Veteran actor Chelcie Ross lettered in three high school sports, spent time as a radio disc jockey, was commissioned¬†second lieutenant in the United States Air Force, received a bronze star in Vietnam and spent time stationed at the Pentagon. All before getting into acting.
And though Ross has appeared in countless films and television programs, perhaps his most memorable turn was as the aged junkballer Eddie Harris in the comedy classic, Major League.
Twenty years after its release, Ross took a few minutes out of an incredibly hectic schedule to reminisce about the film’s lasting effect¬†for¬†both fans and players, the breakfast selections of Pete Vuckovich, the baseball skills of actors other than Charlie Sheen, the fact that he’s still waiting to do a scene with Rene Russo, and of course, whether or not Jesus Christ can in fact¬†handle the¬†curveball.
To you, the loyal and learned B&C reader, we are proud to present — one of the stars of perhaps the greatest baseball movie ever made, Chelcie Ross:
First of all, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. We can’t say that enough. Thank you.
Sure. My pleasure.
After all these years, what lasting effect has Major League had on your career?
(Laughing) Well, I’m not sure inside the business, what kind of effect it’s had on my career, but every day, at least once a day, someone comes up to me and either wants me to say a line from Major League, or wants me to sign an autograph and put Eddie Harris on it. So over the years, the legs this thing’s had has been amazing and on-going, and beyond anything any of us could have imagined.
What is your fondest memory of making that baseball classic?
(Laughing) Pain. (Laughing) In a way that’s true. I was 47 at the time, and the other guys, well, the stars of the film, not the other co-stars like myself, had some lead time on that. They knew, they had been booked for it, and had some time. Charlie (Sheen) had been throwing with (Steve) Yeager for, I don’t know exactly, but for a month or more before we went to do the spring training stuff. I had enough time to wash my dirty underwear and throw it in a suitcase from the time I found out I was going to do it until we started shooting. I was 47 and hadn’t really seriously thrown a baseball in about 20 years, so it was a shock to the system. The body wants you to believe that you can still do what you did when you were a kid. And it just ain’t so. I hate to be the one to break the news to you, but it doesn’t work that way. So I was throwing pretty good when we started out the spring training stuff, by the time we got to Milwaukee, to County Stadium, I had some back pain, and then I pulled a groin muscle, and I’ve seen pieces of the film every now and then, I haven’t seen the whole thing since it came out I guess, but I see pieces of it on TV every now and then, and I remember how much it hurt when I tried to throw (laughing). And it accounts for it looking like an old spitballer, doesn’t it?
Yes, we were going to say, you pitched at Southwest Texas State, was that your normal throwing motion, or your personal√ā¬†interpretation of Gaylord Perry meets Doyle Alexander?
It was not. No, I had a high leg kick, and I was more over the top. In the film, the slide step was something that Yeager told me that a lot of the old guys, because they were so slow coming to the plate, that they’d use the slide step to help them out a little bit. So I adapted that, and I watched a little bit of Gaylord Perry and I tried to take in some of that. But like I say, if I’d have been able to bend over a little more it would have helped the motion you see on screen a little better. But I did physically what I was capable of doing at the time. The trainer for the Brewers (laughing), would stretch me out and he’d just shake his head, laugh and say “Man, I don’t know how you’re walking.”
One of the funniest lines you delivere¬†in the movie was “Jesus Christ, Cerrano!” during the team prayer scene. What about that character revelation appealed to you? And how much did you contribute to the development of Eddie Harris?
Well, I’m a Christian, and I made that known going in, that I related to that aspect of the character. So I tried to be honest about that part of it. The relationship between (Pedro) Cerrano and Harris was written into the script, and was a very nice piece of writing by David Ward. The contrast between the two, and the conflict of their religions, but my contribution to it, outside of my natural Texan, was bringing my Christianity to it. I mentioned about the characters, and how well-written they were, you know there had not been a hit baseball movie, a hit baseball movie, I don’t think, since Pride of the Yankees. And just before we opened, I can’t remember the exact timing, but right in that window, when we were about to open, Bull Durham came out. And we thought, “The game is up,” because it had a lot of the same elements. Now, David Ward, who wrote and directed Major League, says that he had been shopping this script around Hollywood for a long time before Ron Shelton’s script appeared on the scene. Although he never said it out loud, he seemed to be saying that he has floated these ideas out there and everybody in town has read this stuff, and now all of a sudden somebody else has it in their film. I don’t know if he’s making accusations or if he’s just expressing his disappointment that his didn’t get out there first, but we thought, “Well, this film is not liable to have a great deal of appeal because it’s been done to some extent.” If you look for similarities in the scripts, there are quite a few. Much to our surprise, 20 years later, people are still watching it. And it’s a favorite of, well, unless people lie to me every day, a lot of people consider it their favorite sports movie.
