The inside story behind ‘Bull Durham’: ‘Fights, lies, clashing egos and bloodshed’
DURHAM, N.C. — In his new book “The Church of Baseball,” Ron Shelton recalls “Bull Durham” triumphing over a thousand doubters — how his story of sad-sack minor-leaguers put lollygagging in the national vocabulary, introduced candlesticks as a go-to wedding gift and prevailed as perhaps the world’s greatest sports movie.
In his tell-nearly-all memoir, Shelton describes himself as a first-time director only one failure away from painting houses, a screenwriter given the greenlight on a half-formed idea he first called “A Player to be Named Later.”
He based his story of love, loss and lava lizards partially on his experiences playing second base for the Baby Birds of Bluefield, West Virginia, where his hand-me-down wool jersey had two numbers on the back: 22, and 136 still faintly visible behind it.
But before the world would see “Bull Durham,” the studio would insist on maddening ultimatums that might have doomed the project, namely: Anthony Michael Hall had to star as up-and-coming pitcher Nuke LaLoosh. At one point, Shelton grabbed a producer by the throat.
The whole seat-of-your-pants production would settle in Durham of 1988 — an era of ramshackle warehouses and tobacco-scented ghosts. After 34 years, with Durham revived at least partially due to the Bulls’ popularity, Shelton’s movie is still celebrated.
Announcing ‘her presence with authority’
“The Church of Baseball” describes a good idea nearly pecked to death by 1,000 corporate pigeons, starting with the cast Shelton considered perfect.
Right off, the studio wanted Hall to play Nuke, though the actor was several years removed from his “Breakfast Club” fame.
But Shelton nixed executives’ Brat Pack enthusiasm when, according to the book, Hall showed up late for their meeting, accompanied by an eight-person entourage. He hadn’t read the script. Shelton rescheduled for the next day, and this time, Hall came back with an entourage of four and only 35 pages read.
Shelton left the table, nixing Hall as Nuke. Still, newcomer Tim Robbins endured studio misgivings throughout the film.
Susan Sarandon got a chilly reception as a potential Annie, despite her willingness to fly from Italy and audition at her own expense. But she was not, Shelton lamented, “on the list” of stars the studio considered bankable at the time.
Still, she persisted and won the female lead regardless when she flew in without being officially asked.
“Susan flashed into the room,” Shelton wrote. “She wore a tube dress with four-inch red and white horizontal stripes that announced her presence with authority. Brassy, funny, physical, and off-book. She didn’t need script pages in her hand. She knew the character. She was the character.”
‘I gotta pass the test’
Kevin Costner, Shelton said, was the only star to escape second-guessing, though he wasn’t quite famous yet.
The movie might not have gotten the financing it needed if “No Way Out,” in which Costner starred as a Soviet spy hiding in the U.S. Navy, hadn’t drawn rave reviews in The New York Times just before filming started.
When Costner and Shelton met, the director told him the job of longtime minor league catcher Crash Davis was his for the asking. But Costner insisted on trying out.
“You played professional baseball,” he told Shelton. “I played in high school. I gotta pass the test.”
Strangely enough, both carried mitts in the trunk of their cars. So they drove to a batting cage and played catch in the parking lot, other patrons oblivious to Costner’s soon-to-be movie-star status. Then Costner took some swings in the cage and Shelton put him down as a natural ballplayer — one less thing to worry about.
In the book’s early pages, Shelton confesses to disliking sports movies. The worst ones, he explains, involve too much sports.
He wanted to make a movie about what’s going on inside the batter’s head when he’s standing at the plate under the scrutiny of a thousand eyes. He wanted to capture the desperation, the anxiety, the fear of being sent home a failure. He wanted to spotlight the crutches that make the pressure bearable, ballplayer or not: booze, tantrums, regrettable affairs.
He points out several times that “Bull Durham” doesn’t feature a “big game,” the critical moment where the hero knocks a home run into the stadium lights, raining down fireworks and glory. That stuff isn’t real.
Durham of the 1980s made the perfect set. Shelton scouted the location for less than a day before choosing some abandoned tobacco warehouses across from the old ballpark, turning them into the clubhouse for a team of lollygaggers.
“The desperate look and feel of this southern town, “ Shelton wrote of bygone Durham, “with its ancient, crumbling ballpark and shuttered businesses, suggested the perfect background in which to set a story in the minor leagues where young athletes’ dreams similarly crumble and are boarded up.”
Only a few years from being replaced by Durham Bulls Athletic Park, which is far from crumbling, the old field only needed a coat of dark green paint over the blue.
‘Lucky you’re on that bus’
“Bull Durham” has risen high enough in fan circles to be ranked among the greatest-ever sports movies, mentioned in the same breath as “Rocky,” “A League of Their Own” and the original “Bad News Bears.”
Its characters are so iconic, and so constantly quoted, that Shelton returned to Durham’s ballpark on the movie’s 30th anniversary and met a family that had relocated solely out of “Bull Durham” love.
“I’m Crash,” said their 10-year old boy.
“”Yep,” said the younger. “I’m Nuke.”
Reflecting on this, having made a movie that resonated strongly enough to christen children after its protagonists, Shelton humbly congratulates himself for winning over doubt and prejudice, creating a sports movie only tangentially about sports.
“Perhaps Bull Durham has resonated all these years because it is about loving something more than it loves you back,” Shelton writes. “It’s about reckoning. It’s about loss. It’s about men at work, trying to survive in the remote outposts of their chosen profession.
“It’s also about the women they fall for, and who fall for them. ... It’s about interminable bus rides with a bunch of guys who are as lost as you are, and feeling lucky you’re on that bus.”
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