In the 1980s, Hollywood had a passion for merging less popular and even unusual sports with teen romance. Kickboxing in Say Anything…, collegiate diving in Back to School, skiing in Better Off Dead, wrestling in Vision Quest, motocross in Winners Take All, and of course karate in The Karate Kid. There are always stories and life lessons to be told through athletic competition, and there is also money to be made by piggybacking on the popular trends of the day, so long as kids with an appetite for something new are willing to shell out a few bucks at the local cinema. At least that’s what stuntman-turned-director Hal Needham (Smokey and the Bandit, Cannonball Run) was hoping for when he made the 1986 BMX film Rad.
Needham certainly wasn’t the first to bring BMX – short for bicycle motocross – to the big screen. The 1971 motorcycle racing documentary On Any Sunday is believed to be the first motion picture to offer a taste of Southern California’s bicycle style to the rest of America. That film’s opening featured a shot of children riding bikes on a dirt track, pretending that they were motorcycle racers, and that moment is credited with sparking a national phenomenon. Twelve years later, director Brian Trenchard-Smith brought the style to Australia in BMX Bandits, which featured a teenage Nicole Kidman in just her third movie role.
But it was around the same time that Kidman and her co-stars were besting Aussie bank robbers, Rad star Bill Allen tells us, that Needham witnessed BMX riders at an equestrian center in California and thought, “Hey, we can make a movie about this.” Rad was definitely the first movie of its kind in the sense that it used BMX racing as the protagonist’s ticket to the big time, as Cru Jones defied his mother’s command to take his SATs and instead competed in the Helltrack race. Rad featured BMX tricks and racing that had never before been featured on the big screen, which was a great thing considering almost everything else about the movie, from the story to the acting, came with flat tires.
“BMX was coming into its own, definitely, and Rad captured that zeitgeist,” Allen recalls. “It really, definitely, no doubt, helped kick the sport into high gear and spread the gospel of BMX. I’m still hearing from people in New Zealand and Australia and the Philippines, so it really had a worldwide effect.”
At the time that Allen auditioned to play Cru, the aspiring actor could count his roles on two hands, with a few fingers to spare, and nothing could have been considered his big break. Sure, he auditioned for some lead roles before his first encounter with Needham, but he was just another young actor trying to find his place in Hollywood. Fortunately for Allen, Needham was familiar with one of his earliest roles – a small part on Hill Street Blues – and that was all it took to land him the part of the Kix-eating, newspaper-delivering, BMX badass.
The new star was hardly alone in terms of a lack of experience. Cru’s love interest, Christian, was played by future Full House star Lori Loughlin, whose résumé was about as deep as Allen’s at that point. Carey and Chad Hayes, the Reynolds twins, had a few roles each before they became Duke Best’s devious goons, and the man who was picked to play Cru’s rival, Bart Taylor, had two small parts to his name. That man was Olympic gold medalist and gymnast Bart Conner, who not only had little experience as an actor, but was also rehabbing some serious injuries that he battled through in his heroic performance at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
“Bart was dealing with such physical pain at the time that he could hardly walk,” Allen says. “So my concern was that he could actually physically do the role.” Living in Los Angeles in the early ‘80s, Allen was well aware of Conner’s “golden boy” abilities, having watched the gymnast score a “sack of medals” in ’84. But Allen’s faith in his co-star’s athleticism wasn’t going to heal Conner’s injuries, so Needham had to get creative.
“Hal, being an old school stuntman, said, ‘I’ve got a sack full of Percocet, come on down, I’ll fix you up,’” Allen laughs. “From what I understand, Bart showed up on set and no one was aware that he had these injuries. He had to let everyone know that this was an actual thing. They shot around him and it was fine, but somebody like that, they’ve just done so much to their body. He had some jagged scars on his upper arms and I said, ‘Bart, what happened there?’ And he said, ‘Oh, that’s where my biceps exploded.’ I never followed up on that question. That’s what happens, I guess. Your arms explode if you put too much stress on them. So, my hat’s off to this guy.”
The good news for the actors, though, was that they wouldn’t have to worry much about exerting themselves physically. It’s fairly obvious that the BMX action scenes in Rad were done by professionals. As Allen puts it, “If you see me and my head on my body, that’s actually me. The second I put on a mask, all bets are off.” The actor tried to learn some of his own tricks, but all he really learned was “how to bleed profusely.” So when it came time to create the magic of that one-of-a-kind prom scene, there would need to be some trickery involved.