The voice, the appearance, the demeanor — would it have been possible to cast a better actor than James Gammon to play the part of manager Lou Brown?
(Laughing) With that voice? I can’t think of anybody who could have brought more to the character, because you get Jimmy Gammon going there, and you’ve got something nobody else is going to pull off. No, I wouldn’t second-guess that casting for a minute.
Which actor was the best player not named Sheen?
The best player, as in baseball player, these are subtleties here, we’re talking fine points here. Probably, it would be a toss-up between Dennis (Haysbert) and Corbin (Bersen). Dennis is a natural athlete, as you can tell, and he had been playing a lot of softball, so he was ready. You know, that home run that he hit in the film, David had told him “Don’t worry about it. Hit it up in the air and we’ll turn the camera around and Steve will hit a fungo over the wall, and you got your home run.” Well, second pitch, he put in the left field stands. Obviously, it’s BP pitching as opposed to major league pitching, but he got all of it. So, Dennis was a good baseball player. And Corbin had played, he and his brother, who was also on the film and played one of the opposing players, I think he was on the Yankees. Corbin and his brother had played organized ball all the way up. And Corbin had done a bit of preparation, and he was not bad, he could play a little ball. Charlie was hurting quite a bit later on, his elbow was hurting him, but he could really throw. He had done baseball camps and that sort of thing, he played in high school, and he could really throw it, it was in the 80s somewhere with that fastball. And speaking of athletes, though, (Wesley) Snipes was amazing. I don’t think he’d ever played baseball before, but he had martial arts training and just a natural athlete, and given some time, he could have turned into a baseball player, but he was fast and strong and agile, he was a good athlete.
How did former major leaguers Yeager and Pete Vuckovich enhance the film?
Anytime you have guys who have really been there, it doesn’t matter what the subject, if you’re shooting a cop film and you’ve got FBI advisors and police department advisors, which I’ve had on a number of films, they give you an insight which you can’t possibly have from outside looking in. Yeager spent a long time in foul territory, and he brought a knowledge to everything that was done on the film. There were two things in the movie that still bug me to this day, and David Ward would say, “Well, it’s not a baseball game, we’re making a movie here,” which was an answer that means don’t worry about it, it’s fantasy, it’s fiction. But two things that really bother me, one is Cerrano’s home run. He takes the bat all the way around the bases with him. He’d be out. Anybody who’s played the game knows that, and we argued about that. Yeager got up and I had already said something about it, and some of the other guys said something about it but they said “We’re making a movie here.” And the other one is when Jimmy comes out and takes me out of the big game, Tom Berenger had already taken the ball away from me. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that. That doesn’t regularly happen, and I said “Hey guys, time out. That ain’t right.” The manager should come out and get the ball from me. But those guys were right on top of anything and everything, and anytime you needed something like a throw from the plate to second base, a snap throw to first base, Yeager could do 14 takes and he’d throw 14 strikes. Just baseball knowledge.
And then the other side of it is Vuckovich, and Peter was a piece of work. He knew about the things that Eddie Harris might be doing to help himself a little bit, give himself a little edge. He told me that once, after I asked him, “If you had a son, would you teach him to throw all this stuff?” And he said “I would never teach my son to cheat. Never teach him to cheat. I’d teach him to have an edge.” (Laughing) Subtleties again. And Vuckovich was just colorful, he brought locker room color to the thing that we all needed — little boys playing a game — and it was a testosterone cocktail out there every day, and Vuckovich would bring the real deal, just like Steve did. Guys who had never grown up. There was a tremendous contribution, I think, from both of them.
I remember coming to the ballpark, early morning, 6 a.m., maybe earlier, in County Stadium, and Vuckovich was standing there eating a brat and drinking a Heineken. (Laughing) He brought color to the proceedings.
Did he ever say why? He just wanted breakfast and that’s what he chose to eat?
I don’t think he’d been to bed. (Laughing) I think he had other things he needed to take care of, and he had to come to work, so he had some ballpark food.
Speaking of colorful, even though you didn’t actually appear in any scenes with him, did you have any interaction with Bob Uecker?
