words: pete croatto
art: nathan mckee
“As amazingly bad as it is audacious, [the film] will live forever in the hearts of connoisseurs of Hollywood's most memorably outrageous moments.”—Variety
David Field had never written a screenplay. But this idea consumed him like a fever. He wrote the 57-page treatment in two days. Occasionally he would look up at the ceiling for an answer to the compulsion.
You fucked up. You're not a writer.
The former studio executive was in the middle of writing what would become 1987’s Amazing Grace and Chuck, one of the most improbable major-studio projects ever committed to celluloid. The plot: star Montana Little League pitcher Chuck Murdock (Joshua Zuehlke), rattled by a field trip to a missile silo, decides to give up baseball until all countries have disarmed their nuclear arsenals. His act touches Boston Celtics star Amazing Grace Smith (Alex English), and the duo starts an anti-nukes movement that captures the attention of the United States, the USSR, and shadowy power brokers.
The film boasts its fair share of strangeness: then-Denver Nuggets star English in a Celtics jersey during an actual NBA preseason game; Jamie Lee Curtis, then known as a scream queen and burgeoning comedic cut-up, going full-on somber; and a jarring plot twist that gratuitously kills off one of the main characters in an exploding plane. But Amazing Grace and Chuck isn’t just pop culture arcana. It’s earnest, big-hearted, and morose. It was oddly prescient—“Kids are doing what the movie did,” Field says. “And they don’t even know that.” And it got made over the objections of the federal government.
“I think it’s a fucking miracle it exists,” Field says.
“…One of those films you either swallow wholeheartedly or don’t.”—Leonard Maltin
Field wrote the first draft of the script in 1983. It was then reworked by two future 1989 Oscar nominees, Naomi Foner (Running on Empty) and Ron Bass (Rain Man), both then relative unknowns. 20th Century Fox, where Field had a production deal, and Warner Brothers both expressed interest before bowing out. According to Field, some Fox executives deemed it “a Communist plot to overthrow America.”
Eventually, Tri-Star Pictures, Field’s former employer, signed on, with Field serving as producer. He was not unfamiliar with this role. As a United Artists executive, he had helped shepherd the legendarily misguided Heaven’s Gate. He started auditioning NBA players for the role of Amazing Grace Smith at a time when non-traditional actors were almost unheard of in Hollywood. He got some big names to come in, including Bulls forward Orlando Woolridge and Trail Blazers guard Clyde Drexler. But English just plain wanted it more. “Once I read the script, I said, ‘This is for me,’” he says. “This is my role. The role just spoke to me.” English, who had organized NBA players to aid Ethiopian famine victims, appreciated both the script’s activist bent and that it painted Smith as a full person motivated by his conscience. “It was,” he says, “a worthy role.”
In the mid-1980s, the NBA had begun to push strong characters like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson onto the public. The gentlemanly and demure English, a master of the mid-range game, hardly fit the bill—unless you got invited to one of his parties, where English played basement DJ, talking into the mic as the speakers thumped. The live music wasn’t too bad either: Earth, Wind, and Fire performed once. The parties represented everything great about the 1980s—“without the cocaine, obviously,” clarifies daughter Jade-Li English. Alex English had been writing poetry since college. He had an artistic side. He was also something of a film buff; his home was lined with VHS cassettes.
English captivated Field, who gave him the role over Danny Glover, then coming off The Color Purple and Witness. “He knows who he is,” Field says of English. “He’s not going to prove anything to you. He doesn’t need to. There’s a grace in that that is just breathtaking.” Amazing Grace had to have depth, says Curtis, “and Alex English has depth.”
The script also walloped Curtis. “It was the first time in my adult life, and my professional life, where I read something that felt like it had to get made and that I would offer up anything I could do to help it get made,” she says. Though Curtis has had her share of box office hits (Halloween, Trading Places), “none of them had really meant anything to me. And this clearly did.” She and William L. Petersen, who played Chuck’s dad, agreed to work for scale. The biggest coup was landing 70-year-old Gregory Peck, who had dialed back his film work. A day after reading the script, the film legend, a staunch Democrat, committed to his first movie in seven years. He would get just under $10,000 to portray the President of the United States.
“All these people were there for the right reason,” Zuehlke says.
When Curtis got the script from Field—Foner was Curtis’s friend—the title was Amazing Grace and Chuck: A Fable. Field considered his script a guide for the change he wanted to see in the world. Ideally, the film and its earnest, guileless characters would “bypass your brain and hit your heart,” Field says.
It might be a delayed reaction. “The hope was that you would come out of the theater and you’d go, ‘Well that was OK. That was a bit of fluff. Let’s go get a pi—’ And then you’d go, ‘What the fuck? How’d this get in my heart? The fuck!’”
“The film’s style is as doggedly ordinary as its story is preposterous.”—Janet Maslin, The New York Times
Amazing Grace and Chuck’s budget was meager—$5 million, according to Field. An initially reluctant Zuehlke wanted to quit, and was nearly fired by director Mike Newell. English, another acting newcomer, had to get over his discomfort in his new role.