25 years ago, November 14, 1986, Hoosiers opened in limited release. This is one of the few movies that I managed to see before it opened. Earlier that year I had the privilege to attend an event at UCLA, an entire seminar with my idol, film composer Jerry Goldsmith. During he first part of the day, Goldsmith was joined by legendary film director Franklin J. Schaffner who had collaborated with the composer on such classics like Planet of the Apes (1968), Papillon (1973), The Boys From Brazil (1978) and Patton (1970). Unfortunately the film screened that morning was the disappointing Lionheart (later retitled Lionheart: The Children’s Crusade, the film received a brief theatrical release in 1987). Even more unfortunate, it would turn out to be the final collaboration of Schaffner and Goldsmith — the director’s last film Welcome Home (released a few months after his death in 1989) was scored by Henry Mancini.
For the second half of the day, Goldsmith was joined by newcomer David Anspaugh, whose name I recognized from producing and directing episodes of one of my favorite television series, Hill Street Blues (1981- 1987). The movie screened was Anspaugh’s feature film debut: Hoosiers. From the opening sequence of Gene Hackman’s character driving across 1950s Indiana, beautifully photographed by Fred Murphy, I pretty much knew I was going to love the film.
The excellent screenplay by co-producer Angelo Pizzo is inspired by a true story about the underdog Milan High School basketball team, who won the Indiana state championship in 1954.
Gene Hackman is perfect as Norman Dale, a former college basketball coach of the Ithaca Warriors who was given a lifetime suspension for physically assaulting one of his own players. He is given a clean slate by his old friend, Cletus (Sheb Wooley), the principal of Hickory High School in need of a new basketball coach. The tone is set for Dale his first night in town when he meets some of the locals at the barber shop and he is told outright, “This town don’t like change much.” Indeed. Dale, of course, has his own plans for the team.
Barbara Hershey is great as the protective neighbor of one of the school’s best players Jimmy Chitwood (Maris Valainis). Dennis Hopper shines in one of his greatest roles as the town drunk who begins to confront his alcoholism when he is given a chance by Dale to be the assistant coach. But really, the entire cast is perfect, right down to every citizen of Hickory and every single boy on that basketball team.
What comes down to is this: even if you don’t give a rat’s ass about basketball, if you have a pulse you’ll probably like this movie.
Getting back to that UCLA screening back in 1986, it was the only time in my life I’d been in the same room with so many Goldsmith fans at the same time. There was a moment during the climax of the final game when the music was so wonderful everyone around me looked at each other excitedly in utter amazement.
There was a Q&A after the movie, but the only question I could think of had fortunately been asked early on. Yes, there would be a soundtrack album.
Later that day was the first of two times in my life where I had the opportunity to meet Jerry Goldsmith. I was able to tell him how much I loved The Omen (1976) and how it got me interested in soundtracks. He shook my hand and said, “Thanks. I had a great time doing it.” I’m sure I was shaking from the magnitude of the moment. I mean, how many people get to actually meet their favorite composer and tell them in the briefest of moments how much their music means to them? It was one of those moments I’d like to capture forever and play it over in my head again and again.
Hoosiers opened November 14, 1986, in limited release. When it finally opened wide February 27, 1987 — despite my best efforts telling everyone I encountered what a wonderful movie it was — Hoosiers did not win the box office, opening number five. It did earn two well-deserved Oscar nominations for Dennis Hopper’s performance (in the Supporting Actor category) and for Jerry Goldsmith’s music.
Over the years, I was happy to see that this little film that I loved eventually found its audience.
In 2004, ESPN voted Hoosiers the best sports movie of all-time in their list of the 25 Best Sports Movies. As much as I love Rocky (1976, which didn’t even make their list), Field Of Dreams (1989) and The Natural (1984), it’s hard for me to argue with Hoosiers as their number one choice.
Like Jimmy Chitwood says before he makes his final shot, “I’ll make it.”