Hidden Gem: ‘Hoosiers’ (1986)


Photo Courtesy of IMDb

Gene Hackman, Dennis Hopper, Steve Hollar, Wade Schenck, Scott Summers, Maris Valainis, and Brad Long star in “Hoosiers”. The film was released on Feb. 27, 1987.

By Syd Slobodnik, staff writer

It always amazes me when I hear of an actor complain about one of his or her most beloved roles in such negative ways.  This is true of Gene Hackman and his role as Coach Norman Dale in director David Anspaugh’s 1986 based on fact basketball thriller “Hoosiers.”

In two recent interviews I watched on YouTube, Anspaugh revealed to host Rich Eisen that working with Hackman was “most unpleasant.” Hackman was always mildly disagreeable yet gave a “perfect performance.” He remembers Hackman telling his co-star Dennis Hopper, “We’ll never work again after this film.”

In a separate American Film Institute interview with Hopper several years back, Hopper remembers Hackman telling him on set: “This movie, … what are we doing in this movie? How crazy is this? No basketball movie ever made money. We should have our heads examined.”

Because the film was mostly focused on the high school basketball players and not so much the coaches who were motivating them, Hackman felt he was being wasted.  Yet, when I met Hackman at a fundraiser in Danville, Illinois in May 1988, the majority of local residents were praising him for his role as the coach in “Hoosiers.”

“Hoosiers” is set in 1951 in rural Indiana and concerns Mr. Dale, a coach with a checked past, which is initially unstated.  He says that he coached college basketball 10 years before, and then he spent time in the Navy. The town’s drunkard and father of one of the team’s players, Wilbur “Shooter” Flatch (Hopper, a guy who has much coaching knowledge) and Dale eventually pair up to lead the Hickory High School basketball team to the state championship. With a screenplay by native Indianan Angelo Pizzo, the film is one of the most inspirational sports films since “Rocky.” Roger Ebert called the film, “Wonderful! A movie that is all heart.” And is it ever!

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The team initially consisted of only seven players (in a school that had a total of 56 boys), and their best player Jimmy Chitwood (Maris Valainis) had decided not to play this season to focus more on his academics, hoping for a possible college career. Barbara Hershey stars as Myra Fleener, a stern teacher who acts as Jimmy’s mentor. From Dale’s first days as a coach, everyone from past assistant coaches to local guys in the barbershop is giving him advice, and he has to insist on his particular methods of training his players. Two players quit, but principal Cletus Summers supports Dale strongly, even acting as his temporary assistant coach.

Some of the unique aspects of the film include extensive scenes of Coach Dale methodically drilling his players on fundamentals: defensive skills and agility training. Stressing disciplined ball control on offense, he instructs his players to pass the ball four times before taking a shot.

When Cletus falls ill and can’t coach, Dale hires Shooter as his new assistant but tells him he must be clean and sober. This motivates a group of town folks who strongly disagree with Dale’s coaching to have a community referendum to remove him from his position. Also, Ms. Fleener approaches Dale with an article she found in a local library about how Dale was permanently suspended from the NCAA for physically assaulting a player on his team in Ithaca, New York. These events climax in a church meeting where Jimmy Chitwood announces he’ll return to the team declaring: “I play, the coach stays. He goes, I go.” From that point on, there was no turning back.

Hackman is very effective as Coach Dale — he’s a serious, tough, compassionate leader of young men.  His focus and objective are on the skillful mastery of winning basketball techniques.

Hopper and composer Jerry Goldsmith received Academy Award nominations for their work on this truly “feel-good” sports film.

And by the way, Hackman’s favorite movie experience was in director Jerry Schatzberg’s rather obscure road film, “Scarecrow” (1973) as ex-convict/drifter named Max, where Al Pacino was his co-star. That film received minimal release and was a box office disappointment. “Hoosiers,” on the other hand, was a hit and grossed over $28 million and has gone on to become the favorite sports film to many admirers.