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One of the most beloved sports movies of the eighties, Hoosiers (1986) is an inspirational story about hope and second chances. Set in 1951, Gene Hackman plays Norman Dale, a middle-aged man with a troubled past who takes a job coaching the Hickory Huskers, a small high school basketball team in rural Indiana. Coach Dale is an outsider to the basketball-obsessed community and looking for a chance to start over. With the help of Myra (Barbara Hershey), a sympathetic school teacher, and Shooter (Dennis Hopper), the town drunk with an uncanny instinct for basketball strategy, Dale sets out to take his underdog team all the way to the Indiana state championship.
Hoosiers was loosely based on the true story of the 1954 Indiana state high school basketball champions, the Milan Indians. Milan was a small high school in Indiana whose basketball team seemingly came out of nowhere to take the state's top honors that year. At the time, there was only one class division for all high school teams in Indiana regardless of school size. Before being discontinued in 1997, this set-up gave each and every high school an equal shot at winning. Milan became the smallest school to ever win the Indiana state championship within a single-class tournament.
The tale of Milan High School's David and Goliath victory in 1954 quickly became the stuff of legend throughout Indiana. It was a story that the community would tell over and over again from one generation to the next. Two people that heard this story often while growing up in Indiana were Hoosiers writer, Angelo Pizzo, and director, David Anspaugh. "It's a story that every year newspapers around the state would bring out right before the tournament," said Pizzo in a 2005 interview, "in part, I think, to inspire their own teams that...this can happen." David Anspaugh first heard the story when he was playing junior high school basketball in Decatur, Indiana. "I remember my parents talking about it, and certainly when I was in high school," he said, "because...every coach in every small town in Indiana at some point would sit their team down and tell them the story of Milan High School and how against the most improbable odds, how they slew all the giants and won the state championship." Basketball, explained Anspaugh, was incredibly important to the area. "It is a religion," he said, "it's how communities and schools define themselves."
Pizzo and Anspaugh first met when they were both students at Indiana University. They became fast friends, sharing a particular interest in films. Both having grown up in Indiana, they were very familiar with the story of Milan and had always thought it would make a great movie. Years later when trying to establish themselves in the film business, the two decided to team up to bring the story to the big screen.
Initially Angelo Pizzo envisioned the coach in Hoosiers to be a young man. However, when David Anspaugh saw the 1982 film The Verdict starring Paul Newman, he was so impressed that he asked Pizzo to seriously consider making Coach Dale older. By making him older, they could bring a great deal more complexity to the character and make the entire story much more compelling. Pizzo agreed and found further inspiration for the character in the 1983 film Tender Mercies starring Robert Duvall as well as real-life Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight.
Anspaugh and Pizzo were both working in television during the early 1980s when they were trying to get Hollywood interested in making Hoosiers. Producer Carter De Haven was one of the first people to take Pizzo's script seriously. "What attracted me most to the script of Hoosiers," said De Haven according to Allan Hunter's 1987 book Gene Hackman, "was that it rang of truth about a certain time, place and event in America. There's a lot of passion, a lot of caring and a tremendous amount of hard work that's gone into it." De Haven committed to the project and brought Pizzo on board as a co-producer. "As a writer," said Pizzo, "having control was important to me. I would never have let the film be made unless I had control. There were at least three cases where I was offered sums of money to sell the screenplay outright. From the start, I wanted to produce the script and I wanted David Anspaugh to direct." Hoosiers would mark the first foray into feature filmmaking for both Pizzo and Anspaugh.
Initially, actor Jack Nicholson expressed interest in playing the part of Coach Dale. He had read the script and loved it, but scheduling conflicts ultimately forced him to pull out of the project.
Eventually Academy Award®-winning actor Gene Hackman came on board to play the part. Having grown up the small town of Danville, Illinois, Hackman was intimately familiar with the Midwestern world depicted in Hoosiers. He understood the people and the attitudes and was able to bring that first-hand personal experience to the part.
