By Rick Reilly
What’s the very coolest thing about having my football movie – Leatherheads – made and opening April 4 in an Octoplex near you?
SO glad you asked.
1. It Got Made!
My writing partner, former Sports Illustrated colleague Duncan Brantley, and I wrote this thing 16 years ago! Sixteen years! Do you realize how many Joan Rivers faces ago that was? We sold it to Universal right away, but then it became the Paris Hilton of scripts – everybody kind of wanted it and then, when they got a really close look, didn’t. First, Mel Gibson was going to do it, then didn’t. Then George Clooney was, then didn’t. Then Michael Keaton was, then didn’t. Then Ray Liotta was, then didn’t. Then Clooney again, then didn’t. Then it propped open a door at Universal for a few years. Then one day my agent called and said, “Hey, would it be alright if George Clooney started filming Leatherheads in February? He’d star and he’d direct. He’s been rewriting the third act all summer in Italy.” And I said, Uh, can you give me a millisecond?
2. I Got to be in it! Sort of.
No lines. I’m sitting in the pressbox of a fake Chicago stadium that’s really in Greenville, SC, which is why 480 extras are sweating their spleens out wearing full-length wool coats when it’s 85 degrees out. And I can relate, because I’m in the same hotter-than-Chernobyl get-up myself. I’m sitting there when Renee Zellwegger – playing Lexie, a muckraking reporter from the Chicago Tribune – walks in. I’m supposed to look up in horror as Stephen (News Radio) Root barks, “Hey, no women in the press box!” Except Root and Zellwegger keep screwing up their lines so we have to do 17 takes. And on about the 16th, I want to get some direction from Clooney just to be able to someday say, “I got some direction from Clooney once.” And so I go, “George, anything you want me to do?” And Clooney goes, “Yeah, that’s great when you clear.” And as he’s walking to get back behind the camera again, I turn to Root and say, “What’s that mean, ‘clear’?” And he says, “That means when you get out of the shot.”
3. It Got Made! Really!
I mean, do you know how cool it is to walk around a world that you and your buddy invented? Or watch George Clooney and John (The Office) Krasinski and Renee Zellwegger deliver lines you wrote, while characters you fabricated out of whole beer are coming up to you and saying stuff like, “Hey, I’m Hardleg. Nice to meet you!”? And I’m like, “Hardleg? We dreamed you up at Chili’s one night!” It was like taking a 3D tour of your own brain.
4. The Pee Bush Story!
See, everybody wanted a picture of Clooney and Zellwegger and Krasinski in 1920s costumes, so the security was two notches past the Tel Aviv airport, so nobody got in. So one day, Clooney says, “Let’s take 10, everybody.” So this security guard sneaks over to the far corner of the field to take a leak on a bush and the bush goes, “Heyyyyy! Watch it!” Turns out it was a paparazzi disguised as a bush, shooting with a long lens. Security turned him over to the cops. Still, you’ve got to admire the junipers on a guy like that.
5. Did I Mention I Got to Know George Clooney?
Cool guy. Friendly, funny, humble. A winker. Fastest gum chewer in history. Twinkle in his eye at all time. Stupidly handsome. Taller than most. Almost six foot. Tan and thinner and in better shape than you might think. Cut chest, good arms, not that I’m saying anything. To keep them, he’d play hoops at night with a bunch of the jocks who were playing his teammates. Man’s a freak for hoops. And at lunch, he’d throw the football around in full wool-jersey, leather-helmets (thus, the title) and heavy britches, sometimes with yours truly. Nice pair of hands. Not a great spiral, but you have to remember the ball was a balloon in those days. And he seemed to be delighted to be there. “Man, I’m too old to play this guy!” he’d kid as I’d send him on an up-and-go. He wasn’t too old to play a star football player, by the way. We researched it. In the pre-NFL days of pro football – which is what this movie’s about – some guys played to 45 and 50. Turns out he’d been injured filming Syriana and left the set with constant headaches. He said, “So I come here and I get hit harder than I’ve ever been hit in my life (by Hardleg, played by Tommy Hinkley, who’s been one of his hoop/beer buddies for 20 years).” Turns out Hinkley was following him on a tackle play and landed exactly where he was supposed to land but Clooney rolled at the last second and Hardleg kneed him square in the head. “And guess what?” Clooney said, wide-eyed. “No more headaches!” Wasn’t there a Gilligan episode like that?
6. I Got to Live in the 1920s!
You don’t understand, I’m a freak for the ‘20s – Damon Runyon, speakeasies, gimme a rye and leave the bottle. Everything for three full days was vintage 1920s. The referee’s uniform. The ads on the walls. The bicycles. The vendors. The cars and trucks and photographers and cheerleaders. It was like being dropped out of a time machine into 1924. Do you realize how much more elegant this country was then? A man would rather be a Bolshevik than be seen without a top hat, tie and jacket. Even the kids looked nice. And this is how people dressed to watch a football game! What do we have now? Zubaz and frigging Crocks. It got so it was almost jarring when you’d glimpse the 21st century, like Clooney sitting in his motorcycle and sidecar, working his Blackberry.
7. The Present Duncan Brantley Gave Me!
On the day I arrived in Greenville, he took me to the Leatherheads production studios outside of town and told me to close my eyes. Then he elbow-guided me into a warehouse, and said, “Open your eyes.” And when I did, I was in the middle of the Tribune offices, 1925. I could’ve cried.
8. The Lamar Incident!
It’s a story Clooney told when I asked him if he ever goes back to his high-school reunions in Augusta, Kentucky. “Not in a long time,” he said. “Not since the Lamar (not his real name) Incident.” The Lamar incident? “Yeah, this real jerk from my class without about three teeth in his head comes up to me and goes, ‘I guess you think you’re better ‘n me now, huh, Clooney? Went off to California and now you think you’re better?’ And I said, ‘That’s not true at all, Lamar. I thought I was better than you when I was here.’” By the way, Clooney’s taking himself and Zellwegger and the movie and throwing a big premiere in Maysville. Wonder if Lamar will show up?
9. The Money!
10. My Zellwegger Story!
OK, it isn’t true, but by the time I’m 80 I’ll be so blotto I’ll probably end up thinking it’s true. OK, this part is true: When I got to the set, Renee Zellwegger, who’s a Texas spitfire by the way, came up to me and said, “Hello, Rick. I’m Renee and I just wanted to welcome you to the set and you know, thank you for writing this great part.” This part isn’t: I put my hand up and said, “Wait, Renee. Just wait. (pause) You had me at ‘Hello.’”