Bronx-born Damien Leake, a graduate of New York’s High School of Performing Arts, found fame in a long acting career — movies, TV, commercials and live theater. He’s used to playing second fiddle, with parts in “Serpico,” “Death Wish” and “Apocalypse Now.”
But at Saturday’s LA Grand Prix professional track meet at UCLA, he set a world record and few outside of Facebook heard of it.
Of course, Ryan Crouser shattering his own world best in the shot put — breaking the 77-foot-barrier — would tend to overshadow a 70-year-old man sprinting 100 meters in 12.59* seconds.
Nationally televised from UCLA’s Drake Stadium, the elite meet included men’s and women’s masters exhibitions. But NBC didn’t mention Leake’s stunning run.
In winning his 100, Leake lowered a world age-group standard for men 70-74 once held by former Stanford and U.S. Olympic coach Payton Jordan and, since 2005 at 12.77, by Robert “Bobby” Whilden, who set relay records at the University of Texas.
Under age-grading — the system of comparing the apples and oranges of different age group performances — Leake’s 12.59 (into a 0.2 meters per second wind) is equivalent to a 20- to 30-year-old’s time of 9.89 seconds.
On Saturday, 21-year-old Ackeem Blake of Jamaica upset 2019 world champion Christian Coleman in 9.89 seconds.
“I thought I was capable,” Leake said. “I just didn’t think I was in that good of shape, to be honest with you.”
The San Fernando Valley resident, who coaches young long jumpers when not acting, wasn’t planning on competing until June and July.
But two weeks ago he answered calls from Brenda Matthews, a fellow Southern California Striders club member, and Jerry Bookin-Weiner, Maryland-based chairman of the U.S. Masters Track & Field Committee.
So he entered the race.
He was surprised by his time, which he expected to be maybe 12.8, even though five years ago he set his first world age-group record — clocking 12.31 as a 65-year-old.
What accounts for his ability to preserve unnatural speed?
“I guess you would say living right,” he said. “I’ve never been a smoker. My drinking career ended by the time I was 19, and I have a wife [Audrey] who looks after me.”
Given his performance, it’s also natural to ask: What did you run as a youth?
Therein lies a Shakespearean tale.
Leake ran in junior high, and was confident he’d be on the 1972 Munich Olympic team after racing for Dewitt Clinton High School, whose alumni include boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, Hall of Fame basketball player Nate Archibald and six Olympians.
But a junior high teacher suggested Leake bypass Clinton, a school that also produced playwright Neil Simon, directors George Cukor and Robert Altman and actors Judd Hirsch, Burt Lancaster and “Get Smart” star Don Adams.
He suggested Leake audition for the prestigious High School of Performing Arts.
At first, Leake said: “No, no, no — I’m going to Clinton High School. That’s the job school. I’m going to the ’72 Games and that was the plan.”
But then young Leake was told that if he auditioned, he’d get the rest of the day off.
So he happily tried out.
Having heard his father read Leake’s own great-grandfather the works of the Bard of Avon — “My father from the time I was very young could recite whole passages of Shakespeare’s plays” — Leake chose a Marc Antony speech from “Julius Caesar.”
“O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth, that I am meek and gentle with these butchers!” Leake performed at the school made famous by the 1980s TV series “Fame.”
Then he forgot about the audition.
“Two weeks later, my guidance counselor comes and says: ‘You got in!’ And I said: ‘Got into what?’ It had totally slipped my mind,” he said sitting in the stands Saturday.
But Leake didn’t know how to act when, on the first day as a freshman, he learned the school known as PA had no track team — or any other sports teams.
“What do you mean no team?” he recalls asking. As far as Leake was concerned, that’s what high school was for.
“I ended up staying because my father … used reverse psychology on me and said, ‘Hey, so when are they going to kick you out of that school?’ Kick me out? I might want to leave but ended up staying the whole time,” he said.
He landed his first job during his senior year, “and I’ve been working pretty much since then” — except for a stint in the Army.
Leake has performed in regional theaters around the country, as well as on Broadway. His IMDB profile shows scores of movie and TV gigs.
He still acts “when they let me,” he says.
But his greatest passion is coaching, especially the long jump with his Leake’s Leapers.
He assists at Chaminade, a private Catholic prep school with two L.A. area campuses.
Though he’s planning on racing at the USATF National Masters Championships this summer in Greensboro, North Carolina, and the National Senior Games in Pittsburgh, “the main thing for me is: What are my kids doing? If I get a number of kids going to the JOs (Junior Olympics) — that takes precedent.”
He’ll also have someone critiquing his form.
Clubmate Matthews, in her early 70s, ran in the women’s 100-meter exhibition Saturday won by Santa Barbara’s Sue McDonald (who earlier this year set W60 age-group world records in the 800 and 1500).
Matthews — daughter-in-law of the late 1948 Olympic long jump champion Willie Steele out of San Diego State — liked Leake’s form.
“Oh my God. It was a beautiful race,” Matthews told Leake. “I said: You had the perfect start, the greatest transition and a great finish.”
*An earlier version of this report incorrectly said Leake’s time was 12.55 seconds.