Strother had four features and a TV movie released in 1979, this was near the end of his career and unfortunately his life. 1980 held only two minor features and his appearance on Saturday Night Live. “The Champ” was a pretty successful film financially, but Strother is a very minor part of the story.
His name was enough to earn him a co-starring title card, but the role barely registers as part of the events depicted in the story. His character is Riley, a horse trainer at the track where Billy Flynn (Jon Voight) and his son T.J. (Ricky Schroder), live and work. His most engaging scene is right at the start of the film where we learn that Voigt was a former boxing champion, while he and Strother walk through the training yard.
They reminisce about Billy Flynn’s career for about thirty seconds. So he does not have much screen time but you can see the charisma on the screen as he steals the scene from the star, before almost disappearing from the film.
The film is a remake of the 1931 classic that won Wallace Berry the Academy Award for Best Actor. The character here has been out of boxing for seven years, and coincidentally, his son is eight and his wife has supposedly been dead the whole time. In the course of the melodrama, we learn about the Mom and sad career that Flynn left for booze and gambling. When you watch the story play out, it is a wonder that anyone has any sympathy for the negligent Billy, who forces his child to play nursemaid to a drunck who won’t keep his promises.
We maybe start to have a change of heart when after a drunk, and a lucky run at the craps table, Billy buys T.J. his own horse, that they plan on racing at the Miami track. Jay has no lines here, he just gets upstaged by the horse as he brings it out as a surprise for T.J.
Although there are several more scenes set at the racetrack, we don’t encounter Riley again in those environments. I suspect there were scenes that were cut for time and my guess is that Strother would have been in a couple of those.
Faye Dunaway shows up in the film and she turns out to have a “surprise” relationship to the father and son team [Do you think you can guess?] There are then a whole series of events that go back and forth between Voight and Dunaway, with Ricky Schroder as the ping pong ball. When Billy risks the horse that belongs to T.J. on a gambling debt, you will really wonder why we are supposed to root for the character.
Ultimately, Voight decides that to provide for his kid better than he has done, he is going to make a boxing comeback. Elisha Cook Jr. and Jack Warden play characters in this part of the story, and I was prepared for Strother to be excluded from the film at that point, but low and behold, in the climactic boxing match, Strother shows up and he is there for the close of the film as well.
Jay shows up in the audience at the boxing match, and once again shows how good reactions are good acting. He has no lines, and just a few inserts but his facial expressions tell you how the match is going at any given point.
If you are unfamiliar with the story and want to see the movie without having the end given away. Stop reading here;