He knew he was going to die. The logs in the jam were crushing his legs and slowly sucking him down into the cold, roaring Oregon River. But he wouldn't stop wisecracking. As Paul Newman held him in his arms to keep him from drowning, Richard Jaeckel kept joking while in the jaws of death (as they say in Hollywood).
For that performance in "Sometimes a Great Notion," Jaeckel was nominated for an Academy Award as best supporting actor in 1972. It was the culmination of 40 years of steady, understated, eminently professional acting.
He didn't win the Oscar.
In the end, Richard Jaeckel always got drowned, shot or eaten alive.
Today, Jaeckel's 32-year-old son, Barry, who has been struggling for a decade as one of the PGA Tour's steady, understated, best-supporting golfers, gave the Tournament Players Championship its Day of the Jaeckel. His scrambling 69-70 -- 139 put him one shot up on Dan Edwards (68) and Dan Halldorson (70) at the midpoint of the richest, most brutal event in golf.
On a howling, blustery, sundrenched day, Tom Watson shot 80 and missed the cut at 151, but Jack Nicklaus, with a 68, equaled the day's low round to jump from 58th place to fifth, four strokes back.
Like his father on screen, Jaeckel tried to face this greatest opportunity, and thus greatest crisis of his professional career, with a cavalier quip and the appearance of coldbloodedness. No one, however, has to remind him that, for the next two days, he will have to create his own script.
"Who the hell is leading? Am I?" Jaeckel asked after a roller-coaster round of five birdies and three bogeys that had him in such a cocoon of concentration that he never glanced at a scoreboard. "I feel like I've been in a five-hour prizefight."
Jaeckel did not try to hide either his high hopes or his fears. "What would it mean to win this tournament?" said the quintessential tour rabbit who has made the top 60 exempt list only once. "It would be the ultimate to me, because it would mean a 10-year exemption from qualifying. God, that would take care of a lot of Mondays," when tournaments hold their one-day qualifying stampedes.
For years, Jaeckel has been known more as a good guy than a good golfer. He grew up in the Pacific Palisades, Calif., neighborhood of Dean Martin, James Arness and Jerry West. And Ronald Reagan. His next-door neighbor was UCLA basketball Coach John Wooden. The closest the youngster got to the national sports limelight was being a ballboy for the great Bruin teams.
On tour, the handsome, natty Jaeckel had to learn to take the needle.
"Hear the bad news? pro Gary McCord once asked him, deadpan. "I hate to be the one to tell you, but your daddy was eaten by a bear last night." h
"Again?" Jaeckel replied.
Jaeckel takes with good grace the world's far larger interest in his old showbiz neighbors than in himself. "I'll never forget the day Reagan left, after he sold his house," he said. "He had a microphone on his car. Honest to God, he thanked everybody. Said he was sorry to leave the neighborhood.
"You didn't dare make a wrong move. It was tremendous: no burglaries, no muggings, no shootings. We were sorry to see him go."
After a career that he himself describes as "stagnant," you would think that, for one day, as Sawgrass was swallowing almost everyone else (field stroke average: 75.7), Jaeckel would have nothing but long overdue glory.
Instead, the moment he came off the 18th green, he was fined $200 for slow play, for the first time in his career. Jaeckel may not have finished in the top of any tour event in two years. He may be a little guy -- 5 feet 10, 160 pounds and who has had to battle like the devil to win $212,122. Maybe he's won only one pro tournament, the 1978 Tallahassee Open. But he isn't slow.
So, Jaeckel was mad. The tardiness was due to a friend in his threesome, Mark McCumber, who, after a long absence from play, was performing before his hometown fans and was having an attack of competitive bad nerves. McCumber even apologized to his partners for freezing over shots.
Jaeckel took the guilt-by-association rap with class, calling himself "as slow as the rest of my group" and refusing to name McCumber as culprit.
"They (PGA staff) hawked us pretty bad the whole back nine," he said. "It was like playing with a policeman watching you. I lead a major tournament for the first time in my life and I walk off and get hit with a speeding ticket.It takes some pleasure away. But I'm happy, I guess."
And if he can just give himself a slap in the face at the right moment, and not get caught in the logjam behind him, it's a great notion.