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A movie life in three acts: How a screenwriting son of the heartland made some of the most beloved—and successful—sports films in Hollywood history


IT'S THE MID-'80s, and I am a young executive in the film business. I'm from Indiana. I love Indiana basketball. I said to the president of Time-Life Films, "I'd like to develop this idea about a small-town high school team that wins the state championship in the early '50s. It's not necessarily about the little-team-that-could. It's more about community, the period, the last vestige of true regionalism, the meaning of sport. It's a sociocultural examination of the relationship between basketball and Indiana."

The president said, "Great. Hire a writer."

I really wanted somebody from Indiana to write this. I was going to call this movie Hoosiers. Indiana was going to be an important character. I wanted everybody in the state to say, "They nailed it."

Then Time-Life Films was restructured, and I could take a new job at HBO or leave with nine months' salary. I took the money. I was a little adrift, but I started to think about the Indiana movie, the Milan High story. I'd never seen the town. I drove down there and went to the library and sat for four or five hours making notes, reading the daily newspapers of that '53--54 season. I found out that one of the former players, Gene White, had a feed store in town. I went into the store and talked to him. I was looking for conflict, external or internal—the essence of all drama. So I asked Gene, "Did everybody get along?"

"Yeah, we all grew up with each other," he said. "We all got along great."

"What about the coach? Any problems between the players and the coach, the new guy?"

"Oh, no," he said. "We loved the coach, and the coach loved us."

I'm thinking, This could be the most boring movie of all time. Driving back home, I thought, This will have to be a "based on" movie. I talked to my dad about it, and he told me to write it. I said, "I'm not a writer. I've read a thousand scripts, but it's not the same thing as writing."

He said, "What do you have to lose?"

I drove up to our summer cottage at the tip of Lake Michigan. It was a 2½-week nightmare. I'd never done anything creative. I was frozen. Developing character and story was a totally unused part of my brain. I would write a scene, reread it, tear it up. Everything I wrote, I hated. I think I wrote 10 pages in 20 days.

I talked to a writer I'd worked with in my early years, John Sacret Young, who created TV's China Beach and a bunch of movies. I said, "The critic on my shoulder is too brutal."

He said, "You know what Nabokov said? If you really want to be a good storyteller, don't ever read what you've written till you get to the end." That's what I did. (To this day, 25 scripts later, I still do not reread anything until I get to the end.) I finally finished the screenplay. I gave it to a producer, the man who gave me my first job out of film school. He read it on a flight, called me from the airport and said, "You just wasted a year of your life. This is irredeemable, hopeless, bad writing. Go back to development." I was crushed.

About a year later, after I had gotten another executive job, I told this story at a dinner party to Scott Berg, the Pulitzer Prize--winning biographer. He said, "You're insane. You should never give any one person the power to determine whether your material is good. Let me read it." He liked the 184-page script and helped me edit it down to where I thought I had something.

Meanwhile, my best friend and Indiana fraternity brother, David Anspaugh, was a director for MTM Productions. I really wanted him to direct this film. We kept getting told that it was a regional movie—outside of Indiana, who would care? We went to Mel Simon, an Indianapolis guy who owned the Pacers and had also produced movies, including Porky's. His people didn't like it. A producer with some clout liked it but a) wanted a new director, and b) wanted to make it a contemporary movie. I wasn't going to do that.

Here comes a plot point: After college David had worked as a ski instructor in Aspen and met Jack Nicholson. He taught Jack's daughter how to ski, and they became friends. Jack would invite David (and, by extension, me) to his house in L.A. The first time we went was for a Halloween party. All these famous people were there, and one guy was sitting by himself listening to music. I said to David, "There's some guy dressed up like Bob Dylan."

"It is Bob Dylan," he said.

