Although I’m sure they didn’t plan it that way, Turner Classic Movies was able to offer a nice tribute to the late Dennis Hopper last night with an airing of Hoosiers (1986), the film about a ragtag Indiana high school basketball team who goes all the way to the state championship under the tutelage of determined b-ball coach Norman Dale (the always amazing Gene Hackman). Loosely based on the Cinderella story of the 1954 championship win by the Milan High School Indians, Hoosiers features Hopper as the alcoholic father of one of the team’s players…who gets a second chance in life when Hackman’s character makes him an assistant coach.
1986 could very well have been called “The Year of the Hopper”—because the actor appeared in three films that year that more or less highlighted his incredible acting talent. In addition to Hoosiers (a role for which Hopper earned an Oscar nom), Hopper was also in the cast of River's Edge (in which he played “Feck,” a junkie who finds himself repulsed by the callous behavior of a group of high school kids who have information on how one of their classmates was murdered by her boyfriend) and Blue Velvet (one of his best-known showcases, as the villainous nitrous oxide fiend Frank Booth). I didn’t see Edge until the following year (and Velvet many years afterward) but I remember being impressed by Hopper’s Hoosiers turn—particularly since the only film I had viewed the actor in before Hoosiers was My Science Project (1985); a lame time travel comedy in which Hopper reprises (in a way, toward the end of the film) his “Billy” character from Easy Rider (1969). I remember shaking my head at the time, wondering if that was what was in store in the future for Hopper—would he be content to be a sixties counterculture punchline?
It’s been quite a while since I sat down with this movie, and while I distinctly remembered the relationship between the characters played by Hackman and Hopper—my favorite scene is where Hackman has himself intentionally tossed out of a game in order to allow Hopper to “coach” the team to a victory—I was pleasantly surprised by how understated the late actor’s performance was…let’s be honest; Hopper could chew up the scenery with the best of them. There’s a bond that develops between Hackman’s coach and Hopper’s “Shooter” Flatch that will cause even the manliest viewer to puddle up—Coach Dale, a man in need of redemption (his previous job was as a college coach—fired because he punched out a player), gives Flatch (who’s become the town “character”) the opportunity to demonstrate his potential as a man who clearly knows and loves the game.
I also forgot that Sheb Wooley was in this film. Wooley is primarily remembered for obtaining pop music immortality in 1958 with the millions-selling smash The Purple People Eater (he also had a country music career, recording both under his own name and the nom de parody, “Ben Colder”) but he was no slouch as an actor—he plays the brother of Frank Miller, the ex-con coming to get revenge on Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) in the western classic High Noon (1952), and he could be glimpsed on television every week from 1959 to 1965 as trail scout Pete Nolan on Rawhide. Sheb plays the high school principal in the film, a man who sticks his neck out for Hackman’s coach (they’re old pards from way back) at the risk of his physical health. Barbara Hershey is also in the movie as a teacher (who takes over for Wooley when he’s sidelined with a bad ticker) who doubles as Hackman’s love interest; the four actors I mentioned are pretty much the only “big names” in the film save for character actor Chelcie Ross—a man who is continuing the time-honored George Grizzard tradition of playing complete dinks (Exhibits A and B—this movie and Major League , where he plays past-his-prime pitcher Eddie Harris).
Hoosiers was shown last night because the channel’s “Guest Programmer” was Rich Eisen, the host of the NFL Network. I don’t know Eisen (truth be told, I had to look up his bio at the TCM website) but it would appear from the choices aired he’s not seen many movies before 1975 (he mentioned in rapping with Bobby Osbo that the first movie he recalled seeing was Escape to Witch Mountain). I certainly don’t want to be accused of pigeonholing anybody but that’s not really how I would define “classic movies”—you mean to tell me this guy’s never seen The Pride of the Yankees (1942), for example? Hell, even my brother-in-law’s seen that one…and he’s hardly the go-to guy for black-and-white movies.
Speaking of my brother-in-law—Hoosiers is one of his favorite films. I remember buying him a copy of the film on DVD several years ago as a Christmas present…and then the following year, owing to a massive brain fart, buying him the movie again. (To his credit, he was a good sport about it—though I had to hear this information from his wife.)