If you’re a fan of baseball movies then you have to be a fan of Art LaFleur. He’s appeared in three of my favorites: “The Sandlot,” “Mr. Baseball” and, of course, “Field Of Dreams.” After college Mr. LaFleur, an Indiana native, moved to Chicago until a friend convinced him to try his luck in California. He slowly built a resume that continues to grow today. Mr. LaFleur took time out recently to speak with Movie Mikes:
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Michael Smith: You played football at the University of Kentucky. Any