MOVIES : Out of His League, or Out of His Mind? : At Yankee Stadium, 'The Scout' steps up to the plate, and a reporter does his bit as an actor trading lines (sort of) with Albert Brooks.

Chris Willman is a regular contributor to Calendar

Perched high in one of Yankee Stadium's private boxes, George Steinbrenner is looking on warily as film crew technicians drag carts full of heavy camera equipment across the outfield far below. On a less beautiful Bronx spring day, Steinbrenner might be pitching one of his famous fits about the wheel marks being left on the diamond's grass, instead of quietly making note to an aide to have the invaders trod more gently.

But the sun is shining, the baseball strike is many weeks away, and, better yet, Steinbrenner is moonlighting as a movie star on this off day. So the not-entirely-camera-shy team owner is in a good mood--so good that he's indulging in America's second-favorite pastime: pontificating on the picture business. I move a little closer to listen in.

"You don't want to come out with a bad baseball movie now," Steinbrenner announces to no one in particular, holding impromptu court before a few star-struck crew members in the box between setups. " 'Major League II' was a horse---- movie. The only reason to do it is because they hope that sequels do 60% of the gross of the original. It's a horse---- movie," he reiterates, in case anyone missed the point.

By inference, at least, Steinbrenner--who has almost never allowed film crews into his ballpark--believes that the production on location here, "The Scout," is a horse of a different odor. I'm assuming and hoping so too, for reasons not unlike his that will shortly be made apparent.

The project's comedic pedigree is promising: Albert Brooks ("Lost in America") as star and co-writer, working from a script originated by Andrew Bergman ("Honeymoon in Vegas"), with Michael Ritchie (veteran of many superior sports spoofs, including "The Bad News Bears" and "Semi-Tough") directing.

Ritchie is insistent that "The Scout" is not a "baseball movie" at all, since the film doesn't center on the sport per se and features fewer than 10 pitches and hits. To his mind, it's a sensitive relationship comedy centering on the bizarre, uneasy bonding between Brooks, in the nebbishy title role, and the handsome young naif he discovers, played by Brendan Fraser, who may just be the world's best, and looniest, ballplayer.

But the average onlooker might be forgiven for thinking this to be exactly the sports picture Ritchie adamantly refuses to categorize it as, if only--for starters--because of the litany of famous faces popping up as quasi-realistic context throughout the film, many of them Major Leaguers or tangential media figures.

Down on the field, warming up, is the New York Mets' Bret Saberhagen, who will shortly be playing himself in a scene that ends with Brooks walking away and muttering disparagingly under his breath about the star player's $9-million salary.

"Hey, you got robbed," Brooks calls out to the visiting pitcher with whom he's about to block out a scene, referring to the previous night's Mets game, in which Saberhagen threw most of the strikes but wasn't credited with the win. "Why don't you get the victory in those games?"

"I dunno, it's a bad rule," mumbles Saberhagen, amiably.

"I'll make a call," Brooks brashly reassures him, as if reverting to his Joel Silver takeoff from "I'll Do Anything."

Using real-life, non-actor figures in small roles is "something that I've always enjoyed from the time of my first movie," Ritchie says, harkening back to his well-remembered 1969 debut, "Downhill Racer."

Though "The Scout" isn't technically a satire, Ritchie says, "there are certain satirical elements in all my movies. One would have to say that I always have a feather to tickle the media--particularly the sports coverage, in every sports movie that I've done. It's the hyperbole of it I find fun. On this one, Bob Costas said to me, 'Listen, is this supposed to be a sendup? How should I do this delivery?' And I said, 'Do it absolutely straight.' And he did it--and of course it's a sendup.

"The same thing happened with 'The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Cheerleader Murdering Mom' "--Ritchie's seriocomic, award-winning HBO account of a real-life mother who tried to put a hit out on the mother of her daughter's school rival, and the media aftermath--"when I had the producer of 'A Current Affair,' who didn't want to be in the movie, playing herself. She was afraid we were going to be making fun of her. And I said, 'I only want you to do what you really did in that situation; I'm only looking for accuracy.' And that sat well with her, and she did it, and of course everybody perceives it as a huge sendup of 'A Current Affair.' It's the true thing put in context that just happens to play like comedy."

