HBO’s film about Penn State football coach Joe Paterno is in the works once again, with Al Pacino starring as Paterno, and directed by Barry Levinson. As Variety notes, the film logline says, “After becoming the winningest coach in college football history, Joe Paterno is embroiled in Penn State’s Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal, challenging his legacy and forcing him to face questions of institutional failure on behalf of the victims.”
HBO originally started pre-production on the project in 2013, with the Scarface team of Pacino and director Brian De Palma. Called Happy Valley at that time, the project is based on the book Paterno by author Joe Posnanski. According to a 2014 statement from HBO the project was suspended due to budgetary issues at that time: “We have suspended pre-production for a moment to deal with budget issues, but the project is still intact at HBO with the entire creative team as before.”
While it’s not clear what other changes have taken place between now and then, the Posnanski book is interesting from my comic-historian perspective in that it outlines the little-known role that comic book publisher Everett M. “Busy” Arnold played in launching Paterno into the world of major college football.
Arnold played a vital role in the earliest days of the formation of the American comic book industry. Among many accomplishments in the Golden Age, Arnold launched publisher Quality Comics whose titles featured many characters that comic book fans are still familiar with today: The Ray, Blackhawk, Plastic Man, Kid Eternity, Uncle Sam, Doll Man, and others. Arnold sold most of the Quality Comics properties to DC Comics in 1956.
In his book Paterno, Joe Posnanski describes Arnold’s involvment with Paterno:
How does Busy Arnold, comic-book titan, enter our story? As much as he loved money and women and being photographed, Busy Arnold’s greatest love may have been his alma mater, Brown University. He wanted the Brown football team to win. He wanted this so badly that he personally looked for talented football players he could send to Brown on an unofficial Busy Arnold scholarship.
This was not against regulations in the mid-1940s; there really weren’t any college football regulations in the 1940s. The National Collegiate Athletic Association did not have an executive director until 1951. In the 1940s, many schools, including what was then known as Pennsylvania State College, did not offer football scholarships. So there was an opportunity to find talented football players and pay for their tuition and books and maybe a little extra. Busy Arnold was just such an alum. Joe Paterno was just such a player.
Posnanski goes on to describe how far Arnold went with this in a way that seems very familiar if you know anything about the current state of well-heeled alumni and major college athletics. Arnold kept in close contact with high school coaches around New York, and ultimately sent several of Paterno’s Brooklyn Prep teammates to Brown as well.
It’ll be interesting to see if Arnold makes it into the film version of this story, but presuming they do at least something to set the stage in covering the arc of his career, it would seem hard to avoid it. As Posnanski notes in the book, there’s an irony in this situation, when as Posnanski says in the book, Paterno did go on to, “spend his coaching life publicly railing against overbearing almuni eager to pay talented football players under the table.” It sounds like Busy Arnold makes for a noteworthy touchstone along the path of Joe Paterno’s professional career.
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