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Sep 6, 2019

(August 17, 2019) If the decades seem to have zipped by with the speed of a competitive cyclist, brace yourselves: The movie Breaking Away, filmed in and around Bloomington, opened in theaters across the country 40 years ago this summer.

Dave-BlaseThe film became an unexpected hit in 1979 and won an Academy Award for its screenwriter, Indiana University graduate Steve Tesich, who drew inspiration from his fraternity's victory in the Little 500 bicycle race. He based the film's central character on his fraternity brother Dave Blase, a zoology major and avid cyclist at IU in the early 1960s who used to sing Italian arias as he rode over the hills of Monroe County.

Now 79 years old, Dave Blase is retired after a long career as a biology teacher, including 39 years on the faculty of Arlington High School in Indianapolis. Dave Blase is Nelson's studio guest and shares insights about his early life (he grew up in Speedway), the impact of Breaking Away (in which the aria-singing protagonist is named Dave Stoller), and how his life has unfolded during the 40 years since the release of the movie.

"Dave had this fanatical attachment to the sport," Tesich recalled in an interview with Nelson, our host, a few years before the screenwriter's death in 1996. "It was almost a romantic involvement."

Breaking Away movie posterThe Phi Kappa Psi brothers won the Little 500 in 1962, with Dave Blase as the undeniable star of the team. Several factors influenced his fondness for all things Italian, including the fact that he had spent a semester working as a researcher at a campus medical center with Italian doctors. It also didn't hurt that cyclists from Italy had dominated the competition at the 1960 Rome Olympics.

In Breaking Away, the "townie" characters on the scrappy Little 500 team hail from working-class families who cut limestone in the quarries near Bloomington. The team members, who call themselves "Cutters," feud with preppy IU students, competing not only in the Little 500, but also for the attention of sorority members.

In interviews over the years, Dave Blase has said that during his boyhood in Speedway, he had minimal interest in sports, including cycling. That changed at IU, culminating in his spectacular performance in the Little 500 in 1962, in which he rode 139 of the 200 laps and set campus records.

With only a $2.4 million budget - modest even for the time - Breaking Away was filmed in Bloomington and elsewhere in Monroe County during the summer and fall of 1978, then released the next year.

Steve Tesich, the screenwriter, was born in 1942 in what was then Yugoslavia. At age 14, he immigrated with his family to East Chicago, Ind. After winning the Oscar for Breaking Away, Tesich wrote the screenplay for Four Friends (1981), an autobiographical movie about an Eastern European immigrant who comes of age in northwestern Indiana.

"I had heard from my frat brothers about a freshman who showed up on campus with a 10-speed bicycle, which was unusual in those days," Dave Blase told Nelson several years ago, referring to his initial meeting on campus with Tesich in the fall of 1961.

Breaking Away, though, is set in the late 1970s. The film, in which Dennis Christopher played the Dave Stoller character, was such a success that it inspired a short-lived TV series starring teen idol Shaun Cassidy in the role.

By then, Dave Blase was teaching at Arlington High School. Although he had continued to race competitively after he graduated from IU and through his 20s, he found that the occasional prize money he won was not enough to support a family. He had met his wife Yolande, who is Dutch, during a bicycling excursion through Europe. 

The two now live on the northeast side of Indianapolis and are the parents of two grown children.