The young man at left gliding over the ice with a pretty girl on his arm is Toni Sailer, triple medal winner at the Cortina Olympics (SI, Feb. 13, 1956). Two of Toni's Olympic prizes were won in the zigzag slalom and giant slalom races, the third in a downhill race. Since then, the career of L'il Abner of the Alps has moved agreeably uphill, demonstrating that a champion skier has as much chance for wealth and fame as a champion golfer or tennis player. The three gold medals were, in fact, a foretoken of what Toni has become: an animated gold mine with himself as principal prospector and shareholder. In the past three years his earnings from three businesses which he owns wholly or in part, a ghostwritten book, records and films have totaled more than $125,000. The bulk of the money comes from movies; his five films to date have been moneymakers; and its producers hope the same will be true of the next one, Der weisse Traum (The White Dream), for which he is shown rehearsing with his leading lady, Ina Bauer.
Toni is, nowadays, a man of property and himself a property in the show-business sense of the term. In 1958, in a poll on what Austrian had done the most for his country, Toni placed fifth, just behind Mozart. Some Austrians found this proximity absurd. Mozart with his music never made anything like the money Toni makes with his records, in which he croons sentimental ballads in a so-so voice.
However much he has done for his country, he has done very well for himself—and with himself. For Toni is his own best commodity. Dark-haired and soft-eyed, he is extraordinarily good-looking, and his screen fans, mostly women, are likely to make whimpering animal noises at the sight of him. All they ask of Toni is that he stand around so they can have a good look at him. Film critics agree that he is very good at standing around.
Toni's official switch from gold medals to gold coin came in 1959, a year after he won the FIS world ski championship at Bad Gastein. By that time he had already appeared in one movie, which half-heartedly dodged the amateur question by putting him on water skis instead of snow skis. In his second picture, however, there was so much snow-skiing footage that it was almost as though he were doing his own life story. All of this brought criticism from sports officials, and Toni decided to retire, rather than risk the international hassle which would have developed had he tried to keep racing right through the Squaw Valley Olympics.
November 21, 1960
His first business venture was Sailer-Tex, a wholesale firm manufacturing elastic material for ski pants, in partnership with Dr. Angelo Maestrelli of Milan. The partners are closemouthed as to figures, but the indications are that they're doing all right. Toni loyally wears Sailer-Tex stretch pants when occasion allows, which has been often enough to bring orders from all over Europe, North and South America, and Japan.
With the stretch pants selling briskly, Toni went into the hotel business. An inn called Haus Toni Sailer was built in Toni's home town of Kitzb√ºhel on land presented to him after Cortina by grateful fellow villagers. It is four-storied and gabled and looks like something out of one of those operettas where the chorus girls wear dirndls and the chorus boys yodel. The inn with its 32 beds is booked solid from Christmas through March, the winter sports season. Toni's drawing power is such that even summer business has been good—an achievement rather like attracting skin-divers into the Sahara.
In literature, too, Toni is making his mark—his marks, anyway: 200,000 of them so far on the total sales of his ghosted autobiography, Mein Weg zum dreifachen Olympia-Sieg (roughly How I Won the Triple Crown). It sold 160,000 copies in the German edition, 30,000 in the Japanese and 10,000 in the French. An American edition is being prepared.
His latest venture is the marketing of a new type of plastic ski. It was developed by a Kitzb√ºhel neighbor in his workshop and tested by Toni, who recommends it. It is made of a combination of plastic and fiber glass. According to its promoters, it combines the advantages of metal skis and wooden ones. This winter is the first that the Toni Sailer Fibreglaski is in full production, and some 1,500 pairs of skis are now on their way to dealers in Europe, the U.S. and Canada. Toni says: "It's an ideal ski for average skiers." That's to say, for anyone who can afford to pay $135 to $140 a pair.
But Toni's greatest success remains in films. His fame as an actor has spread as far as Japan, where he traveled last year to make King of the Snowy Summits, a box office success that so far has made $250,000 from an attendance of a million and a half.
The acting career started shakily. He had been invited to Munich's Geiselgasteig studio for a secondary part in an Alpine love story. He competed with 20 professional actors and lost. "Nobody told me what to do," he says. "They just put makeup on me and handed me a script. It was awful."
Some weeks later Producer Georg Richter of Bavaria Film Co. saw him on a quiz program from a Munich television station. He was not acting—simply being himself; Richter guessed that, with women at least, it was quite a lot of self to be. He coaxed Toni into another screen test, and a star was incubated.
The scripts usually manage to have Toni on the ski slopes, and he finds film work more dangerous than racing. "You have to climb up the back way," he says, "so as not to spoil the snow. And by the time you get to the top you've forgotten what the slope looks like from below. When I was racing I would walk up and down every inch of the run, and I knew where everything was and just what I could do." He took some nasty tumbles in his film work, one of which nearly finished him by carrying him over a dangerous drop. Luckily he landed in soft snow.
Toni's fans are sometimes more dangerous than the ski runs. The teen-agers can scarcely keep their hands off him, and often don't. In Tokyo and on location at a Japanese ski resort he was mobbed by young girls. So great was the press of bodies around his hotel that he had to move into the home of a film executive. Even there he was besieged by autograph seekers at three in the morning. The girls told reporters that at that time of day they figured he was sure to be home. In provincial cities he was given the Japanese version of a ticker tape welcome, and in Nagano crowds refused to leave his hotel room, forcing him to hide out in the bathroom.
Japanese film critics, like those in Europe, were a little testy over Toni's successes. One review suggested that viewers went to study his ski techniques. But Director Yoshiaki Banjo insists that his "very amateurishness" appeals to the Japanese.
Toni is inclined to agree with his critics. He dislikes his awkwardness and the Tyrolean accent which limits him in the roles he plays. He is studying acting technique with Berlin Drama Coach Else Bongers, working on such difficult parts as Orin, the incestuous matricide in Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra. This, he believes, will deepen his interpretation of his part in Der weisse Traum, in which he portrays an ice hockey player and falls in love with a figure skater, played by Miss Bauer.
Though he has a firm grip on fame and fortune, Toni is still a young man on the move. He tears up the roads between Berlin and Vienna film studios and his other places of business in a flame-red Mercedes 190SL convertible. He is learning English, in case Hollywood ever makes a firm offer, which it is almost certain to do. He is still a bachelor, eligible but elusive, though his chances have ranged all the way from Tyrolean girls to well-advertised sirens. He is, so his friends in Kitzb√ºhel insist, a Tyrolean at heart—a simple mountain lad like any other, except that he has earned over half a million marks in three years. That's well over scale for simple mountain lads. After Cortina his mother told the world: "Toni has enough gilded medals now. It's time he started making money."
You can't blame a boy for minding his mother.