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Sunday, June 16, 2024

This Friday marks the culmination of quite a journey for a little screenplay that could when "Leatherheads" hits the big screen.

The movie joins such Clooney Studios productions as "Syriana," "Good Night, and Good Luck," "Ocean's Thirteen" and recent box-office hit "Michael Clayton."

The movie, set in the backdrop of the NFL's inception and incorporating a comedic, competitive courtship, has all the elements for a film that could turn out to be a classic football comedy.

The cast is stellar. George Clooney (who produced the picture) stars as Jimmy "Dodge" Connolly - a classic depiction of the tough-nosed, blue-collared kind of guy that paved the way for the sport we know and love today. John Krasinski (Jim from "The Office") plays the role of Carter Rutherford, who is the typical, ultra-hyped athlete with good looks and impressive background (the Tom Brady of the 1920's).

Both of these men battle for the female love interest in a clash of testosterone. That coveted woman is Lexi Littleton, played by Renee Zellweger. Lexi is a feisty reporter who is actively trying to uncover Rutherford's flaws.

With a cast that includes two Oscar winners and an emerging young actor in Krasinski, the acting should be fantastic.

But what of the writing?

I'm pleased to introduce you to Rick Reilly - the highly esteemed and comically gifted co-writer of "Leatherheads."

Reilly is most famous as a sportswriter and humanitarian. He has written for years, earning national Sports Illustrated Sportswriter of the Year honors 11 different times. He has since moved on and will soon be a fixture at everyone's favorite sports network - ESPN. As for his humanitarian efforts, Reilly has focused immense amounts of time, energy and money into "Nothing But Nets," a malaria prevention campaign that raises money for nets to protect families from mosquitoes in Africa.

In the midst of all the madness, I had the privilege of stealing a moment of Reilly's time to ask him a few questions about the movie he had been hoping would get made for over 16 years now.

Avenue: First off, in reading the history of this screenplay, I noticed it has been in the works for over a decade. How excited are you about the fact that it is finally getting done, and how happy are you with the final product?

Rick Reilly: Look, Clooney could've reset the whole thing onto a German U boat and I would've been thrilled. It got made! This thing has been kicking around Hollywood for 16 years now. It's sort of been the Paris Hilton of screenplays. Everybody liked it from afar and then when they got up close, they decided to bail. Mel Gibson was going to do it then didn't. Ray Liotta was, then didn't. Michael Keaton, then didn't. Clooney once before, then didn't. So when his agent told us, "George took the script to Lake Cuomo this summer and rewrote it and he wants to direct and star in it. What do you think?" it took us about one millisecond to go, "Uh, sure."

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I have no idea what the final product is going to be like. There's been like six different writers with their hands on this thing over the years. It's like having a baby and then having somebody whisk the baby away, and you haven't seen the baby for 16 years, and you have no idea how the baby has been raised or what it's been fed or what it's been through, and then suddenly the baby shows up running into your arms carrying a large check. You're just so happy the baby is alive, you're not real concerned with what clothes she's wearing.

Avenue: I am working on a screenplay myself, and when I write in certain characters I envision certain people in Hollywood playing the role. How do you feel about the collection of cast members, and how does it compare to your vision?

RR: Well, we really couldn't have dreamed of a better lead than Clooney. In those days before the NFL, guys often played well into their 40s and sometimes up to 50, and Clooney is in great shape in this movie, even though he got dinged up pretty good. But he's perfect for the part we envisioned: charming, tough, quick-witted, a bit of a wild-ass, not entirely well-meaning, bit of a drinker and prankster. For the part of Lexie, I envisioned somebody a lot like Renee Zellweger. I think she has a perfect 1920s face, as she proved so well in "Chicago." In person, she's a real Texas spitfire, which we wanted. And for the part of Carter Rutherford, I don't think we imagined somebody so tall as John Krasinski. But from being on the set, he was really perfect otherwise. Very all-American. He's athletic, too. He played hoops in high school and says he probably could've played some small college or Division 3, but he went to Costa Rica or somewhere and did relief work. Very funny guy, too, very quick. A perfect foil for Clooney's pranks and barbs.

Avenue: Do you have any advice about persevering for writers out there who are battling in this highly competitive industry?

RR: Dude, it took me 16 years to get ONE made. Do I sound like I know what I'm doing?

Avenue: Where do you think "Leatherheads" will rank amongst the great sports comedies? Rank these: "Caddyshack," "Bull Durham," "Slap Shot," "The Longest Yard," "Leatherheads."

RR: It would help if I see it first.

Avenue: Be honest with me now- you know all the sports guys out there are worried about how much of a love story this is as opposed to the football aspect. So tell me, does the movie border on pure love story, or would you say the average sports jock would be satisfied with the football content?

RR: One thing I've learned is you can't just make a pure sports movie. It'll never work. They want date movies. So that's how we wrote it: enough football to make the guys happy, enough romance to make the girls happy. I think that's what we ended up with, from what I hear. Plus the girls also get Clooney, so it's definitely a date movie. I can tell you, from being on the set for a bunch of the football, they took excruciating pains to make the football look authentic to 1924. Guys got creamed. They'd run the play over and over again until they got it right. Clooney had one play that would've been so sweet. He was playing DB (defensive back) and he turned at the perfect time and the ball went right through his hands. It just killed him. Then again, Asante Samuels had the same chance to win the Super Bowl and blew it, too, right?

Avenue: How much in line with the true story of the formulation of the NFL does the movie fall?

RR: Sort of. Pro football was a sport for rogues and ne'er-do-wells. In those days you played college and then got a good job somewhere. Pro football was like roller derby. But when Ernie Nevers and Red Grange came over, everything changed, and not always for the better. More money, many more rules, a whole new discipline was thrust upon them. And that's what Dodge is fighting: In order to save his sport, he has to ruin it for himself. That's the movie in a nutshell.

Avenue: George Clooney's acts of benevolence have been well-documented with his activism on the social issues in Darfur. I noticed the work you are doing in Africa with the "Nothing But Nets" charity that raises funds to fight malaria via use of mosquito nets. Are there any plans for you and Clooney to team up away from the big screen for charity work?

RR: From your lips to George's ears - we could really use him. On the other hand, he's really helped bring Darfur into the American mindset, so he's got enough to do.

Avenue: I noticed you have had experiences that most sports fanatics like myself would give anything for. Which of your experiences was the most impressive or most memorable?

RR: I have to say, arriving at a football stadium that you and your buddy invented, filled with characters that you dreamed up out of whole Miller Lites, hearing George Clooney and Renee Zellwegger recite lines you wrote, that's pretty metal.

Avenue: Have anything planned if "Leatherheads" premieres at #1 in the box office this weekend?

RR: Kiss Halle Berry full on the mouth.

I guess it will be up to us to decide where "Leatherheads" will rank among the greatest sports comedies of all time.

Personally, after corresponding with Mr. Reilly and looking at his past work, I expect a strong product.

Who knows? Maybe we will see Reilly on E! as the number one story: "Crazed Screenwriter Plants One On Halle Berry!"

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