Ron Shelton is 76 years old, his days as a minor-league baseball player now a half century ago and his breakthrough film as a writer and director a third of a century in the past.
But here we are in 2022, and people still are talking about him and his baseball-themed hit, “Bull Durham,” from 1988.
Now Shelton has written a new book about the experience, “The Church of Baseball: The Making of Bull Durham: Home Runs, Bad Calls, Crazy Fights, Big Swings, and a Hit.”
He will be at Huntington’s Cinema Arts Centre on July 29 for a screening, book signing and Q&A. (He also has two Manhattan appearances scheduled, at Barnes & Noble in Union Square on July 27 and Film Forum on July 28.)
"It’s really gratifying, to be honest, especially when you realize what a struggle it was to get it made, just trying to survive,” Shelton told Newsday. “And now, 35 years later, people are calling it a classic and they're still going to it. The book is selling great. So yeah, it's a little out-of-body experience, to be honest.
“One of the chapters starts in the book with, ‘The first job of a director is to not get fired.’ Somehow, we survived, and the movie thrived and it's a gift, really, and surprising still.”
The book is an insider’s look at how a film is made, from writing to production to marketing and beyond. Shelton has a surprising level of recall about the process, and the benefit of being young and naïve and eager to learn at the time.
The experience served him well in making other films, including several as a director and/or writer with sports topics, including “White Men Can’t Jump,” “Cobb,” “Blue Chips” and “Tin Cup.”
In the book, he covers difficult-to-believe details of the making of “Bull Durham,” such as being told that Susan Sarandon, who plays Annie Savoy, did not look good enough — and that she was too old to plausibly have a relationship with Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins).
“Shocking,” Shelton said of the perception of Sarandon, then in her early 40s and in a career lull. “And they said the movie wasn’t funny! But yes, they said nobody would believe Susan would ever sleep with Tim Robbins [who is 12 years her junior]. All I can say is I’m the godfather of their first-born.
"So many institutions have honored it as the best sports movie or one of the greatest, sexiest, romantic, funniest movies. It's on all these lists and I almost got fired because it wasn't any of those things.”
Once Kevin Costner, a rising star at the time, signed on to play catcher Crash Davis, a career minor-leaguer charged with mentoring the young pitcher LaLoosh, Shelton had a fighting chance to get the film made, and despite numerous hiccups, he did.
It would become one of several mid-to-late 1980s baseball films considered classics today, including “The Natural,” “Eight Men Out,” “Field of Dreams” and “Major League.”
Shelton said he is not big on nostalgia, preferring to move forward with new projects — several of which he has on his agenda, one with a Yankees tie — but when his editor and literary agent assured him he had a story to tell in book form, he agreed to write it.
The clincher was when a couple introduced Shelton to their young sons, named Crash and Nuke.
“The fact that people still talk about this movie all these years later still is amazing to me,” he said. “So I thought I would go back and revisit it.”
Shelton lives in California, but he has made several visits to Long Island, notably when he gathered information during the 1995 U.S. Open at Shinnecock before making “Tin Cup,” a popular golf movie.
“I got to hang out with television crews and the players and the caddies,” he said. “And I got to play National Golf Links, Maidstone and Shinnecock back-to-back-to-back. So that was very memorable.”
Even though his days in competitive sports are far behind him, Shelton said being an athlete — he rose as far as Triple-A in baseball — has informed his approach to sports films.
“It’s a view of the world and where you're trying to fight to make your living that is unique,” he said. “Also, I think it heightens your memory and your experience. It's why athletes tend to remember a 2-and-1 pitch 37 years ago.”
Shelton added, “I think that kind of goes with baseball, because it's just the focus of the game: pitch by pitch. And when you're young, these are the first important, indelible memories.”
For many moviegoers of the late ‘80s, “Bull Durham” remains an important, indelible memory. Now they can read how it happened.
“The fact that people still talk about this movie all these years later still is amazing to me. So I thought I would go back and revisit it.”
-- Ron Shelton