Palm Sunday is an annual reminder that what goes up must come down. As if we needed reminding.
Remember Varsity Blues? Honestly, I don’t. I never saw the movie. But it was a huge success at the box office, and, as a Friday Night Lights knockoff, it really couldn’t miss, especially since it starred Paul Walker, James van der Beek, Ali Larter, and Scott Caan. The most unforgettable performance, though, (I’m told) came from one Ron Lester, who played the enormous offensive tackle, Billy Bob.
At the time Varsity Blues was filmed, Lester weighed close to 500 pounds, which, combined with his substantial acting talent, landed him frequent comic roles as the fat best friend. But then something happened. Lester’s girth, which brought him fame, money, and work, began to kill him. So Lester underwent gastric bypass surgery and lost 300 pounds.
Lester’s story is the subject of a fascinating longread over at Grantland. It documents his attempted transition from fat best friend to leading man. It did not go well. And that story is a case study in identity.
Lester is now attempting to produce a movie called Racing Legacy, which the article repeatedly describes as “faith-based.” What makes it “faith-based” is not discussed, but it is clear that writing the movie saved Lester’s life:
Inspiration for the project hit Lester after seeing a friend’s 13-year-old cousin race Legends cars — 5/8th-scale replicas of cars from the 1930s that can hit 100 mph — at the Dixie Speedway in Georgia. He started writing the screenplay in September 2010. At the time, he was contemplating suicide again. “When I was writing this movie, I had a .45 on my desk. That first draft saved my life,” he says. “I was at such a low point in my life again, but I was distracted by what I was writing. Then when I wrote it, I forgot about [suicide].”
Lester is realistic about his prospects, and he seems to have given up the idea of resuming his former identity:
“This movie may never get made,” he says. “I’m not saying I’m counting everything on Racing Legacy being made. It’s not about getting my career back. I don’t care about being famous. I don’t even care about going back to Hollywood, man. C’mon, man, I turn 44 this year, let’s be realistic.”
On the other hand, Lester’s former identity seems to haunt him. While he understands that losing weight was a life or death issue for him, he also seems, at times, to prefer death to his current life of relative anonymity:
“Am I alive? Yes. Am I happy? No. Did I throw away my career to be skinny? Yes,” he says. “I wouldn’t do [the surgery] again. I would much rather have died happy, rich, and kept my status and gone out on top.”
That’s a heartbreaking statement. But all of us have been, or will be, part of that equation. We would all rather die than surrender certain aspects of our identity, whether they be our titles, our relationships, or our bank accounts. And some of us have lost everything—our jobs, our spouses, our children—leaving us to wonder what life would have been like if we had only done something differently and whether we can, whether we should, go on.
A little over a year ago, Lester moved to Dallas, Texas. In Dallas, Lester experienced what the article describes as a “religious awakening,” followed by his baptism. Lester is now in the grip of something greater than himself, something that grabbed him before he knew it and dragged him to the baptismal waters. We can only hope that he—that we—will allow all false and fleeting identities to be washed away.