“The most iconic scene is the bicycle boogie scene, where we’re doing tricks in a high school gymnasium, and for those scenes they had a bike fixed on a dolly, and shot from the waist up so it looked like I was on a bicycle,” Allen explains. In the scene, Cru and Christian take their bikes to the dance floor, much to the amazement of their classmates and the chagrin of Bart and Duke Best, a bike manufacturer who is way too interested in the lives of teens. It’s a slow-motion bicycle ballet set to “Send Me an Angel,” and it’s a scene so memorably cheesy that it is still the subject of parody today.
Prior to filming that scene, a lot of people involved with the making of Rad became sick from some bad fried chicken. As Allen describes it, he was “dangerously ill,” even “on death’s door,” and you can see it in his face as he’s reacting to Loughlin’s cues. “Everyone from the cast and crew got food poisoning except for Hal,” Allen remembers, “and I swear the man could drink with the best of them, and I’m pretty sure that’s why. I think more scotch is the moral of that story.”
Even when they were pretending to be performing the tricks, Allen and Loughlin were “hanging on for dear lives,” as they appeared to be gliding across the floor like figure skaters. “It’s become so iconic, people have re-created it at their weddings and there’s a music video – Har Mar Superstar, Juliette Lewis is in it – [where] they do a whole bicycle boogie sequence,” Allen says. “It’s woven into the culture and while being, quote, ‘The cheesiest part of the movie,’ it’s the most endearing and the most beloved, probably.”
For the prom scene, Pat Romano handled Loughlin’s “dancing,” while freestyle master Martin Aparijo filled in for Allen. In all, a team of more than 25 BMX stunt riders was used to provide Rad’s dazzling action scenes. Allen refers to the film’s stunt crew as “the best bike riders in the world,” and they were so convincing that people still believe that he was really pulling off those tricks. When it came time for the Helltrack race’s biggest move, Cru’s awesome backflip, José Yáñez was called in to presumably inspire broken bones all across America.
“José Yáñez, his backflip that was done three or four times in the movie, now it’s done in every skate park, and you’ll see 12-year-old kids doing backflips all day long and double backflips,” Allen says. “But at the time it was groundbreaking stuff, so there would be quiet on the set, he would get on his knees and have his private discussion with Mother Mary. It was a very reverential occurrence when this guy did a backflip, and he screwed it up a couple times and that was woven into the storyline. Watching that go down, in retrospect, it’s not a huge deal. But at the time it was a very big deal. He was paid every time he did a backflip and got applause from the cast and crew.”
While the movie is still remembered fondly by children of the ‘80s and longtime BMX enthusiasts – perhaps no one loves it more than Daniel Tosh – Rad has been hit with an unfortunate distinction in recent years. With an audience rating of 91 percent and a critical rating of zero percent (what we like to call a “Bucky Larson“), Rad has the largest discrepancy between its reception from audiences and critics of any film on Rotten Tomatoes. Granted, that zero is based on just five reviews, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Allen cares much less about the goose egg than the 91 percent of fans who love this film.
“I think it’s comical that Rad has the biggest discrepancy of audiences versus critics,” Allen admits. “That should tell you a thing or two about this movie in particular in that the fans went crazy for it, still do to this day. And yet it’s not a movie that the critics would give two looks at. It doesn’t meet their criteria on what a good movie is and it’s deep fried in ’80s cheese. But that’s a huge part of the allure and the charm, especially for the fans. So for people to name their kids ‘Cru Jones’ – I just heard another one a couple weeks ago – I get inundated all day long for requests for autographs or personal appearances. We’ve got some more BMX movies coming out, so in this particular instance the critics didn’t get it.”
Now it seems like it’s what audiences rather than what critics want that matters. Allen continues to act, racking up credits that include a small part on Breaking Bad. After appearing in 2015’s Heroes of Dirt, the story of a BMX rider who wants to be a stunt champion, Allen is making plans to reteam with Aparijo “for some other BMX movies.” Now, at 53, he’s finally learning the tricks and stunts that he never learned while making Rad.