On the day Mike Summerbee received his OBE, we look at a time when Buzzer's skills were utilised on the big screen instead of a football pitch...
This feature first appeared on 15 December 2022 to celebrate our Club Ambassador's 80th birthday.
Imagine... you receive a phone call asking whether you’d like to be in a Hollywood movie?
It will be made by one of Tinseltown’s greatest directors, John Huston and star three of the biggest acting talents of the era in Sylvester Stallone, Michael Caine and Max von Sydow.
Oh, and Pelé will also star.
It’s not a difficult decision if you are a noted actor, but it is a dream come true if you are a retired footballer who has never acted in his life.
That’s what happened to Mike Summerbee – our Buzzer – back in 1981 and, on his 80th birthday and a year after the 40thanniversary of the movie’s release, we look back at this most unique few weeks in our Club legend’s life.
"I didn’t receive a phone call from anybody actually connected with the production side of the film – it was Bobby, who I’d been close friends with since the age of 16, who got in touch and simply asked, ‘Do you fancy being a movie star?"
The film in question, Escape to Victory, centred around a group of Allied Second World War prisoners who were interned in a German prisoner of war camp.
A match is organised with the prisoners taking on a German team, with the prisoners hatching a plot to escape after the event.
The game, a propaganda stunt for the German captors, is held at a stadium in Paris and when one of the prisoners manages to breakout ahead of the game, he enlists the help of the French Resistance to concoct a plan of escape for the prison team at half-time.
The German side, aided by an obviously biased referee, take a 4-1 lead and though an escape tunnel has by then been made from the prisoners' dressing room, the players are angry with their treatment on the pitch and decide to show their true skills.
They pull it back to 4-4, have a perfectly legal goal ruled out and the game ends with a pitch invasion of well-wishers who quickly help the prisoners into various disguises that will facilitate a successful escape.
The casting team were looking for great footballers to not only play their roles authentically but give additional gravitas to moviegoers who didn’t want to see actors who were pretending to be great footballers.
Huston demanded that the players in the film be great at football before all else for realism – they wouldn’t have too many lines of dialogue, so the casting director began to spread the net to bring in some of the game's former greats and also some of its current stars.
Several stars of English clubs agreed to parts in the film, and one of the most prominent, ex-England skipper and World Cup winner Bobby Moore, was asked if he could suggest some names, too.
Moore, one of Mike Summerbee’s closest friends, wasted no time in calling his buddy to see if he wanted in.
“I didn’t receive a phone call from anybody actually connected with the production side of the film – it was Bobby, who I’d been close friends with since the age of 16, who got in touch and simply asked, ‘Do you fancy being a movie star?’” recalled Buzzer.
"The next day we went to the prisoner of war camp and learned who we were going to be and what are parts were. Our uniforms were handed out and it was fascinating to see how things worked."
“I thought he was joking and reckoned it might be a documentary or something, but it was a genuine Hollywood movie. I met him in London for a chat and then he introduced me to the people making the picture and discovered the film was being made in Budapest over a period of six weeks.
“I’d retired from football six months earlier and Bobby had, too, so it was a great opportunity to do something different. We spoke with our wives – mine wasn’t too happy with me being away for six weeks! – but the financial side of it was very good and not long after, Bobby and I met up again in London in readiness to fly out.
“The night before we left, Arsenal star Liam Brady came into the restaurant we were in, saw us and walked over for a chat. He was dubious about leaving Arsenal for Sampdoria and we both said he should take the opportunity to try something different, which he did and made a success of it.
“We flew out at the back of the Hungarian Airlines plane and picked up our visas on our arrival. On landing, we discovered Pele had been sat in first class, but we’d had no idea!
“We collected our luggage but were disappointed to find there was nobody to meet us, so we caught a taxi to our hotel and eventually received an apology from the production team who said there had been a mix-up with the pick-up arrangements.
“The hotel was fantastic – right on the Danube – you’d have thought we were big time movie stars! Shortly after we met the filmmakers and things went from there.
“The next day we went to the prisoner of war camp and learned who we were going to be and what are parts were. Our uniforms were handed out and it was fascinating to see how things worked – they’d take a Polaroid picture of you in the morning and another at the end of the day for continuity purposes. It was all very professionally done.”
Buzzer proved a popular cast member, but there were plenty of faces he recognised that helped bond everyone together and the camaraderie was immediate and created the perfect chemistry Huston had been looking for.
“Paul Cooper, Kevin O’Callaghan, Kaziu Deyna, Ossie Ardiles, Kevin Beattie, John Wark, Russell Osman and several others were all there and we all got along fantastically well, and the friendship remains to this day,” Buzzer continued.
