Yearning to Relive the Glory of a ‘Championship Season’


Empty bottles, pretzel crumbs and cigar butts are scattered among the trophies and mementos of past glory in the game room of the old house--the artifacts of a bit too much drink and too many memories. Indeed, in the next room, amid the brown and tan hues of the aging walls, four former members of a Scranton, Pa., high school basketball team, gathered to mark the 20th anniversary of their state championship, are back under the spell of coach Joseph Spinel.

Like a wounded buck, the coach, still recovering from stomach surgery--but willing to push past the pain to execute as many push-ups as it takes to reassert his dominance--is systematically tearing at their psyche. Emotions are roiling, and some dicey secrets are about to spill over. The mood is turning ugly.

It’s the climactic moment of “That Championship Season,” Jason Miller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play. In it Coach Spinel ranks high among paternal archetypes of 20th century American stage, with perhaps only “Death of a Salesman” father Willy Loman above him.


And just as he’s brought one of the players to the breaking point, the coach turns to the others and, nodding his head, says, “Watch the machinations I’ve just worked on him.”

It could be a line from the play. Instead, it’s director Paul Sorvino weighing in on character motivation. Sorvino slips seamlessly between the role of director and that of Coach Spinel, whom he is portraying in this new adaptation of the play for Showtime premiering Sunday at 8 p.m.

Standing amid a remarkable collection of actors--Gary Sinise, Vincent D’Onofrio, Tony Shalhoub and Terry Kinney--Sorvino begins mapping out the strategy for the scene. Though everyone on this Santa Clarita sound stage is a seasoned pro, there is a certain deference accorded Sorvino. They know how much this production matters.

It’s understandable if the line between the coach and Sorvino is a bit fuzzy. Just as the character is watching the glory of days-gone-by crumble, the actor-director is reliving a crowning achievement of his own past--and a failure. “That Championship Season” provided Sorvino his big break more than 25 years ago. He had the role of duplicitous former team member Phil Romano in the original Broadway production, a part that earned him a Tony nomination.

But in a career spanning three decades, with roles in “GoodFellas,” “Nixon” and “Bulworth” among many others, “Championship Season” looms as perhaps Sorvino’s greatest frustration. A 1982 movie version of the play in which he reprised the Romano role--with an ailing, aged Robert Mitchum as the coach and an inexperienced, unprepared playwright Miller thrust last-minute into the director’s chair--is universally viewed as a great disappointment, an air ball at the buzzer.

Since then, righting that wrong has been a mission for Sorvino.

“I owe it to [the original cast] and I owe it to the author,” says Sorvino, sitting in his dressing trailer as a stylist fits a gray hairpiece over his still jet-black pate to transform him into character. “That’s why I’m doing the movie. I wanted to see the author’s work properly committed to film.”


No one could be happier about it than the author himself.

“They should have had another director [on the original film],” says Miller, 59, by phone from his home in Scranton. “I didn’t have a map. I was going through the woods looking for a path.”

Miller was more or less resigned to not getting another chance to realize the play on film. But last year Sorvino approached him about giving it another go.

“Paul called me and said, ‘I’ve always wanted to direct it’ . . . and said, ‘Would you update the script?’ ” recalls Miller, who quickly agreed.

And Sorvino stayed involved, spending time with the author as Miller revised the play to make it work in a present setting, and as they devised ways to take advantage of the medium by moving some of the action out of the house.

“Paul goes from depth,” Miller says. “He knows the play is really about the complexity of human beings and he’ll play with that. When I was rewriting the script with him, his perceptions to my mind deepened it. This was the beginning of his career and he has a deep love and affinity for the script. And that’s one main reason I said, ‘Go ahead and do it.’ ”

Securing the Much-in-Demand Actors

Assembling the cast was not quite as simple. Sorvino was not looking merely to make a quality presentation, but to pass the torch to a new generation of actors who could return the play to its preeminent stature.


Could he find actors not just with the talent to do it, but ones who would share his passion for the piece? That was tricky. “That Championship Season,” for all its acclaim, had fallen out of the regular repertoire--in part due to the failed film.

“I never saw the original film, I’d only heard about it,” says Sinise, who earned a supporting actor Oscar nomination for “Forrest Gump” and a best actor Emmy for “George Wallace.” “And I never saw it on the stage.”

