Directed by Michael Ritchie
Produced by David Merrick
Screenplay by Walter Bernstein
Ring Lardner Jr. (uncredited)
Based on Semi-Tough
by Dan Jenkins
Starring Burt Reynolds
Kris Kristofferson
Jill Clayburgh
Robert Preston
Lotte Lenya
Bert Convy
Brian Dennehy
Music by Jerry Fielding
Cinematography Charles Rosher Jr.
Edited by Richard A. Harris
Distributed by United Artists
Release dates
  • 1977 (1977)
Running time
108 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Box office $37,187,139[1]

Semi-Tough is a 1977 American comedy film directed by Michael Ritchie, and stars Burt Reynolds, Kris Kristofferson, Jill Clayburgh, Robert Preston, Lotte Lenya and Bert Convy, set in the world of American professional football.

The plot involves a love triangle between the characters portrayed by Reynolds, Kristofferson and Clayburgh. Semi-Tough also includes a parody of Werner Erhard's Erhard Seminars Training (est), depicted in the film as an organization called "B.E.A.T."[2]

The film is based on the novel of the same name by Dan Jenkins. It was adapted for the screen by writer Walter Bernstein and director Ritchie, who added a new storyline that included a satire of the self-help movement and new religions.

Semi-Tough follows the story of pro-football friends Billy Clyde Puckett and Marvin "Shake'" Tiller, who have a third roommate, Barbara Jane Bookman. A romance develops with Shake until he becomes self-confident after completing a self awareness course called "B.E.A.T." led by Friedrich Bismark that he insists Barbara Jane try, at which point Billy Clyde slyly makes a play to win her for himself.

The film received mixed reception. Some reviewers praised its parodies of the est training, Erhard and other new age movements such as Rolfing. Others criticized the script and direction, noting that some of director Ritchie's previous films had more of a personal tone. Still other reviews lamented the film's departure from the novel Semi-Tough, which dealt more with football and less with the new age movement.


Wide receiver Marvin "Shake" Tiller and running back Billy Clyde Puckett are football buddies who play for a Miami pro team owned by Big Ed Bookman (Preston).[3] Bookman's daughter Barbara Jane is roommates with both men, and the film depicts a subtle love triangle relationship between Barbara Jane and her two friends.[4][5] She initially has romantic feelings for Shake, who has become more self-confident after taking self-improvement training from seminar leader Friedrich Bismark.[6][7] The program is called Bismark Earthwalk Action Training, or B.E.A.T. After Shake completes his course, he and Barbara Jane sleep together and start a relationship. Barbara Jane is not a follower of B.E.A.T., and Shake is warned by his leader Bismark that "mixed marriages don't work."[8]

Barbara Jane is determined to make it work, so she attends B.E.A.T. in an effort to "get it."[8] At the end of the training session, she is worn out from Bismark's "sadistic abuse, pious drivel and sheer double talk."[8] Barbara Jane also feels guilty that she did not "get it." Shake is insistent that the training has had proven results for him, noting that he has not dropped a football pass since completing B.E.A.T.[8] Billy Clyde also has feelings for Barbara Jane and enrolls in B.E.A.T. in order to understand what she is going through.[9] In the training, Billy Clyde is shown coping with the seminar rules forbidding going to the bathroom.[10] For a time Puckett pretends he underwent a conversion to Bismark's way of thinking. While Barbara Jane and Shake are at the altar about to be married, the minister turns to Bismark and gives him some advice on how he can avoid capital gains tax in his business.[8] Billy Clyde ends up exposing the movement's shallow side, and rescues Barbara Jane from both B.E.A.T. and her impending marriage to Shake. After leaving the wedding together, Barbara Jane and Billy Clyde reveal their feelings for each other.[4][9]




Semi-Tough is based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Dan Jenkins, and the screenplay was written by Walter Bernstein.[7][9] Bernstein and director Michael Ritchie embellished upon Jenkins' original work, and added parodies of self-help groups, new religions, and the Human potential movement.[9] Ritchie was partially influenced by Adam Smith's book, Powers of Mind.[11] Though the screenplay was adapted from his original work, Dan Jenkins wrote that Semi-Tough "wasn't a horrible movie in my opinion".[12] Jenkins later commented that the film adaptation of his book Baja Oklahoma was: "a lot more faithful to the novel than Semi-Tough ever was".[13]


Burt Reynolds began training with Kris Kristofferson to get in shape before film production.[14] Before work began on the film, actor Bert Convy attended one of Werner Erhard's est training sessions in order to prepare for his role as B.E.A.T. seminar leader Friedrich Bismark.[8] Pro football stars were hired to give realism to the film, including John Matuszak, Paul Hornung, Joe Kapp, and Ed "Too Tall" Jones.[15][16] The football scenes were shot at the Cotton Bowl.[17]

