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The World’s Greatest Athlete

The World’s Greatest Athlete (1973), starring Jan-Michael Vincent, John Amos, Tim Conway, Roscoe Lee Browne

Synopsis of The World’s Greatest Athlete

In Walt Disney’s The World’s Greatest Athlete, a down-on-his-luck coach ends up signing the world’s greatest athlete to salvage his career. But, his adoptive father — the witch doctor — isn’t happy with that.

Cast of characters

  • Nanu (Jan-Michael Vincent, Airwolf, Damnation Alley). The young, Tarzan-like figure – the “world’s greatest athlete” of the title. After the death of his missionary parents, he’s been raised by the village witch doctor.
  • Gazenga (Roscoe Lee Browne, The Cowboys, Oliver & Company). The witch doctor … who isn’t happy with his adopted son being “taken away” to be a collegiate athlete. Although the antagonist of the movie, he’s not a villain. He’s simply a man who’s concerned about his adopted son. A man with massive magical powers at his beck & call. Roscoe Lee Browne portrays the witch doctor as an intelligent, dignified man. Another excellent performance by Roscoe Lee Browne.
  • Coach Sam Archer (John Amos, Good Times, Coming to America). The most losing coach in the U.S.A. He decides to visit Africa to connect to his roots … Where he sees Nanu, outrunning a tiger, and realizes that the young man can turn his career around.
  • Tim Conway shrunk down by the witch doctor (Roscoe Lee Browne) in The World's Greatest Athlete
    Milo Jackson (Tim Conway, The Carol Burnett Show, The Apple Dumpling Gang). Coach Archer’s right hand man, and the movie’s comedy second banana. And nobody does that better than Tim Conway. Highlights include when Gazenga reduces him to only 3 inches tall, and when he somehow turns the tables & makes a voodoo doll of the witch doctor!
  • Jane (Dayle Haddon). The lovely young woman who tutors Nanu, and falls in love with him.
  • John Amos, Harri the tiger (in disguise) and Jan-Michael Vincent in The World's Greatest Athlete
    Harri. Nanu’s best friend … who happens to be a tiger. One of the comedy highlights is “sneaking” the tiger around, such as rooting for Nanu in the bleachers … while wearing a fur coat and hat. Not to mention sneaking him past Nanu’s near-sighted landlady (Nancy Walker).

Review of The World’s Greatest Athlete

Tim Conway shrunken down in "The World's Greatest Athlete"

In short, The World’s Greatest Athlete is an enjoyable light comedy. It’s a good example of Disney’s live-action comedies from the 1970’s. The World’s Greatest Athlete is an enjoyable comedy that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s fun and enjoyable, with some very good performances. Tim Conway and Roscoe Lee Browne both stick out as very enjoyable. In short, I recommend The World’s Greatest Athlete. I enjoyed it very much many years ago when it first came out, and I hope you do as well.

Editorial review of The World’s Greatest Athlete courtesy of Amazon.com

Cover of the 1973 Walt Disney comedy, The World's Greatest Athlete, with Nanu (Jan-Michael Vincent) running in a track uniform, with several of his jungle animal friends chasing him

This enjoyable comedy is one of the last Disney live-action films that feels akin to their earlier, innocent films. Jan-Michael Vincent plays the title character Nanu, a parentless child brought up in Africa with unbelievable physical skills (check out his introduction, running faster than a cheetah, played in front of pure-’70s rear-screen projection). John Amos and Tim Conway play a hapless college coaching duo whose fortunes change once they spot Nanu. After a run-in with a smart witch doctor (Roscoe Lee Browne), the two bring Nanu–and his pet tiger–to America, where Nanu finds Jane (Dayle Haddon) and starts to rewrite the record book.

The film doesn’t age that well, but the little ones will laugh at the shenanigans, especially when Conway is miniaturized by the doctor. Several sportscasters appear as themselves including Howard Cosell, who musters up the line, “I’ve never seen anything like this in my entire illustrious career.” –Doug Thomas