David eventually called Jack to ask for advice on our script. Jack invited us to come to his house that Saturday around noon. David and I drove up with our script and walked in. Jack was still sleeping. Bernardo Bertolucci was out by the pool, and there were two young Frenchwomen swimming naked. Finally Jack's assistant ushered us in to see him. He's in his bathrobe. His hair is sticking straight up. His eyes are bleary. He's sitting watching a big projection TV.

After about 20 minutes he turned and said, "Why you guys here?"

We told him: We have this movie about an Indiana high school basketball team, and we'd like advice about how to raise money for it. He said, "O.K., put the script in the alcove on your way out." There was a pile there that had to be 50 high. David and I thought, This is interesting, but nothing will ever come of it.

A few months later David called me in hysterics. "I got a phone call from Jack. He's read the script."

"What did he think?"

"The first thing he said was, 'I'll do it.' "

David couldn't process it. What did Jack mean, I'll do it? Jack said, "The coach is really well-written." He thought we'd sent him the script to be the coach.

All of a sudden this became one of the hottest scripts in Hollywood. But it turned out that Nicholson was in a lawsuit with MGM and was not going to be available for two years because he had committed to directing and starring in the sequel to Chinatown. He didn't want to hold up our project, so he gave us this advice: "You gotta shoot this thing in Indiana, you gotta shoot it in the fall. Everything has to be right, authentic, for it to work. Go to Duvall or Hackman. They'll be great for it."

So we went to Robert Duvall, who was busy and had just played Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies and thought that was too close to the coach character. Duvall said, "Take it to Hackman."

Gene read it. He said, "This is good. I'll do it."

For the next two years, with Gene attached, we took the script everywhere and got nothing. Finally it got to a producer named John Daly. He told us, "I'll make the movie, because it made me cry." John had never seen a basketball game. He was a Brit who'd never heard of Indiana, but there was one thing he connected to: He had a father who was a drunk. John had been an athlete. His dad showed up drunk at his events and embarrassed him. The Shooter character resonated with John. He said, "I don't know anything about basketball. Here is $6 million. Go make it." He never came to the set.

We made the movie for under $7 million. It was very, very difficult. The weather was horrible; it rained 35 of the 40 days we were shooting. It was our first movie, and we were learning on the go. Luckily we had Hackman and Dennis Hopper. They were amazing.

Another problem: The company that released Daly's films, Orion, didn't think the movie was commercial. When it tested well, Orion relented and let us release the film in Indiana only. It did so well and got such good reviews that Orion gave us a limited national release. It added theaters every week for six weeks, and we were still playing five months later.

We were nominated for two Academy Awards, for Best Original Score and for Hopper for Best Supporting Actor. But that year, 1987, the Academy Awards were held on the same night as the NCAA basketball championship game. And who was in it? Indiana. How could I not watch my team play for the title? I had Hopper go to the Oscars rehearsal with one of those Sony Watchman TVs and let me know if it worked in the theater. No, there were too many other electronics around. So I called David: "I can't go to the Academy Awards. I can't miss this game."

We gave away our tickets to the Oscars and stayed home, flipping over to the broadcast only when our categories came up. We didn't win either award. But Indiana beat Syracuse to win the national title. The next day the Bloomington newspaper—I have this framed—had this headline: IU WINS NCAA CROWN. HOOSIERS CREATORS WATCH IU, NOT OSCARS.

We went to one of the Hollywood after-parties, and who's there? Jack Nicholson. He said, "Hey, guys, you did a great job. Hackman was great. Hopper was great. The kids were great. Love the look of the film."

David said, "Jack, we always wondered what would have happened if you'd played the coach."

Jack put his arm around David, lifted that eyebrow and said, "Megabucks, kid. Megabucks."


IN 1990, I got a call from a friend. "Listen," he said, "there's a guy in South Bend, Rudy something or other. He was this undersized kid, had this hardscrabble upbringing and walked on to the Notre Dame football team in the '70s. He loved Hoosiers, and he says, 'These guys have got to tell my story.' "

My reaction: absolutely not. First, I didn't want my next movie to be an Indiana sports movie. The second reason: I grew up in Bloomington. I've always hated Notre Dame football. I don't want to do anything that makes Notre Dame look great.