Parodies of self-improvement, new religions

Bernstein and Ritchie's modified screenplay based on Jenkins' book includes a storyline with "satiric jabs" at new religions, self-improvement and the Human potential movement. A form of Rolfing is also parodied in the film by Lotte Lenya, whose character Clara Pelf is seen as a spoof of "a Rolf like masseuse".[8] Big Ed Bookman is seen crawling around on all fours practicing something called "creep therapy" or "movagenics".[8] Movagenics is seen in the film as a way for an individual to find their "lost center of consciousness".[9] Big Ed Bookman is also shown proselytizing for "Movagenics", a fictional group in the film which TIME Magazine referred to in its review as both a cult and a new faith.[9]

The film includes a parody of the Werner Erhard and Erhard Seminars Training, with B.E.A.T. as a stand-in for est.[18][19] In American Film Now, Friedrich Bismark is simply described as "the Werner Erhard character".[11] The Grove Book of Hollywood describes Bert Convy as a "Werner Erhard-lookalike", in his portrayal of Friedrich Bismark. Barbara Jane Bookman's guilty feelings for not "getting it" after completing her B.E.A.T. seminar are seen as a reference to: "how creeds like est put nonbelievers on the defensive". The book also notes that: "The film captures the peculiar mixture of spirituality and pragmatism that surrounded est", and also describes the minister's capital gains tax advice to Friedrich Bismark at Shake's wedding as "sardonic".[8] A 1977 review in TIME Magazine refers to Friedrich Bismark's B.E.A.T. as "an est-like movement", and notes: "the Ritchie-Bernstein version of an est seminar is done with marvelous malice".[9] Psychiatry and the Cinema characterizes the film as a "devastating parody" of the est training.[20]

After Semi-Tough's release in 1977, Bert Convy was contacted by a number of est followers, as well as by Werner Erhard.[8] After Convy appeared on The Tonight Show and discussed his experiences attending Erhard Seminars Training in preparation for his role as Friedrich Bismark, he received a letter from Erhard stating: "it would be great for us to get together".[8] Of the est seminar itself, Convy recalled that when another attendee complained of a headache during the course, the group leader told him to "experience it", and when another attendee wet his pants, he was told to "experience the warmth".[8] In a scene from the film, a woman exclaims to Friedrich Bismark in the middle of a seminar: "I peed in my pants and it felt good."[21] During actual filming on Semi-Tough, Convy received a late-night phone call from actress Valerie Harper, known in Hollywood as a devoted student of Werner Erhard.[8] She related to Convy that Erhard was "pleased" with the role, and she wished him success in the film. Convy suspected that her real reason for calling was to subtly pressure him to go easy on his parody of Erhard in the film.[8] Harper is mentioned by name in the completed film.


Box office and releases

The film grossed $37,187,139 at the box office.[1] Semi-Tough was later developed as a pilot episode for a potential television series on a similar theme, and was a candidate to be picked up in the fall of 1980.[22] The 1980 Semi-Tough pilot episode starred Bruce McGill playing Burt Reynolds' original role, with co-star David Hasselhoff.[23] The film has since been released in both VHS and DVD formats.[7]


In 1978, Walter Bernstein received a nomination for a WGA Award from the Writers Guild of America in the "Best Comedy Adapted from Another Medium" category, for his adaptation of Dan Jenkins' novel.[11]

Critical reception

Burt Reynolds, 1991. Leonard Maltin wrote that Reynolds' charm made up for deficiencies in the script of Semi-Tough.[24]

The press disagreed on the satire of Erhard in the film, some praising it, some not. The Wall Street Journal criticized the film, save for its satirical nature: "The movie isn't much - an erratic ramble - but it has some pleasant moments, and a delicious send-up of the self-improvement guru Werner Erhard."[25] The Charlotte Observer praised Bert Convy's portrayal of the self-help guru Frederick Bismark, and called Convy: ".. a hilariously smug consciousness-raiser with a more than passing resemblance to EST's Werner Erhard".[26] Magill's Survey of Cinema described the film as a chiding of American "religious fads and philosophies",[18] and The Grove Book of Hollywood called it a "cheeky film" that poked fun at the "est" craze and other human potential fads.[8] TIME Magazine called the film one of 1977's best comedies, and also noted that it was: "without a doubt the year's most socially useful film".[9]

The film did not receive a positive review in Variety, where the reviewer commented: "Semi-Tough begins as a bawdy and lively romantic comedy about slap happy pro football players, then slows down to a too-inside putdown of contemporary self-help programs."[7] Variety noted that stars Burt Reynolds, Kris Kristofferson and Jill Clayburgh were "excellent" within the "zigzag" script and poor direction they were given.[7] Michael Costello of Allmovie also criticized the script, and wrote: "While much of this is quite predictable, a number of the jokes score, Burt Reynolds works his charm overtime, and Jill Clayburgh and Kris Kristofferson are effective as comic foils."[16] In American Film Now, author James Monaco commented on director Michael Ritchie's directing style in Semi-Tough, stating that in the film Ritchie was "speaking in a professional voice".[11] Monaco noted that Ritchie's prior films evoked a more personal tone, and had more of a sense of wonder than Semi-Tough.[11]

