How real is the reel Radio?
By Jeff Merron
Page 2 staff

As "Radio" starts to roll, the words appear on the screen: "Inspired by a true story." This much is true: Hollywood immediately saw the multiplex potential of Gary Smith's 1996 Sports Illustrated article, "Someone to Lean On," about James Robert "Radio" Kennedy, a mentally disabled man who became part of Hanna (S.C.) High School, and, particularly, its sports teams.

But what does "inspired by" mean when the title character is alive, and even appears in the film? When the other main character has been a part of the production process? Director Mike Tollin, attempting to shed some light on the subject, told The Post and Courier of Charleston, S.C., "This story is fiction, but we are always mindful of the line we are not going to cross, this being what the story is really about."

Ed Harris and Cuba Gooding Jr.
Cuba consoles a player after forcing him to watch 'Boat Trip'.

Guess we'll have to figure this out on our own.

In Reel Life: The film takes place at Hanna High School in Anderson, S.C., in 1976, when Radio (Cuba Gooding Jr.) first makes his appearance at the school.
In Real Life: Radio first showed up at football practices in the mid-1960s, according to coach Harold Jones in a telephone interview. He started going to Hanna in the early 1970s -- when Jones was still coaching and teaching at the junior high school. At that time, Radio hung out at the gym and locker room. Gradually, he started going to other parts of the school, including classrooms.

In Reel Life: Hanna is in the town of Anderson, S.C.
In Real Life: The filmmakers shot most of the "campus" scenes at the University of South Carolina-Salkehatchie, in Walterboro. Stadium shots utilized, to a large degree, Colleton High School's Cougar Stadium. Downtown Walterboro was almost completely remade to resemble 1960s/1970s Anderson.

In Reel Life: Cuba Gooding Jr. plays the role of Radio.
In Real Life: Ever since Smith's article appeared in SI, there had been talk of making a film about Radio. In 2001, as that possibility neared reality, someone asked Radio who he would want to play him. "Denzel. My man," Radio replied.

In Reel Life: Radio watches the varsity football team practice, and is befriended by Jones (Ed Harris) and his assistant, Honeycutt (Brent Sexton).
In Real Life: At first, Radio watched the junior-varsity team practice, behind the junior high school. At the time, Jones was a volunteer assistant coach, and he didn't become head coach of the varsity football team until 1985. Jones coached the Yellow Jackets for 14 years, compiling a 76-83 record.

JV head coach Dennis Patterson (much like Honeycutt) immediately took a liking to Radio, and both Jones and Patterson gradually introduced Radio to the team.

In Reel Life: Radio doesn't say a word for about the first 20 minutes of the movie.
In Real Life: Radio didn't talk at first, and it took him a long time to utter his first few words.

In Reel Life: Radio pushes around a shopping cart full of stuff -- including radios -- all the time. Sometimes, he rides in the cart.
In Real Life: True. Even as a 37-year-old, in 1983, a story on Radio published in the Anderson Independent Mail described him "whizzing by in his grocery cart up and down Railroad Street in his old neighborhood."

Cuba Gooding Jr.
This sure beats a sleigh ride in 'Snow Dogs'.
In Reel Life: Coach Jones says to Radio, "Get your buggy. Come on in."
In Real Life: "Buggy" is Southern English for "shopping cart."

In Reel Life: Radio is "mentally challenged."
In Real Life: Radio's condition is a genetic one; Radio's biological father and younger brother have a similar mental disability.

In Reel Life: Hanna plays at "District 5 Stadium."
In Real Life: It's not a romantic name, but it's descriptive -- Hanna High is in School District 5 of Anderson County, S.C.

In Reel Life: Coach Jones joins the football supporters every Friday night, post-game, at Del & Don's Barber Shop, where they chew things over.
In Real Life: We were hoping that Gene Hackman, who does some of his best work in barbershops ("Hoosiers" as well as some great scenes in "Mississippi Burning") would pop in. But it didn't happen. Neither did the barbershop meetings in Anderson.

"We didn't do anything like that," says Jones in a phone interview. "Friday nights, we'd sometimes go over to different parents' houses, but it wasn't [confrontational] like that."

In Reel Life: A "tonic" at Del & Don's will set you back $1.25.
In Real Life: A tonic involves more than just putting hair tonic into your hair. You also get an invigorating scalp massage in the process. Most old-timers remember tonics as a real refreshing treat; but these days, they're mostly a lost art.

In Reel Life: Radio is, permanently, in the 11th grade, which means he never has to graduate.
In Real Life: One time, Radio did say he was a senior. But after coaches told him that meant he'd be graduating, Radio understood well enough to make himself an 11th-grader for life.

In Reel Life: Coach Jones and his wife, Linda (Debra Winger), have one daughter, Mary Helen (Sarah Hughes).
In Real Life: The Jones' have three children -- two daughters and one son.

In Reel Life: Jones faces opposition from the school board and from Frank Clay (Chris Mulkey), the father of a star athlete, to Radio's participation in the football and basketball programs and his attendance in classes.
In Real Life: "There was no conflict that I know of," says Coach Jones. "When they first started talking about making a movie, I asked the school superintendent, 'Did anyone ever call you up about Radio?' And he said not once."

