THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING RUDI
The plot-description for the film “The Bad News Bears” (1976) is usually summarized in this fashion: “An aged alcoholic ex baseball player hires on a talented young girl to pitch for a losing, all-boys little league baseball team”. The film stars two big names: Walter Matthau as the aged coach and Tatum O’Neal as the young pitcher. Matthau, of course, was a very hot item at the time. And Tatum O’Neal was a literal phenomenon being the youngest child actor to win an Oscar (for best supporting actress in “Paper Moon”) not two years prior. But this article isn’t about Amanda… it’s about another member of the “North Valley Bears” that provides the entire reason for her character to exist at all. And I am speaking of Rudi Stein, the team’s original pitcher.
RUDI CAN FAIL
As a pitcher, Rudi wasn’t very talented; in fact, he’d rarely get the ball across the plate. When he did it was a lobber the opposing team could easily smack over the home-run wall. But if Rudi were good – or even half decent – there’d be no need for a replacement. So in a roundabout way, Rudi’s shortcomings were in fact a major force in the Bear’s becoming a winning team. And merely the fact that Rudi caused Amanda to be on the team, Rudi’s also the reason for the team’s second ringer, clean-up hitter Kelly Leak, who is at first drawn to play because of Amada. So since Rudi is the reason for Amanda, and Amanda for Kelly, it is Rudi who made it all happen!
NONE BRAVER THAN HE
There is not a braver Bear than Rudi, who, although understandably reluctant at first, takes one for the team when the coach tells him to lean into a pitch so he can take a base, which he does intrepidly, thus getting beaned on the side – ouch! And he was asked to do this twice! He’s also the first member of the team whose name is read off by Buttermaker during the first practice (a way of introducing the characters). And let’s not forget Rudi’s attempt to cash in on his one great hit. Because he’s such a stud, Rudi would not take a mere single – he had to go for the double… all or nothing, which turned out to be nothing since he got tagged out, but he tried, dammit – at least he can say that!
THE BOBBY RIGGS OF LITTLE LEAUGE
Rudi Stein is also an historic icon in the history of sports. Well, kind of. I consider him the Bobby Riggs of little league baseball. For those who aren’t aware of (or are too young to remember) Bobby Riggs, he was a retired male tennis pro who played a match against Billie Jean King, a hotshot female tennis pro, and lost… which was a major stepping-stone for women athletes – that is, for women to be taken serious as athletes. Rudi, in this case, is the stepping-stone for young girls who were never considered to play on boy’s teams, being that he was replaced by a girl pitcher. And so, his failure as a pitcher not only allowed the film’s plot to flourish, but also laid the groundwork that changed the course of all youth-centered sports in the country – and the world! (Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit, but it’s my site and I do what I please!)
RUDI’S THE MAN!
The final element in the importance of Rudi Stein is the significance of actor David Pollock to the overall Bear-canon, that is, he’s one of four original cast members to appear in all three films: THE BAD NEWS BEARS, THE BAD NEWS BEARS IN BREAKING TRAINING, and THE BAD NEWS BEARS GO TO JAPAN. And when it comes to any movie franchise, character-continuity is one of the most important elements involved… And so, in closing, I will say this: if the “Bad News Bears” were a band, Rudi would play bass – an instrument you don’t always realize but that exists to give the others more purpose, i.e. it just wouldn’t be the same without him!
I recently had the opportunity to interview (via email) David Pollock, the man who, years ago, played “Rudi Stein” during an era when child actors looked (and acted) like real kids – the kind we all grew up with and can relate to – as opposed to young models pretending to be average, like we’ll get in most films today (including the “Bears” remake). In a nutshell, the old cliché is true: “They just don’t make ‘em like they used to” – which, in my opinion, goes for actors as well as movies. The original “Bad News Bears” film (directed by Michael Ritchie) is really a perfect masterpiece, mixing comedy and drama, action and suspense, heartache and heartfelt heroics. It’s the epitome of the underdog genre.
And so, with no further ado…
DAVID POLLOCK INTERVIEW
How was it working with Walter Matthau?
Walter was a true gentleman and someone we were very comfortable working with. Walter had a son about our age (Charlie, who also had a cameo role in the movie), so I think he was comfortable with us as well. We found out later that the chemistry we had in the first movie was rare and special.
What is a Rudi line from the movie that you remember the most (your favorite line from your character)?
Rudi is most remembered for being asked to lean into a pitch to walk to first base. Probably the most memorable moment is when Buttermaker asked Rudi to do it a second time. We ended up filming that little scene numerous times because Walter kept busting up when I’d look up at him and plead.
Did any kids from school refer to you as Rudi or always remind you of the role?
Not really. After the movie came out, I was a freshman at Montclair High School. It was well known on campus that I was in the movie, but it was more of a novelty than anything else. It did give me some status in the drama club on campus. We happened to have a fantastic drama teacher named Tim Tackett who cast me in some challenging stage roles.
Were you recognized during the eighties or in college from the movie?
I was occasionally recognized for about 15 years after the movie. It always surprised me because I didn’t think I looked anything like the character in the movie. For one thing, I rapidly lost much of my hair.
