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Fear Strikes Out
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 Fear Strikes Out

Fear Strikes Out

There are enough films about baseball and famous ballplayers in the American cinema to constitute its own subgenre but Fear Strikes Out (1957) is a special case that stands alone. Based on the autobiography by James A. Piersall, the former outfielder and shortstop for the Boston Red Sox, and Albert S. Hirshberg, the film is less about Jimmy Piersall's brilliant though erratic career and more about his struggle against bipolar disorder (also known as manic-depressive illness).

In Fear Strikes Out, directed by Robert Mulligan, John Piersall (Karl Malden) is the dominating presence in Jimmy's (Anthony Perkins) life, encouraging his early interest in baseball and then taking an obsessive interest in his son's athletic progress. The film depicts John Piersall as a frustrated blue collar worker with a mentally unstable wife who pins all his hopes on his son as a substitute for his own failed aspirations. No different from a stage mother who relentlessly pushes her child into the spotlight, John Piersall drives Jimmy so hard that his son has a nervous breakdown during a live game and has to be institutionalized. From this point on, Fear Strikes Out follows Jimmy's slow realization of the causes that led to his breakdown - his father - and his recovery. In many ways, the film is a true reflection of its era where moviegoers' emerging interest in psychology and mental aberrations were being channeled by Hollywood directly to the screen in such movies as Autumn Leaves (1956), The Bad Seed (1956), The Three Faces of Eve (1957), Lizzie (1957) and Suddenly, Last Summer (1959).

The real Jimmy Piersall became a professional baseball player at age eighteen, graduating from the sandlots of Waterbury, Connecticut to his dream team, the Boston Red Sox. One of the youngest players in baseball, Jimmy began to hit his stride in 1952 but his unpredictable personality (a shy, nervous nature combined with a quick temper and raging ego - he liked to refer to himself as "The Waterbury Wizard") constantly aggravated his teammates and management and it finally resulted in a complete mental collapse. He entered the Westborough State Hospital in July 1952 but was sufficiently recovered to return to the Red Sox for the 1953 opening season. After that Piersall was a regular fixture in the starting lineup through 1958, earning numerous accolades and honors including the Red Sox's most valuable player citation for 1957, a Golden Glove Award in 1958 and a lifetime batting average of .272; Casey Stengel, manager of the New York Yankees, called him the most natural defensive outfielder he had ever seen and many considered him equal to Joe DiMaggio in his outfielder skills. Later, Piersall would become a popular radio personality (1977-1981), broadcasting coverage of all Chicago White Sox games with fellow announcer Harry Carey. Although Piersall was eventually fired from his announcer job due to excessive on-air criticism of the team's management, he still hosts a sports radio show in Chicago (on WSCR) and as recently as 2005, he participated in a White House event honoring the 2004 World Champions Boston Red Sox. However, when most baseball fans think of Piersall, they remember his crazy antics during games - running backwards around the bases for his 100th home run, wearing a Beatles wig for a game, leading cheers for himself in the outfield. As Piersall himself observed in his own biography, "Probably the best thing that ever happened to me was going nuts. Whoever heard of Jimmy Piersall, until that happened?"

Producer Alan J. Pakula was not a huge baseball fan but when he read Piersall's biography he became convinced it would make a compelling film. It had already been adapted in 1955 for television in an episode for the dramatic anthology Climax with Tab Hunter as Piersall and Mona Freeman as his wife. "....What fascinated me was that it dealt with a ballplayer," Pakula recalled (in Jared Brown's biography Alan J. Pakula: His Films and His Life), "...the all-American figure, and at that time, the fifties, there was much of middle America who thought about mental breakdown and emotional illness in terms of neurasthenic, bohemian, artistic, sensitive types rather than recognizing that it is something that can happen to anyone...Plus, it dealt with a theme that has great interest to me, and that is, somebody trying to live through somebody else; in this case it was the father trying to live through the son, and it was a theme that fascinated me."

Pakula entrusted the direction of Fear Strikes Out to Robert Mulligan, a television director with several successful TV dramas to his credit. It would mark the beginning of a long and successful collaboration between the two men that included To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and culminated with The Stalking Moon (1968). For the lead, Pakula had been impressed with Anthony Perkins' work on television as well and chose him to play Jimmy Piersall (it was his first starring role after supporting parts in The Actress (1953) and Friendly Persuasion, 1956).

Perkins was relieved to know that Mulligan was directing Fear Strikes Out since he had worked well with him previously on a television drama but he still faced numerous challenges for his first major role. Many felt he was completely miscast for the part, even Pakula had second thoughts after casting him. Screenwriter Ted Berkman, who co-wrote the screenplay with Raphael Blau, recalled meeting Perkins for the first time (in Anthony Perkins: Split Image by Charles Winecoff); "Into the room slouched this tall, skinny guy with long hair falling over his eyes, wearing glasses, stooped shoulders and shy...My first thought was, 'This guy's going to play a sharp, aggressive ballplayer, Al must be out of his mind. There goes the movie.'"