I take a special interest in how Steinbrenner and Saberhagen are faring because I, too, have been pressed into service to modestly moonlight as a bit--and I do mean bit --player in the movie. I'm not sure I can vouch that the resulting authenticity is so thick you'll be able to set your popcorn down on it when "The Scout" opens Friday, but it is at least credible in that it has reporters (i.e., me and some legitimate extras) doing what reporters actually really spend much of their time doing--dodging slings and arrows.

*

Well, plates, in this instance.

"Fire in the hole!" someone yells. That's me down in the "hole," which is the brightly illuminated courtyard of a slightly run-down apartment building on Manhattan's Upper West Side. The "fire" isn't explosive charges, but dinner-table stoneware, about 20 cases' worth, that is about to be lobbed from a fifth-floor window at me and my comrades here below.

The scene is this: Brooks has taken his young charge, Fraser, back to his apartment to hide him from the hoopla that results when the mystery pitcher signs an unprecedented $50-million contract with the Yankees. The media, naturally, want the goods on this suddenly wealthy complete unknown. So we gather outside the complex and pesteringly yell up at their window until finally Fraser, whose Steve Nebraska character may or may not have a streak of violence in his past, snaps and starts throwing plates at us. While the teen idol will lob only about six in the final edit, for the sake of overshooting, we plate-takers will have to dodge about 200 detonating dishes.

I actually got to trade lines with Brooks earlier, sort of, shouting my lines up at him to give him his cues. As foolish as I feel screaming " Where's Steve ?" and " C'mon ! We need to know stuff !"--my two given bits of scripting--at the top of my lungs, it's still a thrill to be exchanging dialogue with, to my mind, the greatest comic talent of our generation. Any dialogue.

The day started off with sessions in the wardrobe and makeup trailers. The shadows under my eyes were removed, as I closed them and heard the sweet words, "We're going to make you look 30 again." My long hair was pinned down in about two dozen places, to keep the high winds coming off the Hudson from having their way with it. I was issued a goofy checkered shirt and, at their request, donned a generic-looking "press badge" for the first time in my journalistic life. I feel silly getting gussied up so, but remembering all those laser-disc buffs freeze-framing on Jessica Rabbit's naughty bits, I think of my descendants doing a digital freeze on me and am glad I trimmed my nose hairs this morning.

"Do you think he'll pass for a reporter?" asked the wardrobe guy, studying me in all my youthful rejuvenation.

"Hmmm . . . maybe from the Voice," answered the makeup guy, none too encouragingly.

Never mind that I stand out as a phony among phonies, looking less like anyone's idea of a reporter than all the faux scribes from Central Casting surrounding me. I feel troubled by my lines. The woman standing next to me in the courtyard, who plays a TV reporter, fans my nervous flames, perhaps because she's a little jealous; she hasn't been given any dialogue at all, even though, like all extras in the state of New York, she's a SAG member getting paid SAG scale.

"What are your lines?" she asks me.

I tell her, feeling myself turning a little red from pride and embarrassment.

"Would you ever in a hundred years as a reporter say, 'C'mon, we need to know stuff,' to someone you were trying to get an interview with?" she asks, shaming me.

"Well, no."

"Then don't you think you should talk to him and suggest something that sounds a little less hokey?"

This--the idea that on my first movie shoot ever, I should be so bold as to affront the director and attempt to take the whole auteur theory down with him--I was not prepared for. Timidly, I begin to justify in my own mind how my key line is not just specific to the scene, but has a certain existential universality about it. I think of the wonderful "Simpsons" episode where Bart's usual exclamation, "I didn't do it," suddenly through media exposure became the all-encompassing catchphrase of a generation. I picture Generation X throwing their Nirvana records aside and adopting my line as their Angst -ridden rallying cry, rising as one voice, shaking their collective fists at the unresponsive passivity of the heavens: C'mon, these disillusioned youth demand of the gods, we need to know stuff !

