Tim Allis
July 07, 1986 12:00 PM

The big-screen TV is blasting MTV at the viewer seated across the room on the black leather sofa. “That was Andy Taylor singing Take It Easy,” says veejay Alan Hunter, “a song from the new film American Anthem starring Mitch…Mitch…what’s his name? Gaylord! Mitch Gaylord! If you’re watching, sorry, Mitch.”

He is. A slight smile appears, and he winks at a visitor as if to say the joke is on the forgetful Hunter. But it’s hard to blame the veejay. It has been two long years since the world saw Mitch execute the Gaylord II, a heart-stopping high-bar stunt that clinched Olympic gold for the U.S. men’s gymnastic team. Since then Gaylord, 25, hasn’t exactly achieved the brand-name status of, say, Mary Lou Retton.

The low profile is intentional. “Mary Lou is overexposed,” says the normally reticent Gaylord. “She’s trying to be a celebrity. I’m going to be an actor. Those are completely different things.” Not always, but if making a hit movie means being an actor, flashy hunk Gaylord—dubbed “Hollywood Mitch” by his teammates—stands a fair chance. His debut on film is the story of a gymnast who swaps personal doubt for ail-American excellence. The movie will be helped by Fourth of July weekend crowds and its thematic rah-rah resemblance to Top Gun. But American Anthem’s greatest virtues are articulated by co-star Janet Jones: “The lighting and cinematography are great, the sound track is hot, and Mitch and I look really good. It has the formula to be a hit.”

But history may not be on Gaylord’s side. Unlike Johnny Weissmuller, Sonja Henie and Buster Crabbe, newer Olympians have not been able to translate gold victory into silver-screen success. Bruce Jenner and Mark Spitz have not left indelible impressions on the thespian art. More recently Kurt Thomas scored his first zero in 1985’s Gymkata, and Gaylord’s teammate Bart Conner appeared in a few theaters to even fewer raves with this year’s Rad. “I know making this movie is a very risky thing,” admits Gaylord. “I’m putting my ass on the line in front of millions of people. That could be devastating if things go the wrong way.”

Risk, however, is familiar territory. Gaylord first hit the mats in Van Nuys, Calif., where he lived with dad Fred, a bank executive, mom Linda, a dance teacher, and two siblings. (Chuck, 27, who coached Mitch through the Olympics, is pursuing an M.B.A. at UCLA. Jeanine, 21, attends Stanford.) Although he started competing when he was 12, Gaylord was a cautious gymnast. “It wasn’t until later, about 16, that he developed his daredevil style,” says Dan Connelly, his coach during his teen years. “At the beginning, Mitch had an acute fear of the high bar.” He was so afraid, in fact, that he used to hide in the bathroom rather than perform, and it was only by nurturing his discipline that he was able to overcome the problem. “Inner discipline gave me the ability to concentrate and perfect my performance,” says Gaylord. By the time he graduated from UCLA in 1984, he’d racked up five international titles, seven national championships and was on his way to being named Jewish Athlete of the Year. “He began to take chances as he grew older,” says his mother. “He started to develop a flair.”

Gaylord believes he can bring a similar flair to acting. “I was afraid of the high bar, but I got over it; I was very nervous about this film, but I got through that fear. Discipline is the quality that carries over from gymnastics to acting.” American Anthem executive producer Freddie Fields actually predicts that “Mitch’s career will take the opposite course of Mark Spitz’s because a gymnast’s concentration levels are much higher than a swimmer’s. Mitch had a fix on what he wanted to accomplish by doing this film. He’s pursued stardom in a careful, calculating way.”

The selling of Mitch Gaylord began the moment he dismounted in L.A.’s Pauley Pavillion. Entries in his Post-Olympic Résumé, as it’s titled, include endorsements for Vidal Sassoon, Nike, Solofjex and (verbatim) “best-selling hunk pinup poster.”

“I have to feel good about what I’m endorsing because I have to live with it,” says Gaylord. “I did the Soloflex ad because I really like their machine. But I don’t want to do a Wheaties box. I’ve turned down soap and deodorant commercials—it wasn’t my route. Acting is not going out to be a celebrity. Acting is a legitimate craft, a whole new direction.”

While wating for American Anthem’s scores to be tabulated, Gaylord is preparing to release a workout video later this summer. He’s also standing by as his girlfriend of four years, Theresa Campos, 22, graduates from Arizona State and looks for a job in special education. “She lives in Tempe, so it’s a long-distance type of thing,” says Gaylord, a West Los Angeles resident. “We see each other often. Marriage, though, isn’t in the future right now. There’s too much going on.”

Should American Anthem miss its mark, Gaylord won’t be crushed. “I’ll opt for some kind of career out of the public eye, that’s for sure. But I feel so fulfilled from the Olympics that even if this movie is a failure, I don’t think I could feel like a loser.” He probably never will. As his brother, Chuck, puts it, “Even if the movie bombs, Mitch will be okay. The way he looks, he’d survive anything.”

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