Have you seen the remake that came out in 2005? If yes… What did you think of it?
I haven’t watched the whole thing, but my impression was that it was more a sequel of “Bad Santa” than “The Bad News Bears”.
Which kid did you hang out with the most on and off the set of the original and/or the other films? Were there any in particular you were closest friends with?
I was pretty close to Brett Marx and his family. In fact, I lived with them in their Studio City home for a while. I also came to know Jimmy Baio pretty well during the second Bears movie.
Did you keep in touch with any of the cast members since the late seventies?
Not really. Probably the biggest “reunion” was when six of us gathered for a photo session when TV Guide did there “where are they now” feature. I’ve talked to many of the cast members over the years and we always say we’re going to get everyone back together, but it hasn’t happened so far.
Were the kids treated differently than the adult actors – as in, did you have trailers or one big trailer in between shooting?
Walter and Tatum were the big stars of the movie and had their own motor homes. The rest of us had private dressing rooms in what is affectionately called a “honey wagon.” I think most of us were pretty impressed that we had our own dressing room.
Did the director Michael Ritchie have you pitch badly on purpose, as in, were you a decent pitcher who had to “play down” to fit your character?
I had played in Little League when I was younger, but I was never much of an athlete and certainly was not a good pitcher. The bad pitching was all me. In fact, we had a baseball coach working with me at one point to help improve my pitching for the latter parts of the movie.
Did you have to do a lot of pitching and did your arm get tired?
Filming a movie is definitely a much slower pace than an actual baseball game. We had to deal with idleness and avoiding sunburns more than sore limbs.
Not counting the original, which sequel do you think is the better film?
Oh, “Breaking Training” was clearly the better of the two sequels.
How was working with Tony Curtis?
Let’s just say we didn’t have the same chemistry with Tony that we experienced with Walter and Bill. The Japan movie was not a happy experience, and it showed.
How was working with William Devane?
We had a certain chemistry with Bill Devane that, while not the same connection we had with Walter, it definitely transferred well on film.
Did you ever work with the late great actor Vic Morrow on the original shoot?
Vic and I weren’t in any scenes together, but he was around the set most of the time.
Was Tatum really that awesome a pitcher or was that mostly film-magic?
Tatum’s double was an awesome pitcher. You’ll notice a number of shots of her from the back while pitching. That was a guy with a wig.
Were you and the other team members nervous about working with a fellow kid actor (Tatum) who had won an Oscar not two years earlier?
At that age, I really don’t think we appreciated the significance of all that. I remember only being vaguely aware of anyone’s background. We found out as we went along, but by then they were ordinary people we saw every day on the set.
How long after the original did you get word of a sequel?
I seem to remember hearing about it in early 1977. I know the first draft of Breaking Training was done in January, 1977.
After hearing that there would be a sequel, was it known that there would be two sequels, or was only one planned at that time?
Actually, there were five sequels planned. I signed a contract that called for the first sequel (“Breaking Training”) and two option of two movies each. The first option was picked up for the Japan movie and what was supposed to be a return of Walter Matthau for a sequel in Cuba.
Was it a thrill playing in the Astrodome with all those people cheering (in “Breaking Training”)?
The extras in the stands turned out to be a bit of a problem. As I recall, we needed a few thousand just to fill up the stands behind the shots (the same crowd would be moved around), but we ended up having to turn thousands more away. We didn’t see it from inside the dome, but the police had to be called in for crowd control.
Michael Ritchie, Michael Pressman, John Barry: Can you describe the difference in their directing styles?
Michael Ritchie and Michael Pressman seemed to have a knack for it and knew how to give us the right amount of direction. Michael Pressman was in his early twenties at the time and not much older than Jackie and myself. John Barry was a different story. I remember him yelling a lot and getting very frustrated.
How did you guys react to having a new Engleberg?
We didn’t really expect to be doing sequels at all, so it was amazing that most of us were doing another movie. Jeff Starr was a great addition to the cast as the “new” Engleberg. In 2004, Gary Cavagnaro (the original Engleberg) and I worked a charity game for the Brockton Rox baseball team. He revealed that the reason he didn’t appear in the sequel was that he had lost a lot of weight and wasn’t willing to put it back on for a movie role.
Amhad’s favorite player was Hank Aaron – what baseball player do you think that Rudi would look up to as an inspiration?
That’s easy. Sandy Koufax, pitcher for the Dodgers. After all, how many Jewish sports legends did poor Rudi have to look up to?
Being as you’re one of the few cast members who appeared in all three Bears films (“Bad News Bears/Breaking Training/ Go to Japan”) I’ll ask you: Did the cast members who ended up dropping out of the last sequel do this on their own, or were only certain characters, like yourself, written into a third film?
Michael Ritchie was back as producer of the third film, so he knew all of us and had the opportunity to invite back those he wanted to work with. Chris Barnes is the only one I knew to drop out because they couldn’t agree on contractual terms.
Was there going to be a fourth film, or was “Go to Japan” set to be the “final chapter” of the franchise?
