Tom Berenger
Page 2 Staff

Tom Berenger
Berenger has the formidable task of portraying Paul "Bear" Bryant in ESPN Original Entertainment's, "The Junction Boys."
Tom Berenger stars as Paul "Bear" Bryant in ESPN's "The Junction Boys" this Saturday night. We sent Eric Neel to ask him 10 Burning Questions about the ins and outs of playing a legend.

It's no sweat Tom said: just learn your lines, do your homework and go out there and meet or exceed the expectations of everyone who's ever even had a passing thought about the legendary coach. Why was Berenger so calm and cool about it? Easy, he'd already played a couple of legends: Teddy Roosevelt in "Rough Riders" and Jake Taylor in "Major League" and "Major League II."

1. Why take on the role of Bear Bryant?

Tom Berenger: Well, I just fell in love with the script. I was familiar with him when he coached Alabama, but I didn't know about his years at Texas A&M, Maryland and Kentucky. In the script, he's just as folksy and colorful as he was later in life, but he was much more intense at this time, and I was drawn to that intensity. Actually, the summer camp at Junction is sort of where he turned the corner a bit and began to realize that it's a sport and not a war.

Is there something about this kind of character -- the hardcase, intense guy, like Sgt. Barnes in "Platoon" -- that is especially appealing to you?

Berenger: I guess so. I don't know why it is. I guess I like their driven sort of organization and pursuit and that stuff. I suppose it's something like that sticks with me.

Paul Bear Bryant
Until Joe Pa surpassed him in 2001, Bryant was the winningest Division I coach in history.
Bryant was a legend. Were you apprehensive about playing him?

Berenger: Absolutely. He's somewhat of a god in Alabama and throughout the south. And it hasn't been all that long since he died. These are pretty big shoes to fill, I'll say that. My wife was born in Alabama, and she called her mom, and her mom said, "Oh my god, he's playing The Bear!" and she just started calling everybody she knew.

2. Knowing what you know about Bryant now, would you have sent a son to play for him?

Berenger: Whooo. Only if he knew exactly what it was going to be like. He would have to know going in, it was a bit like Marine boot camp, the way Marine boot camp used to be.

Do you think Bryant would be a successful coach today?

Berenger: Yes, I do. He changed as football changed. As the rules of the game changed, so did he. He didn't like passing at all in the '40s and '50s, and he didn't like field goals either, but he changed over time, studied other people's strategies and adapted them. He studied the game. He strikes people as mule-headed, I know, but he was real adaptable.

If you could play for a famous coach (in any sport), who would you be most interested in playing for?

Berenger: I once met Whitey Herzog when he was the manager of the Cardinals -- I liked him. He had a great sense of humor.

3. What kind of athlete were you growing up?

Berenger: I was a decent athlete when I was young -- I played football and we were like fifth in state. I've tried to keep it up over the years, working out and things. I box, I ski, I've parachuted and sky-dived.

You have several daughters. Have any of them roped you into coaching over the years?

Tom Berenger as Bear Bryant
For some reason, we can't really picture Tom as his daughters' dance coach.
Berenger: No, never. I have a marine gunnery sergeant friend, he's a sniper, actually, and he's got two girls and he coaches. He tells me about how they have to travel all over the state and the country and it sounds rough. But you know, I think I would enjoy something like that. I think I have it in me. But my girls haven't really been into teams much -- they did dance. I remember them working hard at it. I liked the dedication it involved. I liked the toughness of it.

4. Who were your heroes growing up, in and out of sports?

Berenger: Ted Williams. Sam Huff (laughs). Mike Ditka (laughs). Stan Musial.

Tell me about a favorite early sports memory that has stayed with you over the years.

Berenger: Well, one time I played pick-up basketball on a cement court with Bob Pettit. He was such a nice guy. It was really cool. I don't know if things like that even happen any more.

Bob Pettit
St. Louis Hawks legend Bob Pettit was your average (6-foot-9) Joe.
How did it happen?

Berenger: It just happened. That's what was great about it. He was just there. I was with my friends in St. Louis, and he was there, he lived in these apartments nearby. Those guys didn't make so much money in those days, so he was around.

He was just like a guy down the street, except that he was in good shape, and he was Bob Pettit, and he was 6-9! I just remember us thinking, 'Oh man, this is great!'

5. You're known for your intensity as an actor. Do you, like athletes sometimes do, have a routine you go through to get ready to perform, to get your game face on?

Berenger: Those guys get so quiet, and stay that way for days. I suppose I do some of that, but over time I've been able to move in and out of it. I don't have to lock into it. It's pretty exhausting to be that on all the time. Our days are 12 hours, it's not like a two-hour burst like in sports. It's physical what we do, yes, but you have to pace yourself. It's most like long-distance running.