D’Onofrio, the alien of “Men in Black” and the hair-trigger private in “Full Metal Jacket,” was at a similar disadvantage when Sorvino first approached him about playing Romano.

“I know it’s one of the best American dramas written,” he says, “but I’d just read it as a play. I’d never seen it or the film.”

Sorvino, though, thrived in the role of recruiter.

“When I sat down with Paul at dinner one night [to talk about doing the film], when he talked about it he got choked up,” says Sinise, who was persuaded to also take the role of executive producer. “That kind of passion put it in perspective.”

Sinise, in turn, brought in Kinney, with whom he is a founder and director of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater, a company renowned for its solid, innovative presentations of both classics and more obscure and new plays. Shalhoub, with a strong theater background before coming to public recognition in the TV sitcom “Wings” and as the obsessive Italian chef in Stanley Tucci’s “Big Night,” was then signed up by Sorvino. And D’Onofrio, called out of the blue by the director whom he had never met before, was convinced enough that he and his wife agreed he should give up some planned down time between movies to take this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.


The dynamics crystallized in the first days of rehearsal, with Sinise as Tom Daley, an alcoholic writer who has moved out of town, and Kinney as his junior-high principal brother James, who also serves as campaign manager for Shalhoub’s George Sitkowski, who has become Scranton’s embattled mayor.

“I had to struggle to get this cast all together at the same time,” Sorvino says of his much-in-demand actors. “But I got the dream cast I wanted. I don’t think a better cast will be assembled at any time for this piece. Everyone is so right for their roles and they’re such masters. We speak in shorthand. I don’t have to go through all the things I would have to do with younger or less-experienced actors to boost them into the performance.”

The Actor Playing the Director’s Part

D’Onofrio, arguably, had the toughest job among the actors, playing the part that his director and co-star had originated.

“It took me about a week to get comfortable,” D’Onofrio says. “For him to get comfortable with me playing [Phil] and me to get comfortable with him directing, knowing he’d played the part.”

Sorvino, though, says D’Onofrio needed little guidance.

“He has a different personality going in--he’s cooler than I was, hipper,” he says. “And yet he goes to all the same emotional places. He’s a different kind of person, and yet I see [him doing] some things exactly as I did them, and I never said a word. And then certain things he does . . . I wish I’d done that when I played it. So he’s gone beyond that, interpretively.”

For Sorvino’s part, he was leaving little to chance. In addition to acting, directing, producing and working with Miller on the script adaptations, he also worked with set designer John Decure to make the house virtually a sixth character (Sorvino is a painter who has had gallery exhibitions).


It’s easy to conclude that he hopes this version will stand as a definitive presentation of “That Championship Season.”

“I wouldn’t be so arrogant to say that,” Sorvino says. “It is my hope that by assembling this extraordinary cast of actors and an extraordinary group of technical people we have lived up to the material of this wonderful play.”

This production actually comes at a time when “That Championship Season” is having something of a resurgence. A new Broadway version had a brief run this spring at New York’s Second Stage Theatre, devoted to revival productions.

“I lived too long--my past has caught up with me,” says Miller, laughing about the sudden interest in “Season” after years of a lower profile.

These new productions, he suggests, will test the durability of the material. The actors playing the former teammates--and more importantly, much of the audience--is a step or two removed from the post-World War II generation whose ethic was explored in the original.

“It will be fascinating to see how people react to it now,” Miller says. “It’s not politically correct. It’s about the essence of the country, winning at all costs, about betrayal and friendship and forgiveness. There’s a universal appeal. You could do it set in 1920 or the 1990s or 2010.”


Success now could well affirm “Season” as belonging alongside the other essential American plays of this century, capturing a facet of the nation’s psyche.

Still, Miller, who’s finishing a new play titled “Me and My Old Man” that will feature the playwright and his son, actor Jason Patric (“Rush,” “Sleepers”), shrugs off that notion.

“I didn’t write it to say that this is my interpretation of the essence of America or my criticism of it,” he says. “I just put five guys in a room and listened to them, and they happened to be the reunion of a basketball team.”


* “That Championship Season” airs Sunday at 8 p.m. on Showtime. The network has rated it TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14).