Now is the moment of truth: The heavens are about to rain pottery. Am I nervous? On one hand, I know the unknown pitcher subbing for Fraser in the upstairs window must have the precise aim of a Saberhagen, since surely all involved here know they're in for some bad press if I head back to L.A. with an ugly gash.

On the other hand, I did once write a bad review of Ritchie's "Fletch Lives." Could this entire shoot be the elaborate pretext for an insidious revenge scenario?

"OK, now whatever you do, don't anticipate the plates," Ritchie tells us, seeming genial enough.

On the first take I've just finished my last line when the plates start popping around us, shards scattering everywhere except, miraculously, around our faces. We actors feign surprise, then terror, and run out into the street and hide behind cabs.

Ritchie tells us to try to be a little more chaotic next take.

Next take the chaos comes surprisingly naturally. The insignificance of my little line to the narrative suddenly becomes broadly apparent as the guy throwing the plates no longer waits for me to finish before he starts the bombing.

"C'mon, we need to knoooaaaaa AAAHHHH . . . !!!" I scream as one disc sails by my master-thespian noggin and another simultaneously bursts into bits around my ankles. I trot in awkward reverse, even as the SAGs are nervously retreating into and over me. For the first time, I know the thrill of a war zone.

There will be more than a dozen additional takes of this mayhem as the morning wears on, not stopping till every dish is history, and never again amid all those takes will I get all the way through my short last line before the shards send me fleeing. Catchphrase be damned--the plate-pitcher with the lightning-quick arm has saved me from having to say "stuff" as part of my immortalization.

At Yankee Stadium a week later, on the last day of shooting, I approach Brooks, who has plopped himself down in one of the thousands of empty loge seats to luxuriate in the uncharacteristic Zen stillness of the ballpark.

I tell him I'd been worried about his nose, since word on the set was he'd done some bleeding after getting zinged by one of the plates Fraser was tossing during their part of the sequence.

"You were one of the guys downstairs," he realizes out loud. (One actor recognizing the work of another.) "Oh, no, I was all right. I was surrounded by about four people that did break their noses, and they were all quick to say, 'Oh, no, you didn't break it. You wouldn't still be standing here.' "

I begin to query him about his improvisational approach to his scenes, which seems even braver to me than standing in the line of fire. Watching him riff on little phrases or intonations in take after take, you begin to regret the takes that won't make it to the final edit, the funny bits dropped because he came up with some other idea for the scene. Each new try brings a significant new spin on his readings.

"My feeling about this is very specific: I believe it has to be on the paper," Brooks says. "I was watching them promote 'Serial Mom' on TV, and they were all tickled; Kathleen Turner said something like, 'We just had no idea what we were going to say every day.' Well, I mean, that's not what I do. With an entire crew and time pressure, coming up with things is not the way to go.

"But when it's on paper and it works, then you can start to play and move and do stuff. And sometimes it's important to do it, because when you're writing, you're writing in a room. When you're filming, you're in Mexico; if there's a dust storm, you've gotta cough, if a burro comes by and (expletive) on your foot, you've got to look at it. It's like you and me; if you drop that Coke on my pants, I'm going to react to it. I like to take advantage of the physical situations and see what I can do.

"And that comes from Michael's gonzo days, too. I think 'The Candidate' they did on their feet, the whole movie--at least it looked like that. And he's good at editing on his feet with that. I sort of sense when it's not right, and I look at him and he acknowledges that, so he's been able to help me with that."

B rooks is primarily known for writing and directing his own films, with the odd acting-only gig in the very occasional James Brooks movie. But "The Scout" is a first--a project Brooks didn't initiate and didn't want to direct, but did co-author with his writing partner, Monica Johnson (retooling an Andrew Bergman script Ritchie had tried to get going for years).

It's a gamble that could pay off in different ways for both the star and filmmaker. For Ritchie, the lanky, gentle giant of a director who has made some of the most critically acclaimed pictures of the modern era ("Smile") and a good share of the critically reviled star vehicles too ("Cops and Robbersons"), it's a chance to do a broad comedy that might also carry a classier cachet. And for Brooks, it's an opportunity to do something with a more populist appeal than his own directorial efforts.