Chapman's In Search of Stupidity characterized the film as: "Possibly one of the best movies ever made by Burt Reynolds", and described the film's parody of est as accurate and amusing.[27] Leonard Maltin criticized parts of the script, stating that Reynolds' charm filled in for the film's other deficiencies.[24] Hunsberger criticized Ritchie's screenplay adaptation in his work The Quintessential Dictionary, complaining that the game of football should have supported the film as a plot device, but was instead left to the side in favor of other stories.[28]

See also


  1. 1 2 "Semi-Tough, Box Office Information". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved June 24, 2012.
  2. Wakeman, John (1988). World Film Directors. H.W. Wilson. p. 890. ISBN 0-8242-0757-2.
  3. Bergan, Ronald (1982). Sports in the Movies. Proteus. p. 52. ISBN 0-86276-031-3.
  4. 1 2 Rollins, Peter C. (2003). The Columbia Companion to American History on Film. Columbia University Press. pp. 365–368. ISBN 0-231-11222-X.
  5. Giannetti, Louis D. (1987). Understanding Movies. Prentice-Hall. p. 48. ISBN 0-13-936329-7.
  6. Staff. "Semi-Tough, section, Plot Synopsis". Allmovie. All Media Guide, LLC. Retrieved 2007-10-24.
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 Staff (January 1, 1977). "V Film: Semi-Tough". Variety. Reed Business Information. Retrieved 2007-10-24.
  8. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 Silvester, Christopher; Steven Bach (2002). The Grove Book of Hollywood. Grove Press. pp. 555–560. ISBN 0-8021-3878-0.
  9. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Schnickel, Richard (November 21, 1977). "Good Ole Boys". TIME Magazine. Time Inc. Retrieved 2007-10-25.
  10. Wakefield, Dan (1999). How Do We Know When It's God?: A Spiritual Memoir. Back Bay. p. 30. ISBN 0-316-91719-2.
  11. 1 2 3 4 5 Monaco, James (1984). American Film Now: The People, the Power, the Money, the Movies. Zoetrope. p. 359. ISBN 0-918432-64-2.
  12. Jenkins, Dan (1989). You Call It Sports, But I Say It's a Jungle Out There. Simon & Schuster. p. 311. ISBN 0-671-69021-3.
  13. Staff (January 24, 1988). "Jenkins praises `Baja Oklahoma'". Chicago Sun-Times.
  14. Reynolds, Burt (1994). My Life, by Burt Reynolds. Hyperion. p. 222. ISBN 0-7868-6130-4.
  15. Cech, Jim (2005). Oak Creek: 50 Years of Progress. Arcadia Publishing. p. 29. ISBN 0-7385-3392-0.
  16. 1 2 Costello, Michael. "Semi-Tough, section, Review". Allmovie. All Media Guide, LLC. Retrieved 2007-10-24.
  17. Gordon, William A. (1995). Shot on This Site. p. 167. ISBN 0-8065-1647-X.
  18. 1 2 Magill, Frank; Stephen L. Hanson; Patricia King Hanson (1981). Magill's Survey of Cinema. Salem Press. p. 395. ISBN 0-89356-230-0.
  19. Mulligan, Pat (2006). The Life and Times of a Hollywood Bad Boy. AuthorHouse. p. 94. ISBN 1-4259-5008-6.
  20. Gabbard, Glen O.; Krin Gabbard (1999). Psychiatry and the Cinema. American Psychiatric Pub, Inc. p. 128. ISBN 0-88048-964-2.
  21. Taylor, Charles (March 26, 2004). "'Dogville': Lars von Trier's Depression-era fable has been labeled 'anti-American,' but it's even worse: It's anti-human.". Salon. Retrieved 2007-10-26.
  22. Staff (April 21, 1980). "Arts Gratia Arfis: TV's candidates for the fall". TIME Magazine. Time Inc. Retrieved 2007-10-24.
  23. Laurence, Robert P. (October 2, 2006). "Network guilty of piling on". The San Diego Union-Tribune. Retrieved 2007-10-26.
  24. 1 2 Maltin, Leonard (1998). Leonard Maltin's Movie & Video Guide. PENGUIN Group (USA) Inc. p. 1206. ISBN 0-451-19582-5.
  25. Staff (May 27, 2005). "Our Reynolds Rap -- Burt Is Inert;". The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company.
  26. Staff (January 25, 1987). "Videos Bring Back Grit, Grime, Romance of Football Movies". The Charlotte Observer. The McClatchy Company.
  27. Chapman, Merrill R. (Rick) (2006). In Search of Stupidity: Over 20 Years of High-tech Marketing Disasters. Apress. p. xxix. ISBN 1-59059-721-4.
  28. Hunsberger, I. Moyer (1978). The Quintessential Dictionary. New York City: Hart Pub. Co. p. 103.
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