When director Mike Tollin and screenwriter Mike Rich found out there had been no conflict, argument, or opposition to Radio, they invented some.

In Reel Life: In one of their first encounters with Radio, some football players tie him up with tape and leave him, whimpering, in the equipment shed.
In Real Life: As far as Coach Jones knows, players and others at Hanna never physically hurt Radio. "Boys will be boys," he says, "but they didn't do anything that hurt Radio. They played some jokes on him, but nothing that hurt him."

Ed Harris and Alfre Woodard
This scene never happened in Radio's real life.
In Reel Life: Principal Daniels (Alfre Woodard) is a black female who often questions, sometimes quite strongly, Radio's presence in the school.
In Real Life: There was no black principal at Hanna. And, says Jones, the principals at Hanna supported Radio's presence. No concerns at all? "They would always tell us to watch out for him," says Jones.

In Reel Life: Radio loves to eat. When the waitress at a local restaurant tells him about the two pies of the day, he habitually orders both.
In Real Life: Radio loves to eat. One time, he ate an entire cooler full of sandwiches -- 30 roast beef sandwiches -- that had been put on the bus for the track team. Radio can't read, but, says Jones, knows logos, especially those that are important to him -- those of football teams and chain restaurants like Fuddrucker's.

In Reel Life: Radio lives alone with his mother, Maggie (S. Epatha Merkerson), and has one older brother, Walter.
In Real Life: Radio lived with his mother and, says Jones, a stepfather who was also caring. Radio does have an older brother named Walter, and a younger brother, George.

Radio now lives with Walter and Pat, Walter's wife. Also living with Walter and Pat: Radio's younger brother, George Allan Kennedy, nicknamed "Cool Rock." Cool Rock is also mentally disabled.

In Reel Life: Coach Jones is watching an episode of "Charlie's Angels." We hear Bosley's voice saying, "What's it like to be out from behind bars, Angels?"
In Real Life: Most likely, Jones was watching the fourth episode of the Angels first season. Entitled "Angels in Chains," the episode, which aired Oct. 20, 1976, featured Sabrina (Kate Jackson), Jill (Farrah Fawcett), and Kelly (Jaclyn Smith), with Kim Basinger as a guest star. According to the description on the back of the video, "The Angels infiltrate a corrupt Southern prison and are forced to join guest star Kim Basinger in the warden's bordello." Time magazine called this episode "family style porn."

In Reel Life: In one scene, Radio isn't allowed to travel to an away game on the team bus, and a nosy school board and cautious principal are to blame. Radio is left behind, in tears.
In Real Life: Radio was left behind one time, in 1974. This decision was made by then-head coach Jim Fraser, who didn't think there was enough room on the bus. Radio did cry, and Fraser regretted the decision. Radio hasn't missed the bus since.

In Reel Life: Anderson's main street features an ice cream shop, "Dickson Ice Cream," where they "Freeze to Please." It also includes a meat market and "Del & Don's Barber Shop."
In Real Life: Before and after the production left Walterboro, the Dickson was the Walterboro Christian Center, the meat market was a wedding shop, and the barber shop -- down the road from a real barber shop -- was an empty storefront. Why did they skip over the barber shop, which had been in Walterboro for 60 years, for a fake one? "My place isn't wide enough," said Allen Ard, the owner, "and they needed a big space because the core actors are in the barbershop scenes, and extras are in the background."

They also shot scenes at Hampton Street Elementary School.

In Reel Life: The Hanna basketball team wears black high-top Chuck Taylors.
In Real Life: Though we don't know for sure what the team wore in 1976, if they favored Converse, they might have gone with the "Pro Leather," nicknamed "The Dr. J," which was introduced that year.

In Reel Life: Radio's mother dies suddenly of a heart attack.
In Real Life: Radio's mother lived until August, 1994, when she suffered heart failure.

Cuba Gooding Jr. and Ed Harris
Whether you like the movie or not, you can't root against Radio.
In Reel Life: During both practices and games, Radio imitates the coaches -- both their mannerisms and what they say.
In Real Life: At a recent game, reports the Associated Press, "A scene repeated itself over and over as Radio walked the sideline. He wore the same black shirt, khaki pants and white sneakers as the coaches. The coaches put their hands on their hips; Radio put his hands on his hips. Coaches scribbled on legal pads; Radio squiggled his signature, like rows of lowercase cursive Ls, over and over. The ball flew in the air. The coaches yelled 'Pass," and Radio yelled "Pass!"

In Reel Life: At the end of the film, we see the "real" Radio on the sidelines during the game.
In Real Life: These scenes probably occurred at the Sept. 26, 2002, homecoming game, when the crew set up on the sidelines.

In Reel Life: Radio, dressed in full academic regalia, hands out diplomas during the graduation ceremony.
In Real Life: According to Jones, Radio didn't start coming to graduation exercises until 10 or 15 years ago; a few years back, he started walking in with the teachers. But the cap and gown? "You'd never get him to do that," Jones told the Tallahassee Democrat, "because he'd think it would mean he's graduating. That's his thing; he's a junior. He knows if he's a senior, he's going to have to leave."



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