When it comes to sports movies, it would be hard to find one that follows the classic underdog formula better than Necessary Roughness, which was released 25 years ago this week. The college football comedy tells the story of Ed Gennero (Héctor Elizondo), the rare breed of coach that always played by the rules and never let his players cut corners or take gifts. Hence, his cleverly rhymed nickname: “Straight Arrow.” He’s the exact opposite of what the film’s Texas State University Fightin’ Armadillos had become while winning back-to-back college football championships, and so he becomes the only man for the job when the program receives the death penalty for a slew of NCAA violations.
Of course, with no scholarships comes little opportunity for success, and as such Gennero’s new Armadillo squad is a group of colorful characters that have no business on a college football field. On top of the penalties and sanctions, Gennero has to deal with the stuffy Dean Elias (Larry Miller), who would simply prefer that his university had no football program at all. Consequently, he disqualifies most of the coach’s new players, leaving coach with just 17 men, meaning that almost everyone will have to play old school ironman football. One of the few exceptions is a truly creative choice for quarterback, a 34-year-old former state high school champion named Paul Blake, played by then-37-year-old Scott Bakula.
Filling Out a Roster
“I knew I played football, the football part was nothing.”
The last time Bakula played any form of organized football he was a freshman in high school. That would have been around 1970, six years before he’d move from St. Louis to New York City to begin his career as an actor. “I was very tiny and I got the crap kicked out of me for a season,” he recalls of his lone year of high school football before he wisely moved on to soccer and tennis, or sports that gave him a better “chance for survival.” The next time he’d put on pads would come 21 years later when he’d suit up to play Blake.
“When I first got the script, I absolutely loved it and I was very excited,” Bakula tells us of what was only his second film. At that point in his career, he was making a name for himself as Dr. Sam Beckett on the NBC series Quantum Leap, so it was only natural that Hollywood wanted to capitalize on this rugged hunk’s All-American appeal. He got the call to audition for Necessary Roughness while filming an episode of Quantum Leap about the Cuban Missile Crisis. That same day he drove from the Valley to the Paramount lot for a quick tryout. Writers Rick Natkin and David Fuller took Bakula between two sound stages and had him pretend to be a QB for his screen test. Fortunately, Bakula has always been a natural athlete, so he looked the part.
Most of the actors who landed roles in Necessary Roughness had at least a basic athletic background, but one of the film’s stars had them all beat. Peter “Navy” Tuiasosopo, who played the TSU center Manumana “The Slender,” was a captain on his high school football team and the most experienced athlete in the cast. The problem: He didn’t have an acting background (unless you count appearing in a David Lee Roth music video). Big deal, every actor has a first role, right? Yeah, but Tuiasosopo didn’t have an agent when he arrived at Paramount to audition, and, much more importantly, he didn’t actually have an audition. What he had was an inside tip from his uncle Bob Apisa, an actor and stuntman, who heard from stunt coordinator Allan Graf that a football movie was looking for a Samoan to play football.
“It was just to play some football,” Tuiasosopo recalls of the role, as he didn’t have any other details when he showed up at the Paramount lot. Yet the aspiring actor talked his way into casting director Mindy Marin’s office, where she realized he was a lock for the part, mainly because in a room of 35 people, he was the only Samoan person auditioning for the role of a Samoan.
Tuiasosopo’s cloud popped when Marin’s assistant dropped a bombshell on him: He wasn’t auditioning to simply play a football player. He was auditioning for a lead role. He had never even seen a script. “I knew I played football, the football part was nothing,” he says, but having to learn his lines in roughly 45 minutes, while sitting in a bathroom stall, had the big man sweating bullets. In fact, when he left his audition he said to himself, “Man, you sucked, Pete,” but he got his cloud back when director Stan Dragoti followed him out and told him he that he had the part.
Tuiasosopo was ecstatic, obviously, especially when he got the call that he’d be making $5,000 a week on his first film. Of course, he could have made more if he’d been SAG, but he really didn’t care. “I would have done it for freaking peanuts.” He set one humble rule for himself while filming: “Make it look like you know what you’re doing.”
Looking the Part
“We were literally playing football and I got my head handed to me.”
A lot of sports movies fail on the field. Some actors look like they’ve never picked up a ball before and have no business pretending to be a jock. That the team wasn’t supposed to look worked in everyone’s favor on Necessary Roughness. Yes, Bakula’s Blake was once a stud QB, but the farmer had to show signs of rust. His teammates were just students who walked into an open practice and landed roster spots because they had pulses. So, not only did the actors have to look like they could play football, but they had to also look like they sucked.