“Kaziu, who had played for City, was a lovely man and a very proud Polish man. He had a problem with one scene because he felt it belittled his country, but a few of us managed to bring him around eventually.
“It was wonderful to meet Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone for the first time. Sylvester had just completed Rocky so was a huge star and there were other famous actors like Max von Sydow and the English actors such as Julian Curry, Tim Piggott-Smith and Daniel Massey – all great Shakespearian actors who were on board because it was a John Huston film – to have a director’s name like that on your CV was a real plus.
“We all had scripts, but for the players, one or two of us had a few lines to say and a few of us didn’t. Some of the lead actors pushed some words on to us so we were more involved in the movie. The first time we went to the pitch at the POW camp and the teams were being picked, I had to head a ball down into the dust and then get up and say a line to Michael Caine.
“Michael said, ‘The people know me, but they don’t know you. You don’t get the chance to be in movies very often so I’ll guide you around and make sure you end up in shot all the time.’ So that’s what happened.
“Michael loved the guys and was very down to earth. He likes his football and seemed to enjoy being among lads who liked having a laugh and a bit of banter. We all took it seriously and professionally, but we made sure we enjoyed it, too, because we knew it would be probably our only chance to be involved with something like that.
“I learned my lines and I think I was asked ‘What’s your name?’ I said Syd Harmor and he said, ‘How would you like to play against the Verma’ and my character replies with a harsh line to which he replies, ‘Welcome aboard.’
"I’d taken my shirt material with me, and I measured up Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone on set and I delivered them to Los Angeles in person at the premiere of Rocky 2."
“We’d work from half-five in the morning until eight o’clock at night and have lunch in the huts on location.
“After the filming ended John Huston told us that he’d been very worried about working with footballers, imagining that we would be spoiled brats with a superstar mentality. He said we’d been nothing like he’d imagined and had done everything that had been asked of us and more.”
One of Buzzer’s outside interests had always been fashion and he once owned a high class fashion shop in Manchester with George Best. He also had a bespoke shirts business and wasn’t about to miss an opportunity to measure up some of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
“I’d taken my shirt material with me, and I measured up Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone on set and I delivered them to Los Angeles in person at the premiere of Rocky 2,” he recalled.
“I sent Max von Sydow some shirts – he was living in Ireland at the time – and John Huston invited me and my wife to go over to his home in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico for a holiday, though I never took the offer up.
“We had some great fun making the film, enjoyed great food and used our weekends off to go to Lake Balaton and relax on the beach. We’d hire a minibus and drive over for the day and just relax and enjoy the sunshine.
“The actors wanted to be footballers and the footballers wanted to be actors – it was funny. We had knockabouts and games when we had chance and the whole experience is one I’ll never forget.
“There were two premieres, one in Manchester and one in New York – where the film was called ‘Victory’ - but I could only go to the one at home.
“It’s a cult movie today because it’s just a good family movie – no swearing, no sex and no killing – it’s shown on TV regularly and it’s had a sort of afterlife.
“It was funny because back in 2012, I was at Shay Given’s Fashion Kicks event and I wore a tie with stripes on and City’s CEO at the time, Garry Cook, asked what the tie represented. I told him it was a very special tie that only people who had been in Escape to Victory could wear. Roberto Mancini’s eyes immediately lit up and he said ‘Were you in that? That’s my favourite film!’
“I’ve been recognised throughout Europe and particularly in Portugal where the film, is huge – as it is in Italy – it was a terrific success in a number of countries.
“I’ve seen Michael Caine a number of times since and he’s always the same with me and he would be if I met him on the street tomorrow. I’ve met Stallone since and he was just the same as he was as well, so it’s nice to have made some long-lasting friendships because that’s what life is all about.
“People asked me if I'd had a choice of being an actor or a footballer, it would have to be football because while it’s hard work being a player at times, I think being actor is far more intense. Their days are long and they have to learn every aspect of their role to the letter, so I’d opt to play football and maybe take on the odd acting role every now and then.
“I have a director’s chair I was given before I left Budapest – a few of the lads were presented with them but I got the biggest and there isn’t a day I don’t pass it in my house and think back to those six weeks in Budapest.
“I’ve been very lucky in life regarding the people I’ve met and had the chance to work with - from coming to City when Joe Mercer was in charge and being invited by people like Bobby Moore to work in a film.
“I’ve been pretty lucky to have been in the right place at the right time.”
Escape to Victory took $27million at the box office in 1981 – just shy of $90million in today’s money, tripling the amount it cost to make.
If you haven’t seen it, seek it out and see Buzzer, pretty much playing himself on the silver screen - a treat not to be missed…
Happy birthday, Buzzer!