Made in 1976, this is the ultimate Little League film. Starring the late Walter Matthau, Tatum O'Neal, Vic Morrow, and Ben Piazza, you'll probably encounter it on late night television and say, "Oh, yeah! I remember that one!"

The central themes in this movie include rooting for the underdog, triumph through persistence despite adversity, and the superiority of trash-talkin' misfit kids. Worth seeing for, if nothing else, Matthau's Tommy Lasorda-esque beer belly.

The movie, directed by Michael Ritchie (who himself has had some grand slams -- such as Fletch, and some memorable Man From U.N.C.L.E. episodes -- and some strikes -- Cops and Robbersons, a prime example of why Chevy Chase and Jack Palance should not be anywhere within two hours of celluloid together), spawned two sequels. The first, Bad News Bears in Breaking Training (1977), lacks Matthau and O'Neal, but still has some moments. The final film, Bad News Bears Go To Japan (1978), is merely proof of Hollywood's "drive a fresh concept into the ground" mentality, and should be avoided unless there's a marathon on Comedy Central or something and you're too drunk to get off the couch.

World Baseball Classic

Films traveled more slowly then. Studios released them in the big city theaters, and printed more copies if they got held over. Slowly, they would make their way around from place to place, finally touching base with your home town. Paramount released The Bad News Bears in April of '76, and while I know I caught the film before school ended, I think of it as a part of that summer. Those kids were my age, playing a comedic version of people I knew.

Walter Matthau plays Morris Buttermaker, a washed-out, drunked-up one-time minor leaguer in need of cash (he works days cleaning swimming pools). He accepts a position coaching a Little League team comprised of boys cut from other teams. Some, like Loopus, have few skills and fewer friends. Others have potential: Engelberg, a baby Babe Ruth at his fattest and most foul-mouthed, can hit. Loudmouth, insult-spewing Tanner has guts and heart, but little self control. Brainy, bespectacled Ogilvie knows everything about baseball, but he lacks practical ability. Hank Aaron-admiring Ahmad needs training and confidence.

Initially, they're a disaster. Buttermaker hasn't provided much guidance, and the boys spend more time insulting each other than learning to cooperate. Coach Turner (Vic Morrow) of the first-place Yankees suggests the team disband for the sake of the boys' pride.

Turner is the future of childhood sports. He expects his boys to win at any cost, and has invested his considerable ego in their success. It's 1976, and the sandlot is fast becoming ancient history. The Bears embody its spirit; everyone may not be a winner, but everyone gets a turn at bat.

Gradually, the Bears awaken Buttermaker to his adult responsibilities. In addition to training the team, he signs up two new, tough players. One is a Harley-riding twelve-year-old thug named Kelly Leak. The other is the hard-pitching eleven-year-old daughter of his ex-girlfriend.

Matthau plays Buttermaker brilliantly. He's your big-hearted bachelor uncle. He never amounted to much, never got over the life he was living at twenty-three, but he has a basic goodness which in this case leads him to work with the kids. He's still a drunk with a crappy job at the film's end, but he has started, ever so slightly, to turn his life around. He's also found the potential to be a loving surrogate father.

He forms his most significant bond with Amanda. She's a girl discovering the emerging woman, but she realizes she can reconcile her newfound developments with her tomboy side. Tatum O'Neal plays the character with comic and dramatic brilliance. In her verbal brawls with veteran actor Matthau she proves more than able to hold her own.

We see other developments in the film, including the expected friendships and respect among the players. They also learn how to play, though the film eschews the most maudlin and contrived conventions of Hollywood sports films.

In keeping with its rough tone, the movie condones any amount of inappropriate behavior. The kids swear, and Tanner uses racist slurs. Engelberg is subject to fat jokes, even from the adults. Buttermaker drinks and smokes. Amanda challenges Kelly to an air hockey game: If she wins, he'll play for the Bears. If he wins, she's the prize (relax; it's not quite as bad as it sounds). Leak drives an unlicensed motorcycle without a helmet; in one scene, Amanda sits on back, arms around his waist, and asks if they can go faster. In the finale, fifth and sixth-graders drink beer. The film shocked audiences then and it still does now, but it echoes a time when childhood play wasn't so structured, safety wasn't so stressed, and kids had some freedom to explore their world. At twelve, I thought the Bears were a very cool, very familiar group of screwballs. What impresses me now is how well this smash hit from the past has held up.

Director: Michael Ritche
Writer: Bill Lancaster

Walter Matthau as Morris Buttermaker
Tatum O'Neal as Amanda Whurlitzer
Jackie Earle Haley as Kelly Leak
Chris Barnes as Tanner Boyle
Alfred Lutter III as Ogilvie
Vic Morrow as Roy Turner
Erin Blunt as Ahmad Abdul Rahim
Gary Lee Cavagnaro as Engelberg
Jaime Escobedo as Jose Agilar
Scott Firestone as Regi Tower
George Gonzales as Miguel Agilar
David Pollock as Rudi Stein
Quinn Smith as Timmy Lupus
Ben Piazza as Councilman Whitewood

The Sequels

Matthau and O'Neal sat out of the inevitable sequel, and The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training (1977) therefore starts with two strikes against it. The rest of the cast returns, minus the original Engelberg. Actor Gary Lee Cavagnaro apparently lost weight and didn't want to gain it again. While a trim Engelberg might have been an interesting development, the filmmakers substitute heavyset Jeffrey Louis Star, who mimics Cavagnaro's performance effectively. Jimmy Baio rounds out the group as the new pitcher, Carmen Ronzonni.

