How a ‘Crude Bunch of Kids’ Struck Gold With ‘The Bad News Bears’
The Top 10 movies of 1976 include some of the most classic titles in cinematic history, including Rocky, All the President’s Men and the comedy hit Silver Streak. Right there among them is a ragtag group of little leaguers known as The Bad News Bears.
"This was not a big picture," Stanley Jaffe, the movie’s producer admitted to the New York Daily News. “But we were this little picture that could at the end."
It was Jaffe who initially fell in love with The Bad News Bears script, although the early version was a far cry from what would end up onscreen.
“We changed the whole last half of the picture from the script that I was presented with,” the producer explained, noting that the original screenplay focused on the Kelly Leak character and his troubles with the law. “It had nothing to do with the Bad News Bears. When we started working with [screenwriter Bill Lancaster], he was great about accepting that and making the changes that ultimately resulted in the movie."
Watch the Trailer for 'The Bad News Bears'
Lancaster’s willingness to change the script was one of many pieces that had to fall into place in order for The Bad News Bears to become a movie classic.
For example, the character of Morris Buttermaker - the team’s loudmouthed, heavy-drinking coach - was played to perfection by Walter Matthau. Still, The Odd Couple star wasn’t the first choice for the role. Buttermaker was originally offered to Steve McQueen, who turned it down to focus on An Enemy of the People. Warren Beatty, who was next on the producers’ wish list, initially agreed to take the part but later rescinded so that he could dedicate his time to the film Reds. Instead, the character fell to Matthau, and in his hands, Buttermaker became legendary.
“He was singularly one of the best people I ever met," Jaffe later said of the actor. "He's a curmudgeon, but he's got a heart as big as this world. He was like the Pied Piper. The kids took to him, and it was wonderful for the movie."
Opposite Matthau in the role of Amanda Whurlizer was Tatum O'Neal, fresh off her 1974 Academy Award win for Paper Moon. The young star trained intensely in her efforts to earnestly depict the talented little league pitcher. “My pitching was pretty good,” the actress admitted to Rich Eisen in 2016, noting that she had a dedicated coach who worked with her for three months.
Watch Buttermaker Recruit Amanda in 'The Bad News Bears'
While Matthau and O’Neal handled the leading roles, much of the young cast was filled out by relative unknowns. Jackie Earle Haley played delinquent-turned-star-player Kelly Leak. Brandon Cruz, who had found some success on the TV series The Courtship of Eddie's Father, played the Bears’ antagonist, Yankees star pitcher Joey Turner.
Meanwhile, the role of Ahmad Abdul-Rahim - the outfielder who is so hard on himself that after committing several errors he strips off his uniform and climbs a tree - went to Erin Blunt. “At that time, I hated baseball,” the actor later admitted, revealing he was less than excited on the drive to his audition with his mom.
“On the way there, she says, 'We need to buy you a baseball uniform?' I said, 'No.' We get to Paramount. There's about 20 million and one kids, all wearing baseball uniforms," he recalled. "Here comes this kid with jeans and a T-shirt, a hat on backwards, sitting in a corner. I stood out, obviously, because [director] Michael Ritchie came up to me and said, 'What's your name?' I said, 'Erin.' He said, 'You act like you don't want to be here.' I said, 'I don't. I hate baseball.' He said, 'Good. I'm the director, and you just got the part.'"
There were many others who made the Bears such a lovable group of misfits: hotheaded shortstop Tanner Boyle, overweight catcher Mike Engelberg, soft-spoken outfielder Timmy Lupus, relief pitcher and hit-by-a-pitch target Rudi Stein ... the list goes on and on.
Watch a Clip From 'The Bad News Bears'
By casting actors with little to no experience, the filmmakers captured part of what made The Bad News Bears great. The ensemble cast didn’t come across as stars pretending to be regular kids - they really were regular kids.
"We were a rather crude bunch of kids unleashed on the baseball park,” Cruz later recalled, adding that the hot weather and friendly atmosphere on set gave the movie a summer camp vibe. “They had trash cans full of ice and Heineken for the crew, because it was really hot. I guess that was the incentive of the crew to hang in there, deal with a bunch of crazy kids. I can't really speak for other people, but I helped myself to the crew's freebies on a daily basis.”
Unlike other youth-oriented films, The Bad News Bears didn't sugarcoat its characters. Tanner picks fights with other students at school. Joey and his father, Yankees coach Roy Turner, have a toxic relationship. Meanwhile, Amanda, who is being raised by her single mother, clearly yearns for a male role model in her life. She attempts to fill that void with Buttermaker, but the alcoholic coach will have none of it. In one poignant scene, Amanda tries to convince Buttermaker that they could still be friends once the baseball season is over. The coach proceeds to throw beer at her and exclaims, "Goddamn it! Can't you get it through your thick head? I don't want your company."
Watch a Clip From 'The Bad News Bears'
The film's characters were flawed, but this also made them seem real. The script even called for the little leaguers to talk like true preteens do, complete with curse words. In one memorable moment, Tanner proclaims: “All we got on this team is a bunch of Jews, Sp--s, n-----s, pansies and a booger-eating moron.”
"To us kids, it was just true to life," Haley admitted. "I'm sure everyone was giggling, 'Oh, look, we get to cuss in front of everybody.' At the same time, zero shock. This is exactly what it's like at school. I'm sure it's that and worse now."
“I don’t think you’ll see kids talk like that in films again,” O’Neal opined years later to Eisen. “It was so unbelievably non-PC. It was so politically incorrect. But that’s what makes it so great.”
Watch a Clip From 'The Bad News Bears'
Yet it’s the film’s ending that arguably resonates the most with fans all these years later. After seeing the team struggle, build confidence and make it to the championship game, viewers watch as the Bears fall agonizingly short of winning it all. Paramount executives were split on whether the Bears should win or lose the game. So, both endings were shot.
"I felt strongly, as did [Ritchie], that there was no way that [the Bears] were going to win. At the end, when we had the previews, [Paramount studio head Barry Diller] said, 'I want them to win it.' I said, 'It's not happening. Just not happening,'" Jaffe revealed. "It's not about winning. It's about trying. One person wins. But everybody can try, and that's what this picture is to me – everybody trying."
Watch the Ending From 'The Bad News Bears'
The decision proved profound. When The Bad News Bears was released on April 7, 1976, audiences rallied around the team of lovable losers. Matthau somehow managed to make his booze-guzzling Buttermaker endearing. Meanwhile, O’Neal became the early crush for an entire generation of baseball-loving boys.
In total, The Bad News Bears took in $42.3 million at the domestic box office, more than four times its estimated production budget of $9 million. It spawned two less successful sequels, a TV show and a 2005 remake. Still, none of them could compare to the distinct charm of the original.
“We contributed a little piece of culture to our generation,” David Pollack, who played Rudi Stein, recalled decades later to Los Angeles television station KTLA. “And that’s really a tremendous honor to think that as kids that we could have done something that would have that profound an impact on everybody - not just in the United States but around the world.”