Quarterback Cat Catlan (Charlton Heston) used to be one of the greats. For fifteen years, he has been a professional football player. He probably should have retired after he led the New Orleans Saints to their first championship but, instead, the stubborn Cat kept playing. Now, he is 40 years old and struggling to keep up with the younger players. His coach (John Randolph) says that Cat has another two or three years left in him but the team doctor (G.D. Spradlin who, ten years later, played a coach in North Dallas Forty) says that one more strong hit could not only end Cat’s career but possibly his life as well. Two of former Cat’s former teammates (Bruce Dern and Bobby Troup) offer to help Cat find a job off the field but Cat tells them the same thing that he tells his long-suffering wife (Jessica Walter). He just has to win one more championship.
Number One is unique for being one of the first movies to ever take a look at the dark side of professional football. At 40, Cat is facing an uncertain future. His years of being a star have left him unprepared to deal with life in the real world. He has no real friends and a wife who no longer needs him. This would seem like a perfect role for Heston, who always excelled at playing misanthropes. Heston is convincing when he’s arguing with his wife or refusing to sign an autograph but, surprisingly, he is thoroughly unconvincing whenever he’s on the field. For all of his grunting and all the lines delivered through gritted teeth, Heston is simply not believable as a professional athlete, even one who is past his prime. (When he played the 40 year-old Cat, Heston was 46 and looked like he was 56.) Whenever Cat throws a football, he’s played by Heston in close-ups and very obviously replaced by real-life Saints quarterback Billy Kilmer for the long shots. A football film is only as good and convincing as the football action and, on that front, Number One leaves much to be desired.
Two final notes: For the scene in which Cat is tackled by three Dallas Cowboys (all played by actual players), Heston requested that the players actually tackle him. Heston ended up with three broken ribs.
Finally, Number One was made the cooperation of the New Orleans Saints and features several players in the cast. When Number One was filmed, the Saints were still a relatively new expansion team. Cat is described as having already led the Saints to a championship but it would actually be another 40 years before the Saints would finally make their first trip to the Super Bowl.