Lynchpin Performances: John Ritter in “Hero At Large”
A Lynchpin Performance is one of the rarest things in film. It’s really two things in one. The first is the entire film is basically held together by one actor’s work. But, more importantly, If you attempted to cast any other actor in that role (Jack Lemmon not withstanding), the entire film would have fallen apart!
So let’s begin with a great example: John Ritter in a film called “Hero At Large” from 1980.
The scene: contemporary New York City, with its still smutty Times Square and questionable neighborhoods. Ritter (still keeping “Company” on ABC television at the time), plays Steve, a struggling actor attempting to do any job he can get so he can make the rent. And, when he lands the part of “Captain Avenger,” a cheesy comic book character turned into an even cheesier big screen action adventure star, he’s not in the film; he’s the stooge signing 8x10s in front of the movie theater, one of dozens of guys hired do that to promote the film around town!
But in a chance moment, when his neighborhood bodega is being held up at knifepoint as he returns from the gig, still dressed in the costume, Steve chases the would-be bandit away! And that’s where the fun really starts. The media pick up the story and do a piece on the city’s newest anonymous hero, and ask… what now, Captain Avenger?
Steve’s neighbor J (played by Anne Archer) is a quick love interest and Steve finds that between the media asking for more from Captain Avenger and in trying to impress her, he starts wanting to take more risks and capture more criminals. But he’s just a regular guy, with no powers, no gun, not even a badge. What can he really do?
Meanwhile, Burt Convy, best known as the nice guy host of the game shows TattleTales and Win Lose or Draw, here plays a sleazy PR agent who was promoting the Avenger movie but sees an opportunity to tie in Steve’s genuine actions with the reelection of the Mayoral incumbent, and starts to arrange for Steve to “create” some events, leading to him receiving the Key to the City in his superhero guise, and turning that event into a pep rally to get the Mayor a lot of votes.
But here’s why this is a Lynchpin Performance. Ritter really hits every note perfectly. He isn’t cliché, when it’s so apparent he could easily have been, especially coming from the slapstick sitcom that made his career. To the contrary, you never feel as if he’s doing something beyond his means or beyond the realm of possibility, and you will follow him every step of the way.
Ritter’s character really was about making New York think about a higher ideal, and that’s where his superhero really takes flight. Even without any major special effects, the shining heart of Ritter’s performance is his simple and kind truth that maybe you don’t need gadgets or superpowers to be a hero. Maybe just doing what’s right is enough. It’s a very real and genius performance that the trailer for the film didn’t quite capture, but the film itself most certainly does.