The cult star discusses his new film, Heroes of Dirt, and how he feels about being synonymous with an iconic BMX movie role
Since 1986, Bill Allen has been primarily recognized for one iconic part—the role of BMX racer Cru Jones in the cult classic RAD. Now, after a 30-year drought in BMX film, the 52-year-old actor has a new role in Heroes of Dirt, the first cinematic BMX movie to be released since. Here he talks about how he started riding BMX, what it’s like to be a cult hero, and some of the biggest changes in the sport since RAD came out. Plus, he shares a few details about a third BMX film on the way.
Bicycling: Were you a BMX rider before getting cast in RAD?
Bill Allen: No; I came out to Los Angeles as an actor with no real experience with BMX, and I was on an episode of Hill Street Blues, which is an old cop show. [RAD director] Hal Needham saw me on that show and brought me in to read for RAD, which consisted of just a quick read. They had me sit on a Mongoose bicycle, and probably six weeks later I was up in Calgary shooting.
Were you into other forms of cycling?
No, I wasn’t. I was over-protected as a child and wasn’t even allowed a bicycle. I rode my friends’ bikes often and without my parents’ permission, so I’d always dreamed of having a bicycle and being a cyclist for many years; then it just happened by accident. It’s kind of funny—it’s something I always aspired to but never really had the opportunity to until just recently. Now I’m studying BMX for my next role.
Was there a reason your parents wouldn’t let you ride?
They saw my brother nearly get killed on his bicycle and that was it. They said, “Okay, enough bikes—we’ll buy you a car when you’re 16.” But that didn’t have a lot of meaning to an 8-year-old kid, and it made me different in a lot of ways. Like I said, I always had that longing to become a bicyclist and now I connect that to somehow becoming known for it. I think somehow the universe made my childhood wish possible.
What did you have to do to prepare for the role? Did you start riding?
I didn’t have a lot of time. I wasn’t familiar with the sport then, so I didn’t have a lot of preparation. My stunt doubles were so good and looked so much like me. I just had to show up and do the light riding in and out of shots, but as soon as I was under the hockey helmet, no one could tell who was under that thing. People still to this day think I did all my own riding.
Do people expect you to be a pro BMXer when they meet you?
I spent a lot of time with the stuntmen in the movie, so I’ll go to an event and people will say, “What do you mean these are your stunt guys? I thought YOU were the guy.” Sorry! I’m not Superman. They can be disappointed but that’s movie magic—that’s how it’s done.
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What are some of your favorite memories from that movie?
Being on a huge bicycle extravaganza with the greatest stunt director in the business out there. It was like Orson Welles said, “the biggest train set anyone could hope for” with Helltrack, the big climactic race. It was a very stunt-heavy thing and a very testosterone-heavy movie. It was cool to hang out with all the stunt guys and all the actual bicycle riders and just be immersed in that world. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
What did you think of the BMX community as an outsider?
I was knocked out. It was my first introduction to these guys, and it was mind-bending. I had no idea people could do backflips on bicycles and tailspins and cherry-pickers—it was all very new at the time. That’s one of the reasons it caught on so much in home video—people had literally not seen that sport before.
Were you recognized all the time?
Not all the time. It’s a good level of fame. I get a nice amount of recognition if I go to a BMX event and hear that I was part of someone’s youth. I just showed up and filmed a movie for six weeks, but once in awhile these movies will have a life outside of the theatrical. For a certain portion of the population, it’s their It’s a Wonderful Life or their Sergeant Pepper’s—they go back to it again and again.
How did the opportunity to play a role as the lead’s father in Heroes of Dirt come about?
Eric Bugbee, the director, grew up watching RAD; became a BMXer himself; went to film school; started his own production company; and decided to do a BMX-themed movie for his feature. He reached out to me to be a part of it, to play the curmudgeonly dad of the lead kid. This was a while back in Allentown and they’re just now getting around to releasing the movie.
How did you feel when he contacted you?
Number one, as an actor, you think—“Hey, I got an acting job, that’s great! Someone wants to pay me to stand in front of a movie camera.” I’ve had a couple opportunities to be hired because someone was a fan of RAD, so you walk on the set, and people are aware of the legacy and that’s nice—you don’t walk onto the set as an unknown actor. But that’s not why I did it—it’s just a happy accident when it occurs.
Is that unique to cult movies—being sought out based on one particular role?
I don’t know. I just know that to a certain portion of the population, I’ll always be defined as that guy and always be seen as that guy and referred to as Cru Jones. I couldn’t be happier about it. I love what the movie did for the sport; I love the sportsmen that I now consider my peer group; and it’s a real special little niche. It’s not just a movie: People took on that movie as a way of life and an instructional manual on how to live your life if you’re an outsider athlete. To have that special place—I like to say it’s more than a cult movie, it’s a cult. I’m really proud to be a part of it.
How do you think Heroes of Dirt will go over with fans?
Number one, it’s the first fiction-based movie about BMX that I know of since RAD. So that’s a long drought for fans. And it really pays homage to the cyclists themselves and goes a long way in showing their lifestyle and philosophy and what they’re about and their camaraderie, most of all, which is most attractive. This fellowship out there risking things and breaking bones and doing things that are unheard of, so that breeds a special kind of camaraderie that’s really wonderful.
You mentioned you had started riding more recently?
Yeah, I’ve got another BMX movie in development where I actually get to go back on the bike, and now we have enough time to think about it, develop it, and for me to recover if I injure myself too egregiously. So I’ve been taking BMX lessons from one of the stunt guys in RAD, Martin Aparijo, who’s one of the top freestylers. So I’m on my bike with him every day practicing.
Does the film have a name? Any idea when it will be released?
I imagine we’ll start filming next year. We’re still in early development. It’s going to be an action-packed BMX-based extreme sports movie.
What are some of the biggest changes in BMX you’ve seen since the RAD era and the Heroes era?
There have been huge, huge changes. One of the plot points in RAD centered around Jose Yanez, who doubled me, doing a backflip. He was the only guy in the world at the time who could do a backflip on a bicycle and then went on to do it on a motorcycle. Now, if you go to any skate park, you see kids busting backflips, double backflips, front flips and just six weeks ago, Jed Mildon from New Zealand did a quadruple backflip on a bicycle. So we’ve come so far and there’s literally no end in sight. These new athletes are taking things to a level no one anticipated or had ever experienced.
For more about Bill Allen, check out his book, My RAD Career, which discusses his seminal role as Cru Jones and his life acting.