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‘Rudy’s’ Story Finally Touches Down : Movies: Based on a true story, the film is about a man who overcomes mediocre grades and underwhelming athletic prowess to become a Notre Dame football player.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sometimes, the story of how a movie gets made can be just as interesting as the movie itself. Talk to anyone associated with TriStar’s release Wednesday of “Rudy,” and they’re likely to tell you this is one of those times.

After all, the movie tells the life story of a young South Bend, Ind., man named Rudy Ruettiger who overcame a working-class background, mediocre grades and underwhelming athletic prowess to claw his way into the University of Notre Dame--and onto its legendary football team.

Besides perhaps holding an unofficial record as history’s hardest working walk-on team punching bag, Ruettiger’s only claim to fame is making one energetic tackle in the final seconds of a single game in 1975--at the ripe age of 27. He earned no honors for the play and has spent the rest of his life in virtual anonymity.

While having unreachable dreams made Ruettiger an Everyman of sorts, having the tenacity to make them come true, even briefly, made him semi-heroic. The combination proved too irresistible for Hollywood.

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Just ask screenwriter Angelo Pizzo and director David Anspaugh, who swore their 1986 hit, “Hoosiers,” would be their last sports movie. Or producers Rob Fried and Carey Woods (“So I Married an Axe Murderer”), who still can’t believe that the 5-foot-6-inch Ruettiger could be the motivating force behind a Hollywood production.

Or even the University of Notre Dame, which in its rich, 150-year history has given the green light to only one other film, “Knute Rockne, All-American,” in 1940.

“Rudy,” they’ll tell you, was a story that had to be told.

“It’s unique in that it’s a story about a guy who doesn’t become the starting quarterback, who doesn’t become All-American. He’s the average guy; he’s all of us. The thing that listed him above the rest was his pure effort, his pure energy,” said Woods.

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“What Rudy does is really take the leap of faith,” Pizzo said. “He goes beyond what the people in his hometown tell him he is capable of.”

Yet in a town in which established screenwriters see projects turned down daily, the thought of a naive former maintenance man persuading anyone to even hear his story, let alone make a film out of it, is far-fetched.

At least TriStar releases the $13-million movie starring Sean Astin, Ned Beatty, Charles Dutton and Lili Taylor. The film recently closed the Toronto Film Festival, and opens the Chicago Film Festival Saturday.

TriStar is billing the PG-rated “Rudy” as a feel-good family picture, and early test screenings have proved successful with a wide range of audiences from adult male sports fans to adolescent girls.

But until the movie opens, the jury is out. Fried and Woods learned that earlier this year when their first TriStar movie, the Mike Myers vehicle “Axe Murderer,” died at the box office despite being touted as a sure thing.

Though the film is billed as a true story, Pizzo acknowledges that a fair amount of dramatic license was employed: “In the spirit of the truth it is accurate; in the letter of the truth it is not.”

But one viewer--former Notre Dame coach Dan Devine--thinks the filmmakers may have stretched the truth too far by fictionalizing a pivotal scene in which several senior members of the team surrender their jerseys to Devine in protest after learning Ruettiger did not make the dress list for his final game.

"(Angelo Pizzo) asked me if I mind being portrayed as a ‘heavy,’ ” Devine said in a phone interview from his home in Phoenix. “I said, ‘No, I don’t mind. But I’m doing that only so that Rudy can get this film off the ground. . . . But I didn’t want to be that heavy.”

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Although he has made his disappointment public, Devine on Wednesday dismissed rumors that he will take legal action against the filmmakers.

“ ‘Rudy’ is not on my top burner,” said Devine, now athletic director at the University of Missouri. “There’s not going to be any lawsuit--period.”

Despite the dramatic license, the bulk of “Rudy” is real-life drama that was a long time in the making.

In 1987, Ruettiger lost his life savings and some pride when a shady screenwriter promised him the world but delivered less than nothing. But instead of giving up, Ruettiger tracked down Pizzo, whom he admired for his work with Anspaugh on “Hoosiers.” Pizzo was flattered, but uninterested in making the movie:

“I told Rudy, ‘It’s a great story, but it’s simply not going to be done by us,’ ” Pizzo recalled. Ruettiger continued to call Pizzo “every three or four months.” He even arranged a trip to Los Angeles to discuss the idea with Pizzo, who again turned him down.

Although Ruettiger continued to hound Pizzo, it was actually a random meeting in 1990 between Anspaugh and Fried that put the wheels in motion. Fried, a vice president at Orion when “Hoosiers” was made, had spent six years trying to find another movie to make with the pair and was especially interested in an inspirational sports story. When Anspaugh mentioned Ruettiger’s experiences in passing, Fried sensed a winner.

“Thematically, it dealt with college athletics,” he said. “More importantly, it dealt with a personal spirituality that we all have in common. . . . I was moved.”

Producers Fried and Woods soon had then-Columbia Pictures chairman Frank Price interested in the film, but concern about its worldwide box-office potential resulted in the studio passing before it ever got off the ground.

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Six months later, Price left Columbia. Although he took the project with him to Savoy Pictures, the company later backed out at the last minute. When Fried and Woods finally sold the idea to Columbia’s sister studio, TriStar Pictures, last September, the studio gave them just two weeks to improve the script and 48 hours to get Notre Dame’s approval.

The reluctant university unexpectedly agreed to the project, convinced that the movie was more about the power of the human spirit than it was about winning football games.


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