The plot has the team stealing a van and taking it to Houston to play in a special little league game in the Astrodome. For much of its running time, Breaking Training is a road movie aimed at twelve-year-old boys. This is the sort of film that thinks it's funny to show Engelberg taking a dump while eating a bucket of fried chicken. It lacks the quality of the original, but it retains its early-adolescent heart. The Bears have become a team, and their friendship carries them through their adventures.

The film also features familial bonding, this time between tough Kelly Leak and his long-absent father (William Devane), who joins the boys along the way and agrees to become their new coach. The actors aren't Matthau and O'Neal, but they do a convincing job.

If Breaking Training doesn't quite hit the home run of the original, The Bad News Bears Go to Japan (1978), never makes it to the plate. This disastrous film reunites much of the team—- who by this point look too old for little league—- under a third coach, con artist Marvin Lazar (Tony Curtis). I cannot say for certain they had a script for this film. It's a hodge-podge of impoverished, disconnected comedy scenes lacking heart and purpose.

Bad News TV

A television series stepped up to the plate in '79 but struck out with viewers. Jack Warden played Buttermaker, and Tricia Cast pitched in as Amanda. Future former star Corey Feldman appeared as new kid Regi Tower; Gregg Forest, was Kelly Leak.1 A gallery of largely-forgotten actors recreated roles from the films.

The Bears also crossed over, in a fashion, onto Saturday Night Live. Walter Matthau hosted an episode of the show in 1978, and played a striped version of Coach Buttermaker to the Bad News Bees in a sketch about apian masturbation.

Bad News Bears

Hollywood in the twenty-first century has developed a sad addiction to remakes. In 2005, Bad News Bears dusted off the script, updated a few references, tossed in a wheelchair kid, gave it to a director who should have known better, and tailored the material to Billy Bob Thornton.

Thornton's a good character actor, but he's not particularly funny, and this becomes a liability in a comedy. They attempt to give him the sort of loser attributes a twelve-year-old might consider cool, but these just play as sad and sleazy. This redneck version of Buttermaker is not quite as politically incorrect as the original, but I trust Matthau's more.

Instead of cleaning pools he exterminates pests with a demeanor that, in real life, would quickly find him out of work. A bush league womanizer, Buttermaker gets Bo-Peep's Gentlemen's Club to sponsor the team, so that viewers can be treated to a clique of off-duty strippers who cheer during the games. The gag gets old very quickly. Some people might also find the sight of underage Amanda in a "Bo-Peep's Gentlemen's Club" jersey more disturbing than any number of scandalous but essentially age-appropriate comments made by the '76 original.

Sami Kane Kraft, a thirteen-year old athlete, steps into the role of Amanda. She's convincing on the pitcher's mound but she lacks O'Neal's talent and charm, and Thornton overshadows her. Jeffrey Davies does a skate kid turn on Kelly Leak. Sixteen when he played the part, he clearly doesn't belong in little league with these boys.

The addition of some new characters and the emphasis on the coach shortchange some of the original film's small but crucial moments. The Loopus/Tanner friendship is largely absent. And while Buttermaker hits obscenity after obscenity to the boys, other aspects have been softened to meet contemporary sensibilities.

The rival coach, now called Bullock, has no real character, and the scene where we once saw a dark side of contemporary little league has been changed so that the entire point is lost.

Some good moments remain, mostly lifted (as has most of the Georges Bizet soundtrack) from the original film. The problem is less that this is a bad film, than that it has no reason to exist at all.

Director: Richard Linklater (an often great director when working with his own material)
Writers: Bill Lancaster, Glen Ficarra, John Requa

Billy Bob Thornton as Morris Buttermaker
Sami Kane Kraft as Amanda Whurlitzer
Greg Kinnear as Roy Bullock
Marcia Gay Harden as Liz Whitewood
Jeffrey Davies as Kelly Leak
Ridge Canipe as Toby Whitewood
Brandon Craggs as Mike Engelberg
Timmy Deters as Tanner Boyle
Carlos Estrada as Miguel Agilar
Emmanuel Estrada as Jose Agilar
Jeffrey Tedmori as Garo Daragabrigadien
Troy Gentile as Matthew Hooper
Kenneth "K.C." Harris as Ahmad Abdul Rahim
Aman Johal as Prem Lahiri
Tyler Patrick Jones as Timmy Lupus

1. Both big and small screen Leaks appear in the 1979 surprise hit, Breaking Away.

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