amazing grace

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.


The film’s military-related scenes proved to be a major challenge. Twice, local military officials offered their sites to the crew, then suddenly declined after hearing from the Department of Defense.


Field was puzzled. But he soon discovered that Amazing Grace and Chuck had come to the attention of some very powerful people in government. Correspondence acquired through a Freedom of Information Act request shows that on June 27, 1986, Robert B. Sims, the defense department’s Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, laid out the objections to the script in a memo to Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. “There is no way the story can be changed to warrant assistance under the criteria established by DOD for cooperation with motion picture productions,” wrote Sims, who also derided the film as “unrealistic.” Six days later, Weinberger officially denied the crew Department of Defense assistance. In a letter to Senator Alan Cranston (D-CA), who supported the film, Weinberger explained that the story didn’t “accurately portray US efforts to maintain nuclear deterrence, to seek arms reductions, and to keep the peace.”


“Caspar Weinberger knew that this movie was actually a blueprint,” Field says, “because there’s nothing in this movie that could not happen. Nothing. There’s nobody from outer space. There’s no little fairy coming down with her wand. This is not about how a wooden boy becomes a real boy. This is about how an actual boy makes a connection that he himself does not understand.”


The government’s objection was an unfortunate bit of foreshadowing.


“It’s a brutal truth, the movie business,” Curtis says. “So few movies find a big audience, and certainly a movie like that—a fable about something—is going to strike a chord, but the chances of it finding a big audience was never the goal.” The goal, she explains, was “to make a beautiful movie” and everyone worked for scale to make that happen. “It was not intended to be a money-maker.” 


“Your reward for wading through all this is a simple message: One person can make a difference. And even if one person can't make a difference, what counts is going through life believing one can.”—Rick Reilly, Sports Illustrated


The Saturday morning before Memorial Day, Amazing Grace and Chuck’s opening weekend, a friend called Field to inform him that the soundtracks to both prints in the only Los Angeles theater showing the film didn’t work. All showings were canceled. But Field then remembered that Gregory Peck knew Michael Jackson, who had a complimentary print. Peck drove Field to Jackson’s fortified compound-studio in Encino, which was surrounded by razor wire and patrolled by armed guards, and secured the print. Two film canisters now sat in the trunk of his green 1961 Bentley S2 Continental. Peck, unshaven and wearing a track suit, navigated “The Mockingbird Bentley” down the 405 to make the noon show.


“What does today feel like?” Field, a mortal, asked the Hollywood god.


“You know, you're an interesting fellow,” said Peck in that stately baritone. “First you get me to work for free. Now you have me delivering film.”


Tri-Star treated Amazing Grace and Chuck as an afterthought. It played in just 60 theaters nationwide, Field recalled, and was poorly promoted. Then, in a flash, it was gone—and along with it, Field’s career. He had left a $250,000 producing deal at 20th Century Fox to shop his idea, returning the uncashed check to the studio’s head lawyer, and then called in every conceivable favor he had coming to get the film made.


“I’m not even a footnote anymore,” he says.


But the film’s impact, at least on those who participated in its making, was undeniable. Bass, who became an in-demand screenwriter (The Joy Luck Club, My Best Friend’s Wedding), gets asked about Amazing Grace and Chuck all the time. For Zuehlke, it was an unforgettable coming-of-age experience. “It just fundamentally changed me,” he says. “It changed the way that I felt about my level of creativity, it changed my perception of adults in some ways, not just as authority figures but as people that I could interact with and that I had value to them. Because of the story—it was about a kid having a voice—so I had a voice.”


It took years for Field, now 75, to recognize the value of Amazing Grace and Chuck. He’s still loath to cite the film as influential, save for personally. When he decided to write about a boy who decided to make a difference, Field “became more interesting to myself.” Once that happened, he didn’t need proof that he had made a difference. As Field says, if he needs proof, he’s fucked.


“Let me put it very plainly,” he says. “If you never write the article, in my world, it is such a privilege to talk to another human being about these things. I don’t care if you ever publish this. I have no idea what your story could be or not be. But what I do know is, I’m talking to another human being from my heart about this. That’s enough.”


Victor Feldman, the former head of Tri-Star, claims to have no memory of making the movie.