The role of Shooter, the alcoholic father of one of the team's basketball players, was more difficult to cast. At first, actor Harry Dean Stanton was approached, but he turned the part down. "We interviewed, read character actors all over the country - New York, Chicago, L.A., and we couldn't find anybody we thought could pull it off," said David Anspaugh in a 2005 interview. "And then one night I was home watching an old TV movie, I think it was called King of the Mountain , and it was Dennis [Hopper] playing this old hippie guy who lived in L.A. and races cars on Mulholland Drive, and there was something about seeing him again, and something about the quality of the character he was playing, and I called Angelo and I said, 'Don't laugh, but what would you think of Dennis Hopper in this part?...' And Angelo said, 'It's an interesting idea, but I don't know that we want to act on it right away.' While I was thinking about it a couple of nights later, I happened to be in a restaurant...and I saw Dennis there. And I had never seen him before. And as he was leaving, I just sort of impulsively stepped out in front of him and introduced myself and told him I had this script that I thought he would be right for and would he please read it or could we send it to him and blah blah blah. I think he probably wondered who the hell this guy was...But he said, 'Sure,' and gave me his agent's name, and about 48 hours later he showed up in our office and we sat and talked for three hours and he had such an understanding of the character...He had been sober, I think, about a couple of years, and he talked about his sobriety and his troubled days as an alcoholic and drug addict, and it was clear he knew this character inside and out. I couldn't have asked for a better situation."
At first, Dennis Hopper wasn't as enthusiastic about playing Shooter. "An alcoholic basketball coach really didn't interest me," said Hopper in 2005, "especially since I'd just stopped drinking. David kept on, and Angelo kept on...finally I said, 'Okay.'" Pizzo and Anspaugh had a gut instinct that he would be perfect. Plus, Hopper had spent his childhood living in Kansas and Missouri. Like Gene Hackman, Hopper had an innate understanding of Midwestern small towns that he could bring to the role.
Actress Barbara Hershey stepped in to play Myra Fleener, the only major female role in Hoosiers. A skilled actress, Hershey held her own as the astute and guarded teacher who captures Coach Dale's interest amidst an otherwise male-dominated cast in a sports-themed film.
From the beginning, both Pizzo and Anspaugh were insistent that Hoosiers be shot on location in Indiana. The state of Indiana, they argued, was just as important a character in the story as any of the people. It was crucial to them that the film be able to accurately capture the feel of the town and its people. The energy, heart and spirit, they felt, were something truly unique to the area and had to be authentic in order for the film to work.
The Hoosiers shoot got underway during the rainy autumn of 1985 in Indiana. The fictional town of Hickory in the film was made up of several different areas throughout the state including parts of New Richmond, Lebanon, Knightstown and Ninevah. "The original intent was to find one town to serve as the primary set," said producer Carter De Haven. "The town, the high school, the gym, everything. But we couldn't find one. If the town looked right, then they'd torn down the gym. If the gym was right, then the town was too modern or too big. So, we made up a composite town of different locations."
Finding the right high school gymnasium for the Hickory Huskers was one of the most difficult tasks in terms of location scouting. It was a significant location in which much of the film's action would take place, so it was important to find the right space. It needed to be small and have a warmth and intimacy to it. "We saw countless gymnasiums-50, 60, 70, 100, maybe more," said Anspaugh. "We walked into this gym in Knightstown, and there was no mistake-we were home. This was it. It's one of my favorite locations of any film I've shot because it reminds me so much of my youth."
Making Hoosiers was a labor of love for the cast and crew. The local residents were extremely supportive of their efforts, many of them offering support in the way of providing period automobiles, props and costumes throughout the shoot. The locals were also utilized as actors in the film - some as extras, and others in supporting roles. Most of the young basketball team members in the film were local high school and college players around Indiana. The young athletes didn't have to be taught how to play basketball, but they did have to be trained in the technique and style of play that was unique to the 1950s era.
Once shooting was complete, the Hoosiers team found that it had a great supporter in Mike Medavoy, the co-founder of Orion Pictures-the studio that would be releasing the film. Medavoy loved Hoosiers, but there was one problem: he didn't like the title. The term "Hoosier", which means any person from Indiana, was something that would be lost on anyone from outside the region, he said. Instead, Medavoy tried to get Anspaugh to change the title, offering up a list of other potential alternates for the film. His favorite, according to Anspaugh, was The Last Shot.
Anspaugh, who was adamant that the title Hoosiers should remain, resisted. His strategy was to say nothing and keep putting the decision off. When the film later ended up scoring extremely well at an early test screening in Irvine, California, he asked Medavoy if they could please be allowed to keep the title and Medavoy agreed.
