Off Beat: Fraser went from Olympic gold to silver screen, sort of

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Hollywood has often turned to the Olympics for film talent. Medal-winning athletes have a proven ability to perform under pressure, and they can bring built-in name recognition to a movie.

Vancouver’s Gretchen Fraser was in a couple of those movies.

When the 2014 Winter Games got rolling three weeks ago, The Columbian looked back at how “Golden Gretchen” blazed an Olympic trail in 1948 by winning the United States’ first medal — a silver — in alpine skiing. And in her next event, the Vancouver housewife won a gold.

But we didn’t mention her film career because it didn’t follow the usual path. Decades before Nike started signing Olympic stars to million-dollar deals, movies were a way for them to cash in on their medals — particularly if their athletic attributes fit a role.

Four Olympic medal winners were cast as Tarzan: Johnny Weissmuller (five swimming golds), Bruce Bennett (silver in the shot), Glenn Morris (decathlon gold), and Buster Crabbe (swimming gold), who also had starring roles as Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers.

Harold Sakata (weightlifting silver) was one of the most memorable supporting characters in the “James Bond” film franchise as “Oddjob” in “Goldfinger.”

Figure skater Sonja Henie won three Olympic gold medals before making a dozen films.

After Fraser won her gold medal, she got movie offers but didn’t take them seriously, she told The Columbian before her death in 1994.

So how did Fraser wind up in films? Two of Henie’s movies were set in ski resorts — “Thin Ice” (1937) and “Sun Valley Serenade” (1941). Henie was much better on ice than on snow, so her skiing close-ups were filmed in the studio. The skier shown flashing down the slopes was Fraser.

She didn’t earn anything as a stunt double, her brother, William Kunigk, told The Columbian. Olympic amateurism rules were pretty strict back then.

“She was just doing it for the fun of it,” Kunigk said.

— Tom Vogt

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Off Beat lets members of The Columbian news team step back from our newspaper beats to write the story behind the story, fill in the story or just tell a story.