When Charlotte played its ‘Ace'

Before Dino De Laurentiis jump-started the N.C. movie business with a studio in Wilmington, long before movies from “Days of Thunder” to “Blood Done Sign My Name” filmed in Charlotte's streets, there was … “Stroker Ace.”

On the surface, it was a disposable, NASCAR-themed comedy about a renegade driver (Burt Reynolds) who quarreled with the fried-chicken restaurateur (Ned Beatty) who sponsored his team. But the film, which celebrates its 25th anniversary Tuesday, had greater importance on the cosmic scale.

It led to the brief marriage of Reynolds and co-star Loni Anderson. It ended Reynolds' five-year run as the top movie box-office draw in America. (Reportedly, he turned down the “Terms of Endearment” role that won Jack Nicholson an Oscar to star in “Ace.”)

It featured buxom Cassandra Peterson, who later became TV host Elvira, as “Girl With Lugs.” (That's not a sexual reference. Jim Nabors played mechanic Lugs Harvey and earned a Golden Raspberry, known as a Razzie, for 1983's worst performance by a supporting actor.)

There was even a rumored “Curse of ‘Stroker Ace.'” Race car drivers Neil Bonnett, Dale Earnhardt, Tim Richmond and Benny Parsons, all of whom appeared in the film, died without reaching their three- score-and-10 allotment of years. But the film was a blessing for a midsize city that wanted to get onto America's radar any way it could.