Bruce Brown. Photo courtesy AMA Hall of Fame.
For many motorcycle enthusiasts, the 1971 film On Any Sunday was a seminal movie that began for some, invigorated for many others, their favorite pastime. The same could be said for surfers with the release of Slippery When Wet in 1958, Barefoot Adventure in 1960, or Endless Summer in 1966. The common thread in these popular documentaries was director Bruce Brown, who died on Sunday in Santa Barbara of natural causes at 80 years old.
Brown was born in San Francisco in 1937, but moved to Long Beach early in life, where he took up surfing as his passion at 11 years old. After high school graduation in 1955, he joined the Navy, finishing at the top his class in submarine training. This gave him his choice of station upon completion and, of course, he chose Hawaii. Brown surfed in his off-duty time, and brought along an 8mm movie camera to the beach. Having no real camera or directing experience whatsoever, he started filming fellow surfers in their natural habitat, compiled these film clips together, and released his first surfing movie Slippery When Wet in 1958. It was the first of six surfing documentaries Brown made over the next six years. Those films realized limited success in Southern California and Hawaii, where the surfing culture was popular, but it was the nationwide release of the sixth movie, Endless Summer, in 1966 that caused a widespread interest in surfing documentaries. The story was about two surfers, Mike Hynson and Robert August, who traveled the world looking for that perfect wave in many different locations north and south of the Equator. Brown also did all the narration for his documentaries.
After completing Endless Summer, Brown and many of his surfer friends were also riding off-road motorcycles and competing in motorcycle races on weekends. Brown became a big fan of motorcycling after renting a scooter while in Japan, and purchased and rode a Triumph Cub when he returned home. He attended races and decided that off-road motorcycle riding and racing would make for another good documentary subject. Knowing that actor Steve McQueen was whole-heartedly involved with off-road bikes, he approached McQueen about starring in and financing his newest idea. Although Brown was initially turned down, McQueen later agreed to co-produce and finance the new movie, which became On Any Sunday. The movie starred Mert Lawwill as he attempted to defend his Grand National championship, but it also featured the actor (and financial backer) and Malcom Smith, along with other friends, racing and goofing off on a beach at the Camp Pendleton Marine base on dirt bikes. The movie garnered an Oscar nomination for Brown in 1970. One scene from the movie, showing kids on their pedal bikes emulating the racers by negotiating the off-road course, is said to have spurred interest in that sport, which later became known as BMX riding. The film must be considered when formulating any “Best of” lists for motorcycle movies, just as Endless Summer should also be considered for any list of the best surfing movies.
Brown was a 1999 inductee into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame and 2009 inductee into the Surfer’s Hall of Fame. Later in life, he directed additional documentaries on both subjects, including Endless Summer II in 1994, On Any Given Sunday II in 1981, and On Any Sunday: Revisited in 2000.
After moving to the Santa Barbara area in the Eighties, Brown continued to surf and ride bikes as well as taking up road-rally racing and car restoration. He made many appearances later in life at reunions and events related to his movies.