"I think Michael, barring a few of the Chevy Chase movies, does have fine taste," says Brooks. "He reminds me of an Englishman, sort of, this tall, quiet man who's got a great deal of intelligence . . . and it's good for him to be in situations where he can use it.

"Because he doesn't write, he's at the mercy of taking a script. Unfortunately, in a comedy, if the script isn't there, and the actor you're working with is not able to improve it that much, what difference does it make if you're a brilliant director?"

When I talk to Ritchie later, he has his own feelings about how "The Scout" might be good for Brooks' mainstream appeal, putting the actor's often neurotic screen persona in a more relaxing context.

"He wants to take that audience as far as he can," Ritchie says, "testing, pulling, prodding, provoking. 'Look at me, I'm an (expletive), I dare you to love me'--and of course you do. All you have to do is, no matter how puffed up he may be, put him with somebody who has more ego at stake in the scene and Albert will become very vulnerable. It's wonderful."

Says Brooks: "This is not a satire at all. In terms of broadness, I don't know. I classify this as a summer comedy that won't make you feel dirty. . . . I've never been in a summer comedy before," he adds, proudly. "My movies always come out in February or March or October. I'm always out of the summer. So now I'm in the summer."

Not quite, as it turns out; after shooting wraps, Fox bumps the movie back from late July to late August to, finally, late September. But on the bright side, this movie's World Series will be the only one happening come the first days of fall.

B ut let's get back to how all of this affects (as Al Franken would say) me .

It's now post-production time and, back in L.A., Ritchie has summoned me to the Warner Hollywood lot for voice looping. He tells tales about how some very well-known actors are famous among directors for deliberately muffing lines so they'll be called back to loop later and get paid scale for the extra days' work.

I arrive to find that Ritchie has already banished my classic "C'mon, we need to knooooaaahhhhHHHHH . . . !!!" to the mixing-room floor, not because I muffed it per se, but because he needs me to dub the line "We need a press conference!" in its place, the better to set up the following scene.

I suffer some standard looping-stage dread here: Will it be obvious that my lips don't quite match up with what I'm saying? Then, as I see the tape of the roughly edited sequence come across the video monitor as I step up to the mike, I suffer another kind of classic actor anxiety: I can't even spot myself in the scene .

Only on the third pass through do I vaguely recognize the guy who doesn't look like a reporter amid the pack of reporters, as seen in a couple of dimly lit long shots from a fifth-story window. Verily, I say, there is better coverage of the gunman on the grassy knoll in the Zapruder film than there is of yours truly in "The Scout."

Consoling myself with the hope of future laser-disc freeze-framing, I determine to concentrate on putting my all into my vocal performance, which could still stand out. I bellow fiercely.

"That's good," says Ritchie, ever the encouraging camp-counselor type, "but could you make it . . . angry?"

I try to summon up all the rage a succession of therapists has assured me I suppress deep within, but merely manage to sound squeakier. "We need a pre- ess conference!" I shout into the boom mike, reverting to puberty midsyllable.

I feel ashamed, but Ritchie speaks to the booth on my behalf. "I kind of like where his voice cracked," he tells the engineer.

The voice-cracking was good? Well, if my director says so. Ritchie still thinks something is missing, though. I remember my fellow actor, Brooks, teaching me about coming up with stuff in the moment.

"How about," I offer, just as they're ready to usher me out, "if I said, 'Quit holding out on us! ' ?" (So it's not Preston Sturges, but I could hear a daily journalist shouting it, and more importantly, it has that existential catchphrase potential.)

Ritchie mulls it over briefly, as if tasting a fine wine. "I like that. Write that down," he tells the booth, "and let's have the next person say that."

Some other looper will get my line, then, but I feel oddly satisfied. Attention, "Major League III" producers: I'm available for similar minor rewrites, and not too proud for foul ball-dodging stunt work as a featured extra. With a little drive and enough money to forgo my Taft-Hartley waiver and buy a SAG card, why, perhaps someday I, too, can aspire--like William Kunstler, Chris Connelly, Kurt Loder, Larry King, et al.--to be a full-fledged cameo whore. Consider me scouted.

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