Dennis Quaid Interview

07 January 2009

'The Rookie' star Dennis Quaid and inspiration Jim Morris talk about the true story of a Texas schoolteacher turned Major League pitcher

'The Rookie' star Dennis Quaid and inspiration Jim Morris talk about the true story of a Texas schoolteacher turned Major League pitcher

(Some questions in this interview have come from another journalist present for the Q&A.)

At a San Francisco screening of "The Rookie" a couple weeks ago Dennis Quaid helped introduce the film, in which he stars as an aging Texas schoolteacher who becomes a Major League Baseball player, by saying if it wasn't a true story, he wouldn't have even finished reading the script.

"As a piece of fiction, it's totally unbelievable," he laughed.

Beside him was the man the movie is about, recently retired Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Los Angeles Dodgers relief pitcher Jim Morris, who discovered in his late 30s while coaching at a West Texas high school where he was also a science teacher that he was throwing harder than he had years before as a 25-year-old AAA player.

After noting that the kids weren't playing with any heart, he made a pact to try out for the majors if they made it to the state playoffs. They did, and Morris subsequently stunned scouts for the Devil Rays at a tryout camp, bringing the heat at 98 mph. His performance earned him a spot on their farm team that soon led to his major league debut -- where he struck out the Rangers' Royce Clayton in front of a cheering crowd of 40,000 (including half the population of his small town) at the ballpark in Arlington, Texas.

Morris noted that Quaid's lack of physical resemblance to him (and the fact that he's 10 years older) was one of the few things fictionalized in the movie, which might strike many viewers as a sports fairy tale without that "based on a true story" title card.

"When you lay your life out there, you want it to be as true as possible," Morris said.

The next day at the city's Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Quaid and Morris are proudly sporting caps from the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics ("We've been getting hats from the cities we go to," says Quaid. "We're baseball fans, you know.") when we meet to talk about the movie. Both quiet men -- Quaid seems serious, while Morris is friendly but cautious -- they're not much for long answers, but clearly both are excited and passionate about the fruits of one's labor and the other's life.

Q: I heard you threw out the first pitch at a Devil Rays training game last week.

Dennis Quaid: About three days ago, yeah.

Q [to Morris]: How did it feel to be on the mound again?

Jim Morris: Oh, I love it! I haven't picked up a ball since the movie.

DQ: Yeah, me too! I should have been iced that day!

Q: I was looking at the AP story from your Devil Ray's debut back in '99, and it reads almost exactly like what happens in the movie, except that it took you four pitches to strike out Royce Clayton (of the Texas Rangers). Why was it changed for the movie?

JM: It's extremely difficult to emulate a foul ball going over the first base stands! I don't know. They wanted to do it that way.

DQ: The important thing is, Jim struck him out!

Q [to Quaid]: You said last night that as a piece of fiction this story was totally unbelievable. Feel-good films are hard to do right. They tend to be trite, two-hour clichés...

DQ: ...sappy...

Q: ...and sappy. Disney is especially guilty of this. So how did you know this was going to be different? When did you know this was going to be different?

DQ: Well, I trusted John Lee Hancock, the director. He and I talked a lot about his vision and how he wanted to do this. It is an emotional story, and we kept checking in with each other while we were doing the film as well. I guess you could have made it sappy. There's sentiment in it, but it's earned. You really follow this guy on his journey; you become emotionally invested in it. It doesn't try to manipulate you.

Q: You're absolutely right. I appreciated that. And I did get choked up.

DQ: I did too! I've done so many movies that when I see them I don't really watch them. I was there, I've already read the script...

Q: ...and you're watching your performance...

DQ: Yeah. But when I went and watched about the last third of it again with a real audience -- I've seen it about three times -- and I felt myself starting to get choked up!

Q: That's got to make you feel good about the finished product.

DQ: It made me really glad I did it.

Q: How fast were you throwing when you finished the film?

DQ: Me? I didn't put myself on a radar gun! [Laughs] If I could throw hard I'd be out there trying out myself!

Q: And besides, you get to watch it later with the sound effects and the editing, and you can feel like you were throwing fast!

DQ: That's right! I just wanted it to look like I could do it. I just wanted to get to that point where it looked like I knew what I was doing. I've seen too many sports movies where the actors look like they don't have a clue.

Q: I was really noticing your stance in the movie. It's sort of closed up, the knees are together. Did you copy Jim's stance in real life?

DQ: Yeah, I tried to get close to it. You know, I hadn't been on a baseball field since I was in Little League, so I had a long way to go.

Q: Do you pitch left handed naturally or did you have to retrain yourself?

DQ: [Laughs] Oh, there's no way I could possibly do that!

Q: I appreciated that your didn't seem to be performing that look of concentration when you threw. It didn't look rehearsed or practiced in any way. It was a genuinely contorted, determined focus.

DQ: [Leans forward grinning with self-mocking concentration] Lookin' into the mitt!

Q: You know, you were so good at it, I was convinced you'd played a ballplayer in another movie, but you haven't.

DQ: I played a quarterback!

Q: A thinly veiled John Elway (in "Any Given Sunday").

DQ: Is that right? I heard Dan Marino.

Q: Well, I'm from Denver and it seemed awfully familiar.

DQ: [Laughs]

Q: You know, you've also now played three people who were still alive at the time.

DQ: Have I?

Q: Yep. Gordy Cooper (the astronaut in "The Right Stuff")...

DQ: Ahh, [counting off on his fingers] Gordy Cooper, Jim Morris, (1950s rocker) Jerry Lee Lewis.

Q: I'm sure it's weird the first time you do that, but does it get any easier?

DQ: Well, you know, certainly doing one you learn from that how to do the next one. This was a lot easier than doing Jerry Lee Lewis, that's for sure! [Laughs] Playing a nice guy. You know, a lot of actors don't even like to meet the real people they're playing. I consider it a resource. I know how I'd feel if someone was doing my life's story -- I'd want them to get it right. Jim and I don't really look alike, but I was trying to capture him in spirit.

Q: Jim, is there anything the movie left out you'd like to see put back in or anything that was changed too much. Or do you like it the way it is?

JM: Oh, I love it the way it is. You know, one of the things that (writer) Mike Rich (fictionalized) in the script was the radar on the side of the road. (Quaid tests his fastball by throwing past a "Your speed is..." monitor.) Dennis did a great job in that scene, but it was just to let people know I had no idea how hard I threw. Back in my 20s I threw in the mid-80s. Then to take 10 and a half years off, not even thinking about playing, and come back throwing 98, I mean, I had to go back and apologize to my kids (his high school ballplayers) after the tryout camp. They were right!


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