My friend said, "Just do me a favor and talk to Rudy."

I talked to Rudy Ruettiger over the phone. I felt sorry for the guy. He seemed kind of lost. At the same time, he was a good guy. There was a sweetness, an innocence there. I told him my reasons for not wanting to do it. But he wanted to meet me in California and try to persuade me. I agreed. I believed no one would buy this on a pitch, and I figured this would be a great way to get rid of him. But if you've seen the film, you know Rudy never, ever gives up.

David, meanwhile, always liked this idea. In a meeting with a producer, Rob Fried, he mentioned Rudy. "I know I could sell that today," Rob said. Rob had an overall deal at Columbia Pictures and had just had lunch with the president, Frank Price. "Frank was telling me that one of the biggest disappointments of his life is not getting into Notre Dame," Rob said.

They made an appointment with the studio to meet the next day. At the meeting David launched into his pitch. David is a very emotional guy. He did a tremendous job. Something happened in that meeting that never happened to me before or since. When you pitch something, they always say, "Thank you very much, we'll let you know." They never make a decision on the spot. Never. Frank Price leaned across the desk and said, "I can't wait to see this movie. Congratulations!"

After getting beaten on by Rob, David and Rudy for a week, I finally said I'd visit Notre Dame and see if I could write the script. I flew to South Bend. I actually started to think about it as a unique place. The religious icons, the spirituality, walking around the stadium ... I just started to feel it. I started to think of this movie in a different way: that the university was as important a character as Rudy. As for Rudy, he took me to all the places in Joliet, Ill., where he went to high school. I finally had to say, "Rudy, back off, man. Don't try to write it for me."

The script was coming along, but then I realized we had a problem. This is before CGI, and Notre Dame did not allow film crews on its campus. The university was especially not interested in football movies.

After I finished the script, we had a meeting with the executive vice president of the university, Father William Beauchamp. He explained why Notre Dame had a rule against movie shoots. Notre Dame is so much more than a football school and so on. Then he said, "You and I wouldn't be having this discussion if it wasn't for the fact that you made Hoosiers, and you're both from Indiana. I will read the script, and I will be open to the possibility that we might make an exception."

David and I had agreed that if Father Beauchamp said no, we had no movie. We weren't going to shoot Notre Dame somewhere else. But Father Beauchamp read the script and called us to his office. "I think this movie captures the passion and love of Notre Dame," he said. "It captures an essence of the place both in a spiritual way and a personal way. Congratulations. We look forward to seeing you here."

One issue we faced early on was casting. The studio has the final say on who gets the major parts. It wanted Chris O'Donnell or Brendan Fraser as Rudy. Both were tall and good-looking. We said, "That's not Rudy. He's the kind of guy you don't even remember from high school."

"This movie is a hard enough box office challenge," the studio said. "We need a star."

We end up meeting Sean Astin, who is not only physically like Rudy but has his personality: energetic, never hearing the word no. He was perfect. David and I fought for him, and we finally won.

Another skirmish was over Mary, the female character on campus. She was a much bigger part of the script at one time, and the studio wanted someone with name recognition. Their choice was Kimberly Williams, who was coming off Father of the Bride. Meanwhile, we'd read an actress David was mad about, Greta Lind. She had an innocence, much more of a Midwest quality. After two meetings David decided, She is the one.

The studio called me. "You've got to talk sense into your director," they said. "We gave you Sean Astin. We can't have this whole movie made up of unknowns."

"I agree with you," I said. "Kim is perfect."

David and I went toe-to-toe. He'd never fought harder over anybody. His choice, Greta, ended up getting the part. (Postscript: Greta and I fell in love on-set and were married for 15 years.)

We filmed in the fall of 1992. The movie came out in '93, and it was a special year for Notre Dame. The Irish beat Florida State in one of those Games of the Century, No. 1 versus No. 2, and we thought that—the same way Hoosiers came out as Indiana won the NCAA championship—we'd gotten lucky again. But then BC upset the Irish and ruined their undefeated season.

It didn't matter. I think what made Rudy was the ending. I remember talking to an executive once about Field of Dreams. They conducted feedback sessions after screenings, and audiences said that at first they didn't understand what the hell was going on. There were three or four story lines—it was confusing. But then when the father character asks Kevin Costner to play catch and the camera pulls back on those automobile headlights, all the emotional buttons were pushed. The executive told me that if you have a great last 10 minutes, you have a chance to have a successful film. If you don't, it doesn't matter. With Rudy, I think the last 10 minutes—when the players force the coach to suit Rudy up for the last game, and the fans chant his name, and he goes in and makes a tackle—really worked.


THE REASONS movies don't get made are many. I always think of the tumblers on a lock. They all have to fall into place at the same time. If you have 19 tumblers in sync but the 20th doesn't work—the star backs out; the marketing guy gets cold feet; the studio head's wife doesn't like the concept—there goes your movie.

I had two movies made early in my career. Then, it was as if I had overdrawn at the karma bank. Sports movies were falling out of favor, largely because studios got seduced by international sales. Every time somebody had another underdog movie, a football player who was down and out, I turned it down. I was offered Friday Night Lights. I didn't want to do it. Too familiar.

In the mid-'90s, I wrote what might have been my best script, and it never got made. After Hoosiers, I got a call from TriStar Pictures asking if I would be interested in adapting Mickey Mantle's autobiography, The Mick. Mickey was my idol growing up, but after reading the book, which was a collection of anecdotes, most of them about baseball, I said it wasn't clear what the movie would be. They said that they wanted me to spend some time with Mickey, because there was a lot he didn't put in the book.

So they flew me to New York City to meet with him. Mickey was still drinking heavily. They dropped me off at this Italian restaurant in Manhattan. Mickey was sitting by himself, looking like he was going to cry. I sat down and tried to make him feel comfortable by ordering the same thing he was drinking, Stoli on the rocks with a twist. It was an absurd plan. I couldn't come close to keeping up with him. He spun these stories that weren't in the book. A lot were about women. We spent about three hours talking, and at the end he told me I couldn't use any of the stories he told me.

I tried to probe areas I knew were sensitive, such as his sons. At one point he started crying about what a terrible father he was. Then I asked him about his own father. I'll never forget the look. He was vulnerable. He said, "He was a great man." Then, "I don't want to talk about him." I thought, Wow, there is something very, very powerful there if he would open up.

We had another session, a lunch, and this time I tried to drink Bloody Marys to hang with him a little bit. I was getting more and more depressed hanging out with this guy. He was in so much pain, and he didn't know what it was about. "I don't want to do this movie," I told both the studio executive and the family friend of the Mantles who was helping broker this project, Larry Meli. "He's in devastating pain. He won't come to terms with it. This is a movie with no third act."

Then Mickey went to the Betty Ford Center. An article came out in SI about his getting sober and finding a real sense of consciousness about his past. I felt here was a guy who lived the last year of his life honestly and heroically, a guy who never thought of himself as a hero. Meli called me out of the blue and said, "You've got your third act now."

Even though I had the support of the Mantle family to tell the story with warts and all, it scared me. I felt the key to the story was what happened to Mickey at Betty Ford. I needed to talk to someone who was with Mickey during that time. They have very strict confidentiality rules there, but the Mantle family really wanted the true story to be told, so they persuaded the head of Betty Ford to allow me to go in for a seven-day program they set up for therapists. I walked in the shoes of the patients and spent a lot of time talking to Mickey's counselor. It was the most amazing research trip I've ever made.

The counselor said that when Mickey first arrived, they couldn't get him to talk. The only things he could access were the tired stories he'd told a thousand times before. At the end of the 28 days each person had to write a goodbye letter to someone they never got a chance to say goodbye to. Mickey refused to do it, but on the last day he stood up in his group and pulled out a letter addressed to his father. It took him a long time to get through it, he was crying so hard. But everybody in the room felt something shift in Mickey: He finally had released something he had carried a long time. He was a different man when he left.

My narrative approach was Mickey's recollections of his life in the Betty Ford group therapy sessions. It's the most difficult and emotionally powerful script I've written. I got great response from studios and production companies, but they all turned it down as too dark. In this business you're going to be disappointed, but you've got to move on. All I can do is write a movie I would really like to see and hope others agree.

About 10 years ago I moved back to Indiana from Southern California. I kept getting screenplay assignments, finished a dozen scripts, but only one got made: The Game of Their Lives, and for a number of reasons it didn't turn out to be a hit. Even so, I'd had success as a filmmaker beyond my wildest imagination. And I was still getting paid to write movies I believed in.

Here comes another plot point: Three years ago I got a Facebook message from a guy named Tony Jones, who asked if I'd be interested in adapting a book that had just been written about Freddie Steinmark. He was a defensive back on the 1969 Texas Longhorns' national championship team. It's a bit like Hoosiers: Everyone in Texas knows about Freddie, but his story hadn't crossed state lines.

It's an incredible story. Freddie was an undersized player from outside Denver whose only big scholarship offer had been from Texas coach Darrell Royal. Before the Cotton Bowl, Freddie visited the hospital for what he thought was a bone bruise. It was a cancerous tumor. He had his leg amputated and was told he wouldn't live more than a year. Freddie says, "This is going to be my last game; I'm going to be with my team." He shows up in the locker room. None of the players know he's going to be there. Coach Royal knows and he says, "Take us out, Freddie. Take us onto the field." Freddie died at 22.

Jim Dent, a Texas writer, had written a fantastic book about Freddie titled Courage Beyond the Game. I read it and figured I could adapt it. I laid out for Jones what needed to be done to get this movie off the ground. Six months later I got a call: "We got the money for you to write the script."

I took six or eight months to write the first draft. When I gave people the script, everybody cried at the end. If I can make people cry in screenplay form, I know we have a serious chance in movie form.

The deal I'd made was just to write the screenplay. The producer asked me to help him put together a list of directors. I just felt it was my time, and I made my case: "The reason you hired me is because you wanted a movie like Rudy. You wanted the tone, the feeling, the emotionality. If you hand the script to another director, you won't necessarily get that. I need to be the director." Bud Brigham, the chief financier, god bless him, took a chance on me.

So, for the last few months I've been in Austin directing my first movie, My All American. And I'm loving it. The budget is about $20 million. I feel great about everything so far, especially the casting. Finn Wittlock is playing Freddie, and he's amazing. Aaron Eckhart is Darrell Royal. The amount of research he's done is phenomenal; he has inhabited the UT coach.

The opportunity to be back in the saddle again is thrilling. I think one of the reasons I finally wrote Rudy was that his story is a metaphor for the film business. The only people who successfully make a career are those who never personalize the word no. If you keep on going despite the nos, that 20th tumbler might finally fall into place. That's when magic can happen.


Photograph by TREVOR PAULHUS For Sports Illustrated


BUILDING BLOCK The success of Hoosiers in 1986 made Pizzo the poster boy for feel-good sports movies, and led to near- instant approval for Rudy.





ROLE PLAYERS Casting was crucial to the success of Rudy, which starred Astin (45), and Hoosiers, which was anchored by Hackman (in tie).



[See caption above]



WINNING FORMULA Pizzo's directorial debut, which will hit the big screen in 2015, is yet another underdog story that's sure to be a tearjerker.



ROYAL TREATMENT Eckhart (in orange, with Pizzo) has done exhaustive research to play the part of the former Texas coach.