Chelcie Ross is not a jackass. He just plays one in three of the most popular sports movies of all time.
In "Hoosiers" (1986), he's George, the townie who organizes the resistance to coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman). In "Major League" (1989), he's Eddie Harris, the God-fearing, Vaseline-smearing Indians pitcher who personifies hypocrisy. And in "Rudy" (1993), he's Notre Dame coach Dan Devine, the stick-in-the-mud "Rudy" Ruettiger has to win over to let him play in a game.
In real life, Ross is none of the above. At 68, he is the consummate team player, a character actor who gives thanks for his luck and takes pride in his craft. Over the years, Ross has brought his lanky 6-foot-2 frame and deep voice to some 50 films, 30 TV shows and 80 plays.
He recently returned to his suburban Chicago home after several weeks in Sydney, where he played the father in the Steppenwolf Theatre Company production of August: Osage County. "After the run, my wife and I took a holiday in Tasmania," says Ross. "We're at the Bonorong Wildlife Park, and the guide comes up to me and says, 'Hey, mate, I loved you in "Major League".' Twenty years later, half a world away, people still see me as Eddie Harris." Slipping into character, he recites, "Are you trying to tell me Jesus Christ can't hit a curveball?"
Ross' own story is the stuff of movies. An Air Force brat and the oldest of three brothers, he played football, basketball and baseball in high school in New Jersey, then went to Southwest Texas State (now known as Texas State University-San Marcos), where he played baseball and got discovered -- just not by a major league scout. "I needed a humanities credit, so I showed up one day to build theater sets. The drama coach heard my voice, and before long, I was playing King Lear."
Upon graduation, Ross followed in his father's Air Force footsteps and was deployed to Vietnam, where he earned the Bronze Star. He was promoted to captain and stationed at the Pentagon. "My duties were not what I had hoped, so I gave up the Air Force, drove back to Texas in my Pontiac Catalina and got back into acting."
After five years learning the trade at the Dallas Theater Center, Ross moved to Chicago and built up his résumé. But it wasn't until he auditioned for "Hoosiers" that he got his first big break. "David Anspaugh, the director, told me that after my audition he turned to Angelo Pizzo, the screenwriter, and said, 'That's the jerk we're looking for.' " Indeed, from the moment Ross gives Hackman the ball at the beginning of the film to the town vote to overturn the coach, he's perfectly despicable.
Ross loved the "Hoosiers" script but says nobody had any idea the movie would be a success. "A few years later, I worked with Gene in The Package, and he said, 'Well, I guess that little basketball movie we made did pretty good.' "
There was no such uncertainty attached to "Major League". "We knew that was going to fail," Ross says with a laugh. "The script wasn't great. One thing that helped save the movie was the cast. We went through spring training and literally turned into the Cleveland Indians. I'll never forget how excited we all got when Dennis Haysbert [as superstitious slugger Pedro Cerrano] actually hit one out on the first take."
Ross patterned his character after Gaylord Perry, the former Indians pitcher who spitballed his way to the Hall of Fame. "I remember one time during an all-night shoot, Bob Uecker came up to me and said, 'I've been watching you hurling out there on the mound, and I have to tell you, you're a real inspiration.'
"I bit, and asked him, 'Really?' And he said, 'Yeah, you make me want to hurl.' "
For '"Rudy",' which reunited him with Anspaugh and Pizzo, Ross says he talked to dozens of people who had played or worked for Devine, the Fighting Irish coach from 1975 to 1980. By every account, save one, he nailed the part. The one, of course, was Dan Devine. "He didn't care for it at all," says Ross.
Some of the climactic game sequences were shot during halftime of a real Notre Dame football game, so the filmmakers and actors were under great pressure to get it right. Says Ross, "You know the scene where we come running out onto the field? Anspaugh says to me, 'Just follow right behind the cheerleaders. As soon as they go, you go.' So I'm watching the cheerleaders when Sean Astin ["Rudy"] decides to tap me on the head, to pump me up. I turn my head, and when I turn back the cheerleaders are gone! If you watch the scene, you'll notice a significant gap between the time the cheerleaders run out onto the field and the players."
Ross has actually been in two other sports movies: 'Madison' (2001), perhaps the best movie ever about powerboat racing, and 'The Express' (2008), the story of Syracuse football star Ernie Davis. The latest big item on his résumé was playing hotel baron Conrad Hilton in the TV show 'Mad Men.' "As far as recognition on the street goes," says Ross, "Conrad's catching up to Eddie. But the sports movies have meant a lot to me. They remind me why I love this business -- you're part of a team."
If you watch the final scenes in each of the Big Three, you can see him: George cheering for Hickory, Eddie embracing Cerrano, Devine giving in to the joy of the moment. That's Chelcie Ross.
Steve Wulf, a longtime baseball writer and sports journalist, is currently the editor-in-chief of ESPN Books.