Eventually, of course, reality did sink in, and Buscemi went on to win a Golden Globe and Emmy Award across the show’s five seasons.

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