Yes, the fourth film had us going to Cuba. I understood that they were negotiating to bring Walter Matthau back, and they were going to try and persuade Fidel Castro to appear as the opposing coach. Unfortunately, the third film was such a disappointment, they decided to just pay us off for the fourth film and leave it at a trilogy. Paramount also did not pick up the second option that would have produced the fifth and sixth films in the series.
Why did Quinn Smith (Lupus) only appear shortly in “Breaking Training”?
Paul Brickman wrote the second script, and he decided to use the Lupus character as the fallen hero of the team. Lupus became the sentimental rallying point for the team, especially for Tanner.
Besides Rudi of course, who are your favorite character and/or characters from these films?
My personal favorite has always been Chris Barnes’ portrayal of Tanner. Tanner was a scrappy little fighter who got away with using horrible racial aspersions that we knew were uttered by real kids, but rarely had the chance to expose. There was more depth to the Tanner character than others, including Rudi, in the movies. It was clear that he was a very sensitive child with a tough kid persona. Chris managed to play that part beautifully and Tanner was probably the best remembered character because of it.
Was Chris Barnes really that tough a dude?
No, not at all. Chris was a very personable guy and came from a very morally centered family. Chris was truly acting this role and probably struggling with his conscience. I think it was this struggle that finally led him to bow out of the third movie (which was definitely the one to miss!).
What was in all those beer cans that Walter had to keep drinking out of (or was it just air)? And what was in the beer cans you guys drank out of in that one scene?
I don’t know what Walter was drinking, but the bottles we had at the end of the movie were filled with iced tea. I’m sure our welfare worker, Portia Adams, would have had something to say about anything else!
How did you feel before, during and after the premiere of the original (opening night)? (You can also describe, in short, how the other premiere nights went)
The first I saw the completed film was at a private showing at Paramount Studios. I don’t recall a big opening night premier for the movie, or at least I wasn’t there! For the second movie, most of us went on a nationwide promotional tour. We went to New York City to play softball with the Broadway cast of Annie in Central Park and signed autographs at Macy’s. Then we took off in different directions. I went to Kansas City, Phoenix and San Diego where we made multiple TV and radio show appearances. Probably the biggest crowed we drew was at a Dairy Queen where they had introduced a Bad News Bears Ice Cream Sundae.
Did the success of the (original) film surprise you, or were you pretty sure it was going to be a big hit?
I was very impressed by the original script that Bill Lancaster wrote. In fact, the only award won by the Bad News Bears was the Writers Guild award for best screenplay. Bill obviously put a lot of his personal experience and feelings into the characters. Beyond that, we had no sense, nor did Paramount, that this would be anything but a fun summer kid’s movie.
Have you attended any reunions or conventions?
We haven’t had a reunion, other than the TV Guide photo session. I’ve been invited to a few conventions to sign autographs, but I haven’t really had the time to do that. I did appear in a charity baseball game, along with Gary Cavagnaro, in 2004. Other than that, it has just been scattered few “where are they now” interviews for magazines and TV shows.
Did your kids like these films (and/or nephews, etc)?
My kids have seen the movie, and they might admit to thinking it is cool that their dad was in an old movie, but that’s about the extent of it.
Did you ever meet Billy Jacoby, who played “Rudi” in the TV series (starring Jack Warden)? Either way: What did you think of his “take” on Rudi Stein?
I have to admit that I never met Billy nor did I catch any of the TV series.
Jackie Earle Haley has had a tremendous comeback recently… Also to note, Quentin Tarantino, who has garnered many cult-movie-actor comebacks in his films, owns this movie (the actual film) and says he screens it almost every month... The question: Would you jump at a chance to appear on film again, or are you 100% content in your business?
I quite purposely got out of show business when I became an adult because I knew it wasn’t something I wanted to depend on for a living. I am very happy with what I do now. And as for Quentin Tarantino, the admiration is mutual. I have a poster of “Pulp Fiction” in my home theater right alongside the Bad News Bears posters. If Quentin offered me a role in one of his movies, how could I refuse?
Did being a child actor, that is, learning how to act at a young age, help you in what you do today?
I found it definitely helped me sell myself when I ran for the local school board. It also helped prepare me for speaking in front of large audiences for both my work in business and public service.
What are you doing now (your business, etc)?
I am sr. director of program development for the California School Boards Association. I work with the 1,000 school districts across the state on governance, policy and other issues.
Are you familiar with Alfred Lutter's business (internet online banking I believe) and have your paths in business ever cross paths?
Our paths crossed in 2001 when we shot the feature for TV Guide. I really don’t know much about Alfred’s business, but I am not at all surprised by his success.
Any words for child actors out there?
Only pursue it if you really love it, and even then, have a backup plan. It’s not nearly as glamorous as it might seem, and from what I have heard from those that stayed in the business, it has only become more cut-throat.
What, in your own opinion, would Rudi Stein be doing today?
Well, clearly Rudi wasn’t destined to be a professional baseball player. He probably became an attorney specializing in children’s sports injuries.
Any last words to the fans of this film you want to share?
Thank you for your continued interest in the film and what it represents!
Interview by James M. Tate
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