It is a well kept Hollywood secret that it was me, James Johnson, mythical trainer to the stars, who gave Ben Affleck and Matt Damon the idea for the most memorable line in their Academy Award-winning movie, Good Will Hunting. The boys had hit a creative impasse on the script because, first, Ben, and then Matt, began wondering if they were going to be felled by prostate cancer. At that point, I just happened to be paying a visit to help them shape the Will Hunting character, which was based on my own youthful self-education, and also to collect the twenty bucks owed to me by Matt, when I proposed that the two young men begin eating more food enriched with antioxidants.
“Anti-what?” bellowed a disheveled Ben.
“Antioxidants,” I said in the clear voice of one who is about to talk science with two hung-over liberal arts majors.
“Okay,” said Matt, in an effort to put to use his study of English at Harvard, “if the ‘anti’ is part of the word, then it stands to reason that antioxidants are against oxidants…”
“…And so oxidants must be bad!” chimed in Ben, who jumped to his feet and high-fived his writing/drinking partner. “Matt, brother, we need to do our next script on antioxidants.”
“Only,” I cautioned, “if the majority of movie-goers suddenly become cell biologists who see organic cell disintegration as an entertaining three-act film.”
What I thought had been a throwaway line meant to lighten up their dark mood instead triggered a brainstorming session about how to make such a box office disaster. It was obvious that the protagonist would be an antioxidant and the antagonist an oxidant, better known as a free radical, and that the plot would center around the defense of a prostate gland. This epic thriller would be not unlike The Terminator wherein Kyle Reese is the antioxidant defending Sarah Connor, a.k.a the prostate gland, against the marauding free radical in the form of an unsmiling Arnold Schwarzenegger. Then the boys realized that this movie could not be written from personal experience – i.e., from a lazy point of view – and that it would demand actual research.
“Yeah,” moaned Ben while eating from a bag of Fritos, a semi-edible substance devoid of antioxidants, “I guess we should first know what the hell a free radical is?”
I told them that a free radical is a molecule with a lone electron within an orbital, and that an orbital is an area on a molecule that houses electrons, and that an orbital is only stable when it has two electrons called paired electrons. What is most dangerous about the free radical is that it has the will and overbearing personality to steal an electron from a stable molecule, whose stability is nevertheless vulnerable to outside attack. Take for example a Hollywood couple. Yes, the two of them are paired within their tabloid orbital, but, c’mon, we all know that it will break up once another flashy free radical celebrity engages one member of the couple. This leaves the ousted actor/actress free to disrupt a different famous twosome, and thus begins a chain reaction of destroyed monogamous relationships. In the body, free radicals will attack stable, essential molecules such as fats (cell membranes), DNA (the code that makes proteins), and proteins (both the enzymes that facilitate biochemical reactions and the structural proteins, like collagen, that support cartilage, skin and bone).
This mini-chemistry lesson set Matt to pacing the frayed carpet before stopping in front of a mirror to check out his abs, since, in the budding script, Will Hunting has great muscle tone. Then he said:
“Okay, so how do these heroes, the antioxidants, ride to the rescue and defeat these malevolent beasts, these free radicals?”
“Easy, my soon-to-be famous-and-thus-to-become-part-of-his-own-daisychain-of-broken-and-new-celebrity-romances friend. Antioxidants have the ability to lose an electron and then donate it to, and therefore stabilize, the free radical, and so put a merciful end to the destructive chain reaction. Yet, in the process, the antioxidant does not itself become a free radical because it has a special atomic arrangement that allows it to remain stable after giving up an electron. Vitamin C, or Ascorbic Acid, is an excellent antioxidant, as it easily sheds two electrons and afterward remains a viable molecule called Dehydroascorbic Acid. Vitamin C specializes in combating oxidants from pollution and cigarette smoke.“
“And how do we continue our Hollywood couple analogy using this new character development of the antioxidant?” said Ben, now lying on the tattered couch and exhaling a stream of cigarette smoke so thick that a Special Forces unit of Vitamin C would have been needed to quell the resulting swarm of free radicals.
“We don’t, Ben, since a free radical is a molecule with an unpaired electron, not the actual electron, and I just painted you an image of romantic celebrities as both free radicals AND lone electrons. The analogy is a flawed piece of pseudo-science… Let me get back to the real science. In fact, let’s go full circle to your concern about prostate cancer. Cancer is when cells that are not supposed to divide begin dividing like vermin because something has damaged their DNA. The genetic code regulates cell division. Free radicals can be one cause of mutated DNA, especially in the prostate gland, whose location in the body, let’s face it, is not exactly getting bombarded by UV light, another cause of cancer. So, in sum, boys, you had best ingest some specialized antioxidants into your bodies that will patrol your reproductive region if you want to enjoy the sex life of a Hollywood star.”
Matt and Ben moved toward me with the speed of the Terminator T-1000 and damn near knocked me over to ask what antioxidants should they be consuming in order protect their – um — equipment. I answered that phenolic phytochemicals – phytochemicals being those compounds derived from plants – such as quercetin, epicatechin, and procyanidin B2 are known to be effective antioxidants in the prevention of prostate cancer.
“Where do we get those unpronounceable antioxidants?” said Ben
“You got it, my slovenly, if not malodorous, friend. An apple a day will help maintain a healthy prostate and maybe help you guys refocus on your script.”
Ben and Matt looked at one another with the guilty eyes of anyone not named George Washington who has chopped down a cherry tree, whereupon Matt, perhaps summoning his inner-first-President, said:
“Well, Jim, the fact is we’re stuck at a key part of the script. We want Will to speak some cool line when he shows up this stuck-up Harvard weasel, you know, a classic in-your-face moment…and, well…”
Meanwhile Ben’s attention drifted away from the conversation toward the stained refrigerator, and he said:
“But, Matt, we have no apples.”
Matt shook his head at me, as if to bemoan the difficulty of trying to write a definitive masterpiece with such a partner and in frat house-like conditions. I offered him a hearty grin while pulling from my backpack a grocery bag. I threw the contents, ten fresh pieces of antioxidant-enriched fruit, on the kitchen table, and boomed:
“How ‘bout them apples!”
(Check out my website: http://www.authorjamesfjohnson.com)