Hollywood Flashback: The Super Bowl Faced a Fake Blimp Attack in 1977

Black Sunday Still - Photofest - H 2019
Courtesy of Photofest

As the 53rd edition of football's biggest night looms — the Los Angeles Rams are set to face the New England Patriots this weekend — The Hollywood Reporter looks back at 'Black Sunday,' a box office flop that saw fictional terrorists plan an attack on the game.

While the Los Angeles Rams and New England Patriots battle Feb. 3 in Super Bowl LIII and Maroon 5 headlines the halftime show, the excitement at Super Bowl X in 1976 was going to come from terrorists loading the Goodyear Blimp with a quarter-million steel darts, then exploding the cargo above 80,000 fans. At least that was the plot of Black Sunday, the Paramount thriller that was expected to be a blockbuster in summer 1977.

The Hollywood Reporter quoted studio president David Picker as saying he believed Sunday would be "one of the biggest pictures of all time."

It certainly had the elements. Sunday was produced by former Paramount president Robert Evans, who made 1974's Chinatown, and was based on Thomas Harris' best-selling novel of the same name. (The author later became famous for creating Hannibal Lecter.) The director was John Frankenheimer, a master of action and suspense. And the film starred eventual two-time Oscar nominee Bruce Dern alongside Robert Shaw, who two years earlier had played the shark-obsessed sailor in Jaws.

The filmmakers also secured the unprecedented cooperation of the NFL, which allowed them to shoot extensive sequences at Super Bowl X at the Orange Bowl in Miami, where the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Dallas Cowboys 21-17.

In its review, THR said of Sunday: "It has style, it has size, it has class."

Unfortunately, it didn't have box office mojo: The $7.5 million production ($31 million today) grossed only $16 million domestically ($66 million). Reasons for the so-so results varied. Six months earlier, Universal had released an awful sniper-at-the-Super Bowl feature, Two-Minute Warning, and audiences apparently confused the two films. At test screenings, 91 percent of the audience was unhappy that Sunday didn't end with the blimp blowing up at the game. Or maybe blimps just aren't that scary. (The Mad magazine parody was titled Blimp Sunday.)

"To me, the film was a disappointing success," says Evans, now 88. "We worked so hard on that movie. We worked so hard, it broke up my marriage. But I'm still so proud of that film."

This story first appeared in the Jan. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.