Would you like to be a professional race car driver, a TV and movie director, or circumnavigate the globe?
While most people would consider themselves fortunate to have achieved even one of these accomplishments, Marina del Rey resident Bruce Kessler has successfully attained all three, and can truly be called a “Renaissance man.”
Kessler is a member of the Del Rey Yacht Club in Marina del Rey and is widely known for his extensive boating abilities. In 2007, he originated the FUBAR (Fleet Underway Baja Rally) Odyssey, the first-ever powerboat rally from San Diego to La Paz, Mexico that November. The rally was described by Kessler as “supporting power boaters who wish to experience the thrill of long-distance cruising,” and included a specified fleet of powerboats and their owners, mostly novices to boating.
Born in Seattle in March, 1936, Kessler learned to fish on an island in the Puget Sound. That’s where his love of boating and the ocean began, creating a wanderlust that is with him today.
Kessler is retired, as is his wife, actress Joan Freeman Kessler, but the two keep very active with their 62-foot powerboat Spirit of Zopilote (zopilote is Spanish for buzzard), built in 1997. Between 1990 and 1993, they circumnavigated the globe in Zopilote, their 70-foot custom yacht and forerunner to Spirit of Zopilote. Kessler and his wife continue to share their boating knowledge and experience with other boaters.
In 1998, Kessler was named Passagemaker of the Year by Trawler World. In “Trawlers and Trawlering,” he was described at the award ceremony as “tirelessly and selflessly spreading the word for the trawler cause, answering any question, being available on almost any occasion, helping hundreds and even thousands of others realize their dreams.”
In a Dec. 27, 2007 article in The Log, Capt. Patricia Miller Rains wrote about Kessler receiving two Yachtsman of the Year awards. The Pacific Coast Yachting Assoc. honored him with the Langlais trophy, which has an 81-year history and is awarded “for exceptional, outstanding and meritorious service to the sport of yachting.”
The second award was from the Association of Santa Monica Bay Yacht Clubs, which is made up of 14 yacht clubs and three member associations. In bestowing the awards, the association noted that Kessler won them prior to the FUBAR rally, and commended him for “his willingness to share his valuable expertise, in public speaking and giving educational seminars, with so many boaters who have similar fantasies.”
At the Legends of Riverside I Film Festival and Gala at the Riverside International Automotive Museum in April 2009, Kessler was presented with the Harry Morrow award by the 500 cc Club of America, of which Morrow was president and founding father. Morrow is credited with greatly influencing the development of Formula 3 racing in the U.S., and also founded Autobooks in Burbank.
On Dec. 6, Kessler was presented with his most recent recognition at the Petersen Automotive Museum, the Lindley Bothwell Achievement Award, in honor of his open-wheel and sports car racing achievements. The event was coordinated by the Fabulous Fifties Assoc., an informal group of former road course racers that meet four times a year.
Speakers at the event included Art Evans, a former race car driver, author, photographer and archival historian of the group, who recounted how he and Kessler met in 1954 as they were trying to get their racing licenses when they were both underage. He said that they’ve been steadfast friends ever since. By the time Kessler was of legal age to race for the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA), he had already established his racing credentials on the West Coast.
Carroll Shelby, legendary race car driver and developer of the Cobra, which first appeared at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June 1963, recalled how he came to California for a race in Palm Springs in those early days and didn’t know anyone. Shelby had called Kessler to discuss the race, and said he had never been to California before.
Kessler invited him to stay at Kessler’s parents’ home and they were teammates, both driving Maseratis. He said that Kessler had invited him to a luau and they became lifelong friends.
In addition to Shelby, a number of other renowned former race car drivers and individuals closely connected with racing attended this popular event Dec. 6.
Warren Olson, the distributor of Cooper Formula 3, 500 cc racing cars, recognized Kessler’s talents as a young driver, and recalled giving him opportunities to race his cars. Olson spoke at the event about meeting Kessler when he came to Olson’s shop on La Cienega Boulevard, and said he knew Kessler would become a top driver.
In accepting his award from Ann Bothwell, widow of race car collector and racing aficionado Lindley Bothwell, Kessler said, “The best memories of my life are in this room, the people, always wonderful friends.”
Living in Beverly Hills as a teenager in the 1950s, he became enamored of the car culture, and wanted to compete in races. Seeing an ad for a sports car club race, he wanted to compete, but was only 16 and needed parental permission. Kessler said he didn’t want to let his mother know he wanted to race, but she not only signed the consent form, she allowed him to drive her Jaguar XK120 in the race. Within three years, he became the 500 cc Club of America champion in the F3 class.
An Oct. 27, 1958 Sports Illustrated article by William Johnson about race car driver Lance Reventlow and his Scarab described Kessler as “a rising young driver.” Reventlow developed the Scarab with Kessler and automotive expert Warren Olson, among others, and Kessler was a team driver. He was first invited to race at Le Mans by Porsche in 1957. In March 1958, Kessler and his co-driver, Paul O’Shea, won the Sebring GT class. In June 1958, he drove for Ferrari North American, as a teammate of Dan Gurney at Le Mans.
Kessler’s racing career ended in January 1959, according to LegendsofRiverside.com with a “red flag, race-stopping crash in the Examiner Grand Prix in Pomona, driving the Sadler Special.” Kessler spent days in a coma following the crash. He told The Argonaut that “in the movie ‘Le Mans,’ starring Steve McQueen, opening scene features a red Ferrari with a white and blue stripe and the number 18,” which was the same car that Kessler and fellow driver Dan Gurney drove and according to McQueen, it was an homage to Kessler, he said.
After retiring from racing in February 1959, Kessler was hired as a technical advisor on a television pilot about racing. His auto racing abilities were considered critical in developing car chase movie scenes. He directed the live action short “The Sound of Speed,” about Lance Reventlow driving the Scarab, in the early 1960s. The film was done without narration and with only the sound of the racing car in stereo, which, according to William Edgar of Edgar Motorsports.com, was not common at the time.
The film ran in a Los Angeles movie theater for a limited time to qualify it for an Academy Award in the theatrical live action short category. It went on to win the Golden Eagle Award, and was chosen to represent the U.S. in 1962 at the Cannes Film Festival.
“Sadly, with only very limited release, the ‘Sound of Speed’ disappeared from sight. But for those who did see it, this work stirred in them a desire to look deeper into the art of motor racing cinema, and doubtless inspired other film makers,” said Edgar, calling it “this beautifully shot 35-mm gem.” Kessler’s film was running at the Petersen Museum during his award event.
The film began his career as a successful TV and movie director with numerous credits to his name, including “The Rockford Files,” “The A Team,” “The Master,” and numerous others.
On Feb. 3, he and his wife will be conducting a seminar, “A conversation with Bruce and Joan Kessler” in Ft. Lauderdale at the Bahia Mar Hotel. They will be answering questions about their boating experiences and providing general information.
Kessler says that he feels very fortunate to have experienced what he has and wants to share his knowledge.
Asked about any upcoming plans for Spirit of Zopilote, Kessler told The Argonaut, “My plans are to continue cruising the Northeast, and I have been asked to lead PassageMaker magazine’s cruise to Cuba representing the power boat cruising industry, if and when the U.S. government gives them permission to go.”