In this first installment, free to all readers, we'll look at how Billy Bob began his career, as well as his current and planned activities, including the upcoming Paramount movie, The Bad News Bears, which opens July 22.
The subsequent two parts of the interview, available to subscribers, will focus on Billy Bob's thoughts about Cardinals history, encounters with various players, appearance at the All-Star Game, view of Three Nights in August and much, much more.
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For many of us, Billy Bob Thornton first came into our consciousness through his portrayal of a character of his own creation, the mentally-challenged Karl Childers in his 1996 breakthrough film, Sling Blade. However, long before that, the multi-talented Thornton had been a musician and screenwriter. He has an Oscar, multiple Golden Globe nominations and all the recognition a leader in his field would deserve.
But, what sets Thornton apart in these parts is another aspect of his background, something of which he seems to be just as proud as his many other accomplishments. Back in high school in Arkansas, Billy Bob was quite the pitcher. But, he wasn't just any hurler. Thornton aspired to be a St. Louis Cardinal more than anything else in life.
That didn't come to pass for reasons that will become clear in this interview. What remains, long after his competitive playing days have ended, is Thornton's life-long devotion to the Redbirds.
These days, Thornton's celebrity has given him the opportunity to meet many of his heroes, our heroes. He is also staying close to sports through his work, playing characters such as Coach Gary Gaines in the movie treatment of Buzz Bissinger's Friday Night Lights and his new role as Morris Buttermaker in the remake of The Bad News Bears.
In Bad News, Thornton plays a cursing, drinking former minor leaguer forced to coach a terrible Little League team and ends up leading them to the promised land. The Bears defeat their arch-rivals, the Yankees, along the way and of course, learn a lot about themselves in the process. School of Rock's Richard Linklater is directing.
With that background, let's get to the interview.
In your youth, you were an accomplished pitcher. Tell me about your high school career.
I pitched all the way up through 18 years up to 19 years of age. I was kind of a local baseball hero. I was pretty good, but was kind of a junk pitcher. I actually went to a Kansas City Royals tryout camp. I'd only been there a half-hour when I got my collarbone broken. So, that was kind of the end of it (his baseball career).
What was next?
By the time I recuperated, I was playing with another rock-and-roll band and kind of went in that direction. I don't know if I was good enough to play in the majors or not. I was pretty good. But, it is tough to get there. It is a whole different level.
As a young man, how did you decide what path to take – acting, music or baseball?
I had really intended to pitch for the Cardinals. That is all I ever wanted to do. That was my childhood dream. And, also to be a rock-and-roll singer. Of course, those two don't go hand-in-hand all that well. They're both on tour all the time.
Acting really came later. I was in drama in high school. Tom Epperson ended up being my writing partner for several years - we wrote some movies together. He was coming to California to be a screenwriter. He said, "You wrote some in high school. Why don't you give it a shot?"
I wasn't doing all that well at that time back in Arkansas. I was just working for the highway department, shoveling asphalt and playing music on the weekends. So, I said, "Yeah, I'll go."
I went out there in my early 20's and got into a theater group. I spent several years of misery. And, then, things started to happen for me in about the mid-‘80s to where I could at least kind of make a living out of it, at least a bit.
I got out there about 1980, I guess, and in 1986 it was, when Tom and I optioned a screenplay to David Geffen. At least we had enough money to kind of live on for a little bit.
Are you continuing your music career? Are you planning a follow-on to "Private Radio" and "Edge of the World"?
We just finished our new record a few months ago. Now, it is mastered and ready to go. We're putting it out in September. It is called "Hobo". We'll probably tour with it sometime in the fall or winter to go out and promote the record.
What is it like?
I think it is my best record. It is very cohesive. I think the songwriting is getting better all the time. I think I have sort of settled into it. I have sort of found my legs, in terms of what direction I want to go in. The other records have a combination of dark, country songs and rock-and-roll songs. This one is sort of a moody, Americana record.
Do you see any parallels between acting, writing and directing with playing and coaching in sports?
Yes, I think so. Especially in terms of decision-making. They both involve a lot of making decisions. But, playing music would actually be closer to playing ball or coaching because you are actually out there with the people and you are doing it. Obviously, in terms of the press, they all have a common thread.
So, yes, I would definitely feel that way. These days, sports are really considered entertainment in a lot of ways. People will watch a ball game the same way they watch a movie. It is all entertaining the public.
You often do more serious movies with complex characters. What was it about The Bad News Bears that appealed to you?
The movie has a great message for kids. Having grown up in athletics, I think it is a pretty good message. "Let kids be kids. Teach them the love of the game and not necessarily do you have to be the best or the biggest and fastest. Get out there with your peers, even though you consider yourself a misfit. Maybe you are better than you thought you were. Or, at least fit in better than you thought you could." So, it's got a good message. I also think it is just a funny, entertaining movie.
Will those who remember the original Bad News Bears recognize this one?
I think you'll find we stayed pretty true to the tone of the original. We obviously updated it, because kids these days will want to go see it more with the updated music and different things like that – different set pieces here and there.
In Friday Night Lights, you played a coach and you also were a seedy comedy character in Bad Santa. Is it fair to characterize Morris Buttermaker as a cross between Gary Gaines and Bad Santa?
(laughs) Yes, I guess that is a good way to put it. Obviously, Gary Gaines was a lot more serious and it was a drama and everything like that. Buttermaker actually does know baseball, so there is that. And, like Bad Santa, Buttermaker tends to use some colorful language every now and then.
Do you have any more sports-related projects in the works?
Not right now. I did do a movie called Mr. Woodcock right after Bad News Bears. It is a dark comedy by New Line (Pictures) with Susan Sarandon. I play a P.E. teacher, not exactly a coach. It will be released next year some time and it is really funny. Like I said, very dark, but very funny. I play that P.E. teacher from hell, you know, the one that we all had. So, I think that is going to be a good one.
I don't have any sports movies planned in the future. But, I have a friend who has a project on Pee Wee Reese that I would really like to see someone do some day. It is a terrific story because it involves Jackie Robinson and all that.
Pee Wee took a lot of heat back in those days for the stance he took…
I think that might be a great movie to make because it covers a bunch of topics. I hope my friend gets that made. It's actually Pee Wee's son, Mark, who has the story. I think it is a great, worthy project. I really hope he gets that done someday.
This interview will be continued Monday and Tuesday for www.thestlcardinals.com subscribers.
In the second installment, Billy Bob discusses how he became a Cardinals fan, which Cardinals from the past he'd like to meet and why, and explains how he would make Three Nights in August into a movie.
In part three, Thornton shares his view of the 2004 World Series, his 2005 outlook, his experiences at the All-Star Game including a hilarious meeting with Ozzie Smith, his workout with Jeff Suppan during Bad News Bears filming and names his Cardinals idols.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.