I had one exchange, and I’ve told this story a number of times because it’s the only one I have. Bob and I, Mr. Uecker and I, I don’t know him well enough to call him Bob. Mr. Uecker and I, although we were in some of the same sequences, he would be up in the booth and I would be down on the field, so we really didn’t work together. But one night, somewhere in the morning, probably about 3 o’clock in the morning, they called lunch and we were being fed under the stands down the left field line. And in movies, when you’re doing a scene and you’re actively in the scene, if you’re a principal actor, when they call lunch, one of the assistant directors will grab you by the arm and take you to the front of the lunch line, past the crew and everybody because they need to get you finished and back in touch-ups and make-up, so they run you up to the front of the line. This particular night, they brought Uecker right behind me. So we’re standing there and I turn around and introduce myself, and he said “Was that you hurling out there?” And I said “Yes sir, I’m afraid so.” And he said, “Oh, that was inspirational. Made me wanna hurl.” And then a bunch of other people started talking to him and I went and sat with the guys, and that was our only exchange. Typical, I suppose, Bob Uecker humor.
One of my favorite scenes from Major League is the American Express card commercial, with lines like “We’re contenders now” and “Don’t steal home without it.” We’re sure there are many, but is there any one scene that stands out for you, that you had a particular affinity for?
Yeah, I think probably the Crisco, Bardol, Vagisil scene. I thought it was very funny, and people comment on it all the time, so apparently it worked. That and the bat in the back of the head (laughing), which was a little bit of a challenge and great fun. And Jesus Christ can’t hit a curveball, that’s a different scene, but that’s one of my favorites, too. My favorite scenes in the movie really, aren’t my scenes. I really think Charlie did a great job in that film. I think it was the first time that people realized that he could play comedy. I wish I’d had something with Rene Russo. I’ve shot three different films with her and still haven’t had a scene with her (laughing).
Well, it’s not over yet. You never know.
On one of the special features of the Major League DVD, you commented that the film was “great entertaiment.” Having seen Drag Me to Hell, I’d have to¬†say that¬†qualifies as well.
Oh, that was a very¬†enjoyable movie.
Good, I’m glad you enjoyed it. I just saw it this weekend, and I thought it was all of those things — it was gross, it was scary and it was very funny. I did two other films for Sam Raimi, The Gift and A Simple Plan, and his people called and asked if I’d like to come play for a week, and I said “I couldn’t think of anything I’d rather be doing.” And he’s one of my favorite directors. Sam is top notch.
You have appeared in three of the greatest sports movies ever made — Hoosiers, Major League and Rudy, and you also appeared in The Express. Do you gravitate toward the sports genre, or has it just played out that way?
You know, I like them a lot, it’s just played out that way to some extent because I’m not a powerful enough actor to be able to say I want to do this and I don’t want to do that. I turn down a lot of scripts because I can’t get my head around the content, but as far as picking and choosing to that extent, I can’t do that, but I love sports. I’m not a fanatic so I’m not really a fan, but I’m an avid watcher of baseball, basketball and football. Soccer to some extent, and a lot of other sports, so when a sports film comes along, my people, meaning my manager and agent, know that I would really like to be involved. And thankfully, even though I’ve gotten too old to be a player, in The Express I got to play an athletic director at Syracuse University, and I coached in Rudy. So I get to participate, but if I had that kind of power I’d say “Yeah, go find me those. I want to show people that I’m an athlete,” but you know that old saying — the older we get, the better we were — the fact is that I never was very good, but the movies have given¬†me fantasy fulfillment.
What projects are you working on now?
I’m doing a recurring role on Mad Men. AMC. Premiere of the new season is August 16th, and that’s about all I can tell you. I’m sworn to secrecy. Nobody’s going to be disappointed. Great writing, super actors, and physically, it’s one of the best-looking shows that’s ever been on television. But that’s all I can tell you. My lips are sealed. I couldn’t even tell my pastor. He asked me, “I’ve got to tell you, that’s a guilty pleasure of mine. What are you doing on it?” And I said “Sorry, I can’t tell you.” So he said, “Oh come on, you can tell me.” And I said “Nope. Sorry” (Laughing).
Major League. What is it about this film that has resonated with fans and players alike for 20 years?
Man, I wish I could answer that. You know, I think that one of the things is simply that it straddles the fence in this respect — it gives you a baseball fix and at the same time it doesn’t take it seriously. It pokes holes in every one of the things that you could hold up and idolize about the game and the players, and it skewers them all. And it’s full of some really good laughs. We’ve just talked about the players, but people like Maggie (Margaret Whitton), playing the owner. You know, she really did a fine performance and there were a lot of female stars who would have liked to get ahold of that, because it was a nice, central, important role to the film. And I can’t think of anybody who could have done it better.
And finally, we have to ask. Can Jesus Christ hit a curveball?
You bet he can. You bet he can. And the knuckler and the circle change and anything else you could throw at him, including the heat.
Chelcie Ross, we really appreciate you taking the time. We know you have a really busy schedule, but this has been a thrill, so thank you for being willing to speak to us. Thank you very much.
You’re welcome, sir.