After shooting began, problems began to develop. "Tony wasn't an athlete," Karl Malden remembers. "He couldn't throw a ball. They had to hire a real pro, Tommy Holmes, to go out there and teach him how to throw, and he still couldn't do it. There's a scene where we're pitching the ball back and forth in the backyard. We were told to throw it pretty hard, to be mean with each other, really vicious. And Tony gave up. He did it a couple of times and said, 'I can't. That's enough.'" It didn't help that Perkins actually hated baseball but worse was the fact that he was left-handed playing a famous right-handed ballplayer. To compensate for this problem, the producer actually considered flipping the film and printing it backward so the images of Perkins would be reversed. This presented a whole new set of problems so the idea was dropped and Perkins was forced to learn how to throw with his right arm.

Adding to the tension on the set was Perkins' friendship with Tab Hunter. The blonde actor's sexual preference was well known within Hollywood circles and he had recently been the subject of a gay smear campaign by Confidential magazine. As a result, Perkins was often subjected to snide remarks and taunts from hostile crew members during production about his relationship with Hunter. The situation was further aggravated by Hunter's visit to the set one day. Hunter, who was crushed when he wasn't considered for the lead in Fear Strikes Out despite the fact that he had previously played Piersall on television, swallowed his pride and rallied to support Perkins. "Any animosity I felt should have been directed toward Warner Bros. for not snapping up the property when it had the chance," he stated in his autobiography, Tab Hunter Confidential (co-written with Eddie Muller). "That wasn't Tony's fault. I may not have completely trusted him, but I didn't want lingering hard feelings to ruin our friendship. To show my support and appease my own curiosity, I visited Tony on the Paramount lot. That was a mistake. There was already a lot of tension on the set, and my being there only made it worse. I couldn't tell whether Tony's anxiety was due to my looking over his shoulder or to his being so deeply "in character". There was, however, no way to misread the chilly reception I got from others."

As for the real Jimmy Piersall, he was barred from the set during filming (for fear of influencing the cast members) but he still called in every day to see how the film was progressing. Possibly angry that he wasn't cast to play himself on the screen, he later disowned Fear Strikes Out upon its release saying it distorted the facts. Of course, most Hollywood biopics play fast and loose when it comes to the truth and there were plenty of factual errors in Fear Strikes Out such as the presence of Joe Cronin (played by Bart Burns) as the Red Sox's field manager (Mike "Pinky" Higgins was actually field manager when Piersall played; Cronin was the general manager). Yet, despite Piersall's negative reaction, Fear Strikes Out scored high among the nation's leading film critics. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times wrote that the film "so improves upon an original autobiography of Mr. Piersall and a television drama based thereon that it is the initiation of a first-rate psychological film." The review in Time magazine stated "Fear Strikes Out rolls Frank Merriwell and Sigmund Freud into a ball and then lines it up for a solid hit...it does not attempt to acquaint the mind with theories and statistics but to educate the heart with compassion and understanding."

Despite the critical acclaim, Fear Strikes Out was ignored during the 1957 Oscar® race. At the very least, it should have garnered a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Karl Malden's performance as Piersall's driven father but the film did score a Directors Guild nomination for first time director Robert Mulligan. Though somewhat dated in its depiction of psychiatric techniques and methods, Fear Strikes Out still works on a purely dramatic level and anyone who has seen the film won't easily forgot Perkins's major breakdown scene; frantically climbing the wire mesh fence behind home plate, he screams at his father, "Was I good enough? Answer me, Pop, did I show 'em? Was I good enough for you?" The father-son conflict is the core of the film and it's undeniably powerful. Perkins later said, "I have a feeling that Paramount was trying to re-create the kind of conflict that existed between Jimmy Dean and Raymond Massey in East of Eden [1955]...I think they were just trying to give it that kind of flare and feeling." The comparison is apt but Fear Strikes Out still stands alone as a one-of-a-kind baseball picture.

Producer: Alan J. Pakula
Director: Robert Mulligan
Screenplay: Ted Berkman, Raphael Blau, Al Hirshberg, Jimmy Piersall (book)
Cinematography: Haskell B. Boggs
Film Editing: Aaron Stell
Music: Elmer Bernstein
Cast: Anthony Perkins (Jimmy Piersall), Karl Malden (John Piersall), Norma Moore (Mary Piersall), Adam Williams (Doctor Brown), Perry Wilson (Mrs. Piersall), Peter J. Votrian (young Jimmy).
BW-100m.

by Jeff Stafford

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