When it came time to market and release Hoosiers, the executives at Orion had to come up with a strategy. "We knew we had a family-type picture," said Joel Resnick, who was chairman of Orion Distribution at the time. "We knew it would appeal to people who loved basketball. We wanted to hold it until the end of February or early March, when the high school basketball season is at a fever pitch, and then break it nationally in an environment most conducive to its success. We also wanted to test it first to see how it worked in the market. Obviously, the most favorable market for this picture is Indiana, so we decided to open it there." At the same time, Orion also believed it had an Oscar®-caliber picture on its hands, and in order for Hoosiers to be eligible for Academy Award consideration, it had to open in Los Angeles before the end of 1986. In keeping with the plan, the film opened for a limited run in L.A. in the Fall of 1986 followed by a grand premiere in Indiana on November 14.
The strategy worked. Hoosiers opened at the tail end of Oscar® season and was a surprise hit that, like the Hickory Huskers in the film's story, seemed to come out of nowhere. Variety said, "...first-time feature director David Anspaugh paints a richly textured portrait of 1951 rural American life, both visually and through glimpses of the guarded reticence of the people. Dialog rings true, and the characters are neither sentimentalized nor caricatured...Pic belongs to Hackman, but Dennis Hopper gets another opportunity to put in a showy turn as a local misfit." Time magazine said, "Hackman is wonderful as an inarticulate man tense with the struggle to curb a flaring, mysterious anger. Barbara Hershey is just as fine as a teacher trying to put a dispassionate face on a passionate nature. And Dennis Hopper brings some fresh, forceful observation and a jittery melancholy to his characterization of a onetime star athlete who has become the town drunk. There is a quirky authenticity about these figures, and the landscape they inhabit, that one does not expect to find in movies whose chief business is to warm the heart, not to inform it." "There is a passion to high school sports that transcends anything that comes afterward; nothing in pro sports equal the intensity of a really important high school basketball game," said Roger Ebert. "Hoosiers knows that."
Before it had even opened in New York, the film had received two Oscar® nominations: one for Jerry Goldsmith's musical score, the other for Dennis Hopper as Best Supporting Actor. Hopper's nomination-his first ever for acting-was the cherry on top of what had turned out to be something of a comeback year for the veteran star. After battling a well-publicized drug and alcohol problem, 1986 had given Hopper two of the most memorable roles of his career. Just months before Hoosiers was released, Hopper had received acclaim for playing Frank Booth in David Lynch's quirky Blue Velvet. A violent psychotic, Frank Booth was worlds away from Shooter, the sad alcoholic looking for a second chance, in Hoosiers. The depth of Hopper's range surprised everyone, and his work that year helped kick start the second half of his vibrant and long-lasting career.
Audiences all over the world responded to Hoosiers and its success proved that it was more than just a standard formula sports film. It was all about the people with real characters that were flawed, complex and human. The story was inspirational without being saccharine. "I think that people look back at that time with great nostalgia," said Angelo Pizzo in 2005. "It was an era of simpler values, a lot less complex moral dilemmas and people were closer to their families, their community."
Following the release of Hoosiers, tourists began descending on Milan, Indiana, the town that had inspired the film's story, and continue to do so to this day. People come to visit the real Milan High School and see the team's 1954 state championship trophy which is permanently displayed behind glass in the lobby of the school's modern gymnasium. In 2000, members of the local community also formed the Milan '54 Museum dedicated to the preservation of memorabilia connected to the 1954 Milan Indians basketball team. Milan has never stopped celebrating their long-ago victory. "It gave the little schools the chance that they could win," said Roger Dickinson of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame. "It gave hope. It gave dreams to people that we can beat the big guys. It made this state great in its basketball heritage."
Producer: Angelo Pizzo, Carter De Haven
Director: David Anspaugh
Screenplay: Angelo Pizzo
Cinematography: Fred Murphy
Art Direction: David Lubin
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Film Editing: C. Timothy O'Meara
Cast: Gene Hackman (Coach Norman Dale), Barbara Hershey (Myra Fleener), Dennis Hopper (Shooter), Sheb Wooley (Cletus Summers), Fern Persons (Opal Fleener), Brad Boyle (Whit), Steve Hollar (Rade), Brad Long (Buddy).
C-115m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.
by Andrea Passafiume