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Wednesday
Feb282007

From Hollywood to hog-wild

Ready to ride: Tim Allen, John Travolta, William H. Macy and Martin Lawrence. Touchstone Pictures

PACIFIC COAST HIGHWAY — John Travolta is scaring the bejesus out of Tim Allen, William H. Macy and just about everyone else on the Pacific Coast Highway.

Hurtling down the famed coastal ribbon with his actor pals on their Harley-Davidsons, Travolta begins to showboat. He kicks his feet on the front fenders. Then he swings his legs onto the back seat, lying stomach-first on the bike. Finally, he stands on the motorcycle's foot pegs going about 50 mph.

When the stars brake at a stoplight, a man in a minivan rolls down his window and jabs a finger at the bikers. "You all are driving like jackasses," he says. "You're jackasses!"

"We're not jackasses, sir," Macy deadpans. "We're Hollywood actors."

The motorist peels out, lifting a hand, presumably, to make an obscene gesture. Instead, he knocks off his baseball cap, which tumbles onto the highway and immediately is crushed by an SUV.

Don't mess with the Wild Hogs.

They may not be the toughest — or most capable — bunch to cruise the California seaboard. But Travolta and his co-stars are hoping Wild Hogs, which opens Friday, will return a little luster to a genre that sputtered to a near-halt in the mid-1970s: the biker film.

Certainly, no one is proclaiming Hogs the next Easy Rider or The Wild One. Hogs is a broad comedy, crammed with Disney's requisite cornball jokes and slapstick humor to make it marketable to families.

But the film is the first in years to acknowledge America's resurgent love of motorcycles and the baby boomers who refuse to give them up.

Nationwide and in Hollywood, cruising is back. Sales of new motorcycles hit 1.2 million last year, the highest figure in 14 years, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council.

And among celebrities, bikes couldn't be hotter. Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise favor the racing style of Ducati. Bruce Willis is a Harley guy. George Clooney, fittingly, rides a vintage Indian. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is a longtime biker who was grounded last month when he crashed his Harley and got 15 stitches in his upper lip.

For some, motorcycling feeds their adrenaline addictions and James Dean/Marlon Brando fantasies. For others, biking is a chance to duck fans and paparazzi by vanishing into the anonymity of a full-face helmet and thick leather gear.

"It can get to be too much, the craziness here," Allen says. "Sometimes it's nice to just disappear. And sometimes it's just fun to take off on an open road."

So it didn't take much to persuade Travolta, Allen, Macy and Hogs director Walt Becker to suit up and take a cruise on the PCH for lunch and a talk about their film.

"It should be a great day to ride," Allen says as he zips up the leather jacket he wore for the movie, which bears a grinning pig and the words "Wild Hogs" emblazoned on the back. "As long as the traffic or John doesn't kill us."

A personal connection

It took little persuading for Travolta and Allen to agree to do the film about aging suburban biker wannabes who treat their midlife crises with a 2,000-mile cross-country ride. Both actors grew up on motorcycles and the films that glamorized them.

And both can relate to one of the primary themes of the film. Though Hogs has plenty of conventional road-trip humor, it also touches on the weekend-warrior mentality of many of today's motorcyclists: men who work white-collar jobs during the week and don the tough-guy leather — and personae — on their days off.

"Not to make too much of it, because it is a comedy," Travolta says, "but there really is tension between full-time bikers and 'posers.' It's stupid, because anyone who rides is a biker. But it's there. And I'd never seen a movie that talked about that. At least not a recent one."

For Allen, the movie touched a more personal note. One of his younger brothers lost a leg in a motorcycle accident, and his brother's girlfriend was killed.

"My mom didn't know for a long time I kept bikes," he says. "But if it's in your blood, it's in your blood."

It wasn't in Macy's blood. The actor had to learn gradually, first riding a small motorcycle with no gears and slowly working his way up to a Sportster, the smallest but quickest of the Harley bikes. Despite the training, he still wrecked two bikes. "I'm sure the insurance guys were pulling their hair out that we'd kill ourselves," he says. "But come on. We're supposed to be tough bikers."

Hell's Angels get a part

To lend authenticity, Becker used former Hell's Angels and Bandido gang members as extras.

"We'd look down the call sheet, and it would have their name, their gang and their crimes," he says. "Some would be assault, some would even be murder. But they were amazing. We didn't have trouble with any of them."

As the afternoon wears on, the actors rumble into the Malibu Inn, a rustic bar and restaurant popular with California bikers. There, the actors draw double-takes from regulars who recognize the leather-clad stars from movies such as The Santa Clause and Battlefield Earth.

"Ain't that the little guy from Seabiscuit?" asks bar patron Michael Carlin, gesturing toward Macy. "What's he dressed like that for? And how'd he get his motorcycle here?"

But Becker says the stars, including Martin Lawrence and Ray Liotta (both of whom did not join the ride this day), hardly were posers.

"We had plenty of stunt doubles, but (the actors) must have done 90% of the riding," says Becker, who helped pay his way through college by buying and restoring old motorcycles. "I think they thought they were a real gang."

Which apparently included some roughhousing. Travolta and Allen, in particular, ribbed each other over who was the tougher, more experienced biker.

"Mr. Travolta here was our superstar," Allen jokes over cheeseburgers and fries. "He insisted his bike be made of diamonds and that his butt touch each bike only once. He went through 71 motorcycles."

Travolta jokes back: "At least I kept mine up." It's a reference to a friendly rivalry that became renowned on set during the shoot in Madrid, N.M.

Travolta, Macy says, enjoyed revving his Harley's thunderous engine in front of Allen. Eventually, Allen got fed up and gave chase, thumping Travolta's bike with his.

On another chase, "my glove might have gotten stuck" in the throttle, and the bike would not slow down, Allen says. "OK, so maybe I had to lay it down that once. But it wasn't my fault."

Becker is quick to add the actors showed a profound respect for motorcycles, especially Allen.

"We'd be riding the bikes over state lines, and he'd say 'Sorry, guys, this state has a helmet law.' And he'd make us stop and get legal. There's a lot of tough talk and posing around bikes. But in the end, the people aren't out there to cause trouble. They're out there because they love the experience."

Autographs and pictures

By the end of the late-afternoon lunch, the dubious stares from regulars turn into celebrity fawning.

As the actors head toward the exit to call it a day, they're stopped for autographs and pictures. The stars oblige, signing until the bikers have their share of souvenirs.

The ride back, thanks to rush-hour traffic, takes more than an hour, twice as long as the ride up the coast.

When he finally reaches the motorcycle shop, Allen pulls off the helmet and stretches his legs, which ache from the rumbling ride.

"I don't care what you drive, the L.A. traffic is gonna kill you," he says. "Still, I'd rather fight it on a bike."