IN 1963 A 25 YEAR-OLD CALIFORNIA SURFER NAMED BRUCE BROWN grabbed a wind up, 16-mm camera and a couple of long-board pals (Robert August and Mike Hynson) and circled the globe in search of the perfect wave. He found it (at Cape St. Francis on the South African coast), filmed it (along with many, many like it) and stitched together a 90-minute documentary that film distributors said would never get oft the beach. Instead, Endless Summer, which Brown made for only $50,000, broke like a double overhead swell, snaring $30 million at the box office and earning its maker the unofficial title Fellini of the Foam.
He went on to make one more film, On Any Sunday, which hyped the highs of motorcycle racing and drew a 1971 Oscar nomination for Best Feature-Length Documentary. After that he seemed to disappear, content with his $1 million-plus share of Endless Summer profits. “Everyone thinks you’re supposed to work your ass off until you’re 65, then retire,” says Brown. “My idea was to retire when I’m 30 and go back to work again if I have to, or I want to.”
And now he has. Next week, Brown, 56, will resurface with another tribute to sun, sand and surf, unblinkingly titled Endless Summer II. “Producers have been bugging me for years,” says Brown, and finally, with a $3.5 million budget provided by New Line Cinema and a whole new generation to enlighten, the moment was right. “Besides,” Brown adds, kicking back at the five-bedroom ranch-style home he built near Santa Barbara in 1981, “nobody has ever done a surf film in 35 millimeter.”
After hiring his oldest son, Dana, 32, away from a construction job to help write and produce the film, Brown rounded up a pair of professional surfer dudes, Robert “Wingnut” Weaver and Pat O’Connell, plus a 13-member crew and set out on his retro surfin’ safari. This time he found the creative waters a bit rougher, despite the bigger budget. Indeed, that was part of the problem: Innocence, the signal charm of the original Endless
Summer, was now lost. “It’s hard to be candid with 3,000 pounds of camera gear—you can’t sneak up on people as easily,” says Brown. And all that equipment meant that after each stop—Costa Rica, southern France, South Africa, Fiji, Indonesia, Australia, Baja California and, of course, Hawaii—Brown and crew had to return home to overhaul the sand-filled, humidity-gummed cameras. Also, alas, the world had changed. Cape St. Francis, once a wildly beautiful retreat, is now covered with “thousands of luxury homes,” Brown laments.
Brown did his own early surfing in Long Beach, Calif., where his father was a local retailer and his mother a hornemaker. After two years in the Navy, he began making short surfing films and screening them in California beach shops, charging 25 cents admission. By 1966 he had finished Endless Summer, a film intended for first-run movie houses. But distributors balked, arguing that anyone living farther than a freeway ride from the coast wouldn’t be interested. To prove them wrong, Brown spent his own money to rent a movie theater in landlocked Wichita, Kans.—and opened his film to sellout crowds. “Why shouldn’t those people be stoked?” he says. “They’d never seen anything like it before.”
Financially independent by the 1970s and disdainful of the Hollywood movie community (“They’ve got beepers just to remind themselves how stupid they are”), Brown indulged himself. He bought a boat and ran a commercial fishing business for several years, then sold it and began restoring old Hudson automobiles. “I used to work on them from dawn till dark for years, until I burned out on it,” he says. “Selling them was always the rationale…and I did sell a few. But basically, they’re all sitting up in my garage.” After that he took up commodities trading in the ’80s. “I even had a satellite feed linked into my office,” he says. “It was fascinating, just so alien to anything I’d ever done before.”
Now, with his new movie about to open, Brown says he’s eager to return once more to the good life. “I’ll be out there surfing—Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday,” he says. “It makes you feel like a kid. You catch a good wave, and it makes you want to yell, ‘Yahoo!’ ” Of course, he is no longer just a carefree surfer; there is family: Pat, 57, his wife of 35 years, three children (besides Dana; Wade, 31, is a composer and surfer; Nancie, 28, is a housewife) and six grandkids.
But if, by chance, he one day finds that spot where the break of the waves is just right, his home and all those Hudsons might be history. “I’d be happy to live in a tent, if I had about five acres at a perfect point break and no one else around,” says Browm wistfully. “I mean, who wouldn’t?”
JOHNNY DODD in Santa Barbara