6. Is there a moment or a film you're most proud of in your career?

Rough Riders
Not for nothing, Teddy Roosevelt is on Mount Rushmore.
Berenger: I quite liked doing Teddy Roosevelt in "Rough Riders," not only because it was fun and challenging, but because I think he was such a great guy. I really would have liked to have met him, and I think he was one of the greatest Americans who ever lived. I mean, not for nothing, he's on Mount Rushmore, but just like Jack Kennedy said, I would have loved to have had dinner with Thomas Jefferson, well, I would have loved to have had dinner with Teddy Roosevelt. He was a renaissance man, and I like that about him.

When you do someone like Roosevelt, or like The Bear, how do you get past the feeling of I've got to get it right? Do you know what I mean?

Berenger: Oh yeah, I know what you mean. They are intimidating and you don't want to fail. And everybody's critiquing it, because they already have a preconceived idea about who and what he is.

The only thing I can say is you just do the homework and you lock it in and, then, you go. That's all I can say. It's OK to be afraid, but if you're afraid of doing it, you're in the wrong business.

7. If I could give you a mulligan for one moment in your career and let you do it again, what would you choose and why?

Berenger: Well, some of the things I'd want to do again are partially because of editing, or political crap at studios, or people get fired and then the studio dumps the film. That's always been a strange thing to me. If you came in as the new head of Ford Motors, you'd have to sell the cars that were built the year before. I don't care if you didn't like them, you couldn't just pull them off the line and dump them. The stockholders would have your head. But in our business, that's not true and to this day I cannot figure it out.

8. You played Jake Taylor in "Major League," and now you're playing Bear Bryant. What do you find most appealing in sports personalities?

Berenger: I think we all like sports, because it's a great escape. But also, sports are inherently dramatic, and you just accept it immediately. Is it easier to act? I don't know, but I know it gets us passionate.

What is your favorite sports movie?

Berenger: I don't think it's a great movie, but it is well-acted and well-written: "Bang The Drum Slowly." It's an un-Hollywood film in a lot of ways. There was something typical and realistic about it.

Major League
"Saw your wife last night. Great little dancer. That guy she was with? I'm sure he's a close personal friend ..."
A lot of people would say "Major League" is one of their favorite sports movies.

Berenger: You know, it is great. I loved it when I read it, and I loved it when I did it. And as the years go by, I occasionally catch it on TV, and I just think it's a great sports movie. I've never met anybody who didn't like it.

Why do you think so many people have found it so appealing for so long?

Berenger: It's a good baseball story. It's baseball details are right. And it's an ensemble cast, so you get to know a lot of the guys on the team. And I think people like the idea that the players get it together when they are a team. You just feel so good that these losers win, you know? It is a comedy, I know, and it is funny, but it's a bit more than that, too, I think.

Is that the role you're the most known for, or is it Barnes?

Berenger: It depends. A lot of women like "Someone to Watch Over Me."

9. If you weren't an actor, what would you be doing right now?

Berenger: I don't know. I really don't know. I've been doing this so long I can't imagine doing anything else. And I think it's too late to bail out now anyway. I once wanted to be a sportswriter, but it just didn't happen for me.

If I could set you down at any one sporting event throughout history with a typewriter in front of you, where would you want to be?

Berenger: The heavyweight fight between Billy Conn and Joe Louis. Both of them were champions. Billy Conn was a light heavyweight. That was a challenge fight.

Conn was out of his position. Great fighters, but so unusual to see a guy fight out of his class, and it was a great fight. It went 13 rounds and Billy Conn was just throwing, even in the 13th round, six-seven-punch combinations, and his corner told him to run, that he'd won the fight. But he ignored 'em, and he got knocked out instead. And there's the drama.

10. Speaking of sports fantasies, I have to ask you, I know it wasn't his signature look yet, but did you get to wear the houndstooth hat in "Junction Boys"?

Berenger: Yeah, the opening scene in the film is of Bryant at 64 in 1979, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, at the airport, and there's the private Alabama jet, with the hat painted on the tail wing, and he's also wearing his hat in the scene, so I got to wear it then. He gets on the plane and starts thinking back on things, and then it dissolves into an airport scene in Texas, and he's getting off the plane coming to A&M, wearing a fedora instead.

Did you keep the hats?

Berenger: No, they asked me to sign some for charity auctions and stuff, and they had the ring, too. There's a Junction City ring. At the end of the film, he's 64 again, and he's at the same place where it opened, for a reunion with Junction players. It's 25 years later, and the players gave him a Junction Boys ring.


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