Tom Berenger Reflects on the Making of ‘Major League’

Major League Tom Berenger

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written in 2012 when this screening took place.

Among the guests at a recent reunion screening of “Major League” at the Aero Theatre was actor Tom Berenger who played veteran baseball catcher Jake Taylor. It is still one of Berenger’s best known roles as we watch his character go through another baseball season which may very well be his last while trying to win back his ex-girlfriend Lynn Wells (Renee Russo in her film debut). And like his fellow co-stars, Berenger proved to the filmmakers he could play baseball.

Berenger did have some experience playing little league when he was growing up, and he played some more ball after that but never professionally. “Major League’s” writer and director, David S. Ward, also said “you could watch Tom swing a bat and you could tell he could play baseball.” Berenger said he played on third base and left field, but “Major League” had him taking the catcher position for the first time ever. What made the difference in preparing for this role was who he had to work with.

Tom Berenger: I had a great teacher which was (Steve) Yeager who had been a catcher for the Dodgers. Besides being a great player, he was also a great teacher which is important, and he worked with Charlie (Sheen) and I and we started probably six weeks before the other guys came in.

Berenger even talked about how he got Yeager and some of the cast to come back to his hometown in South Carolina so they could practice there. His thought was that practicing at Pepperdine University near Malibu with the “dry air” and “breeze coming off of the ocean” was “a little deceiving” as real ballplayers deal with more humid conditions.

TB: We raised a little team so we could do infield practice and drills and things like that, and it was all these guys who were on softball leagues that had once played baseball. They loved it. It was great. I had a friend that was head of maintenance for the public schools, and he got us a field at one of the high schools that was totally blocked off. It was just screened by Palmetto trees, Live Oaks and stuff. He gave us the key to the gate to get in and he brought all his equipment out there and he recut the field, he redid the mound, he gave us a pitching machine so I could practice pop-ups and we could do batting practice.

Berenger said this worked out great for everyone there because they all were forced to deal with humidity, and it was this same humidity which the cast and crew faced in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where “Major League” was filmed. The movie was shot in 1988 during the hottest summer in Wisconsin since 1938, and he remembered it being brutal to work during the day as a result. While the training done in South Carolina certainly prepared many for day shooting, Berenger looked more forward to working nights when it was cooler.

Watching the movie again had Berenger getting nostalgic for the old Cleveland as it appears in the movie’s opening credits, and it is one of the few parts of the movie which was actually shot there.

TB: I’m looking at it and I’m going wow, look at that industrial town. That’s what we used to be. And that makes me a little sad, you know? Chicago and Cleveland and Pittsburgh and Bethlehem and Allentown; all those towns were like that and they’re not there anymore, and I find that really sad because I think they were the backbone of this country.

“Major League” still holds a place in all our hearts thanks to its humor and deeply felt moments which have stayed with us long after the end credits are done. Even Berenger admitted the movie still has a profound effect on him more than 20 years after its release.

TB: I have to say that I just love this film. I cry at the end every time I watch it. It’s a comedy but it’s got so much heart and great writing and direction.

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David S. Ward Looks Back at the Making of ‘Major League’

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The 1989 sports comedy “Major League” got a special screening at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, and joining moderator and American Cinematheque program director Grant Moninger for a Q&A was the movie’s writer and director David S. Ward and producer Chris Chesser. This screening brought out many excited fans who consider “Major League” to be the best baseball movie ever made.

Moninger started off by saying that after watching “Major League,” it seemed like the most fun film to make as everyone got to film and play baseball. When he asked Ward what the making of the movie was like, we were surprised by his answer.

“It was one of the most difficult movies to make that I ever had been associated with,” said Ward. “When we started we had one of the hottest summers in 75 years in Milwaukee where we shot the movie. We started out with six weeks of night shooting because we had to work around the (Milwaukee) Brewers schedule at the time, and staying up all night for six weeks just kills you. It was an independent movie at the time, and we didn’t have a lot of money and we didn’t have a lot of anything.”

Regardless of the production difficulties, however, Ward said he did have a great time making “Major League” because of the guys, and he even said that Rene Russo, who played Berenger’s ex-girlfriend Lynn Wells, was one of the guys as well. Ward described the cast as being magnificent and said everybody pulled together to make this movie work. It was just the physical difficulty of making it was hard, and it was something the cast and crew hadn’t planned on dealing with.

Ward went on to describe the “red tag” scene in the locker room in which the players discover whether or not they have been cut from the team. This scene ended up being shot in the basement of a high school which had no windows, and it was already 95 degrees when they began shooting there at four in the morning.

“We had two jerseys for each player, and I remember Tom (Berenger) doing a take and he would sweat through his jersey because it was so hot,” Ward said. “We would take his jersey and give him the other one, and we’d blow dry the one that was sweated through with a hair dryer. Well, it dried it, but it also made it hot. When he sweated through the other one, he had to put on the dry one which was hot!”

When it came to casting “Major League,” Ward said he would only cast people who could play baseball:

“I had actors come in and tell me they played Triple-A ball for the Cardinals, and Chris (Chesser) and I would take them outside and we’d play catch with them, and the Triple-A guy couldn’t throw the ball 15 feet; he never played baseball in his life! People will say anything to get the part, so we just took them outside and we tested them out.”

The cast ended up having two weeks of training before filming began with Steve Yeager who was a former Major League baseball player himself. This was about getting everybody in shape not only to play baseball but also to do basic physical conditioning.

“If you’re not used to playing baseball every day, you don’t realize how many quick starts and stops there are and you can pull muscles and hamstrings,” Ward said. “If an actor gets injured, you can’t shoot with them for a while and your schedule gets screwed up. So, everybody got in shape both physically and baseball-wise and that was a big help.”

Players from other baseball teams were also cast such as Peter Vuckovich who was an All-Star pitcher for the Milwaukee Brewers and Cy Young award winner. Vuckovich played the New York Yankees’ first baseman Haywood, and Chesser remarked he was actually asked to read for the part of the Yankee reliever nicknamed “The Duke.” However, he and Davis found Vuckovich to be “so ugly and so menacing” to where it made more sense to cast him as the player who insults Berenger and hits home runs off of Charlie Sheen. But Chesser also said although Vuckovich looked like he could hit a baseball out of the field, he actually “never hit the ball out of the infield” and never hit a single home run in his entire career.

When it came time to film the climatic game where the Cleveland Indians play against the New York Yankees for the division title, Ward said he and Chesser promoted a night at the stadium to get extras, and 27,000 people showed up. Looking back, the evening was an amazing experience for him and the cast as they had so many cheering people to work with.

“We taught them how to sing ‘Wild Thing,’” said Ward. “We had cameras roaming around all night just picking up people. The girls who came out and danced on the dugout, they just did it! We didn’t ask them to do it, they just got out and did it! I just looked at that and said, thank God!”

Ward added there was a group of about 350 people who came out every night, and he even remembered a couple who had tickets to the Summer Olympics in Seoul that same year. The couple debated whether to travel to Seoul like they planned or stay for the last two days of the movie’s shooting. Ward encouraged them to go to the Olympics, but they ended up staying.

Moninger also asked about the late James Gammon who played head coach Lou Brown, and the mention of the actor’s name got a big applause from the audience. Ward got a bit choked up when talking about Gammon and said he never had any other actor in mind for Lou other than him.

“I was just thrilled to get him, “ Ward said. “He was everything I thought he would be. He’s a great gentleman and a wonderful man. Nothing bothered him. He was a rock of Gibraltar in every way. I remember going to his memorial service and one of the things that was really moving to me is they had his jersey from ‘Major League’ hanging up. He gave so many great performances, and yet the one everyone identifies him with is this one.”

When it came to writing “Major League,” Ward said he was inspired to write about Cleveland as he grew up there. The year this screening took place, every major sports team in Cleveland was pathetic, and Ward remembered it being pretty much the same way when he was deciding on what movie he was going to write next.

“I was thinking that probably the only way the Cleveland Indians would win anything in my lifetime is if I wrote a movie with them winning,” Ward said. “So what kept me going was I just didn’t want to be another Cleveland failure.”

One big question the audience had was why “Major League,” which takes place in Cleveland, wasn’t actually shot there. Ward responded he knew he was going to get into trouble for that.

“The reason we shot it in Milwaukee was that Cleveland is a big union town, and we couldn’t do it independently there,” Ward said. “The other thing was that they hadn’t built the Jacobs Field (which is now the Progressive Field) ballpark yet, so the team was still playing at Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Also, the Browns were playing pre-season games there, and the field had football lines on it. That wouldn’t have looked very good, so it wasn’t feasible to shoot there.”

Another audience member brought up Bob Uecker who played Indians sportscaster Harry Doyle in “Major League” and asked how much of his dialogue was written and improvised. Ward replied he wrote the character of Harry and his lines, but when Uecker was cast he discovered just how incredibly funny he was. What also helped Ward was that Uecker knew a lot of things about baseball players he didn’t, and he felt he would have been an idiot not to let Uecker improvise if he wanted to. When it came to Uecker’s famous line of “just a bit outside,” Ward said he wrote it, but it didn’t sound anywhere as funny in his head as when Uecker said it.

Everyone at the Aero Theatre had a wonderful time hearing all these stories about how “Major League” came to be. After so many years, this movie really holds up as it is hilarious and has a lot of heart. While many of the actors other than Berenger and Bernsen were not able to make it to this screening, we did get a surprise guest with Jo-bu, Pedro Cerrano’s voodoo god doll. Ward and company celebrated the appearance with Jo-bu with some rum, the same kind Eddie Harris (played by Chelcie Ross) stole and took a drink from when nobody was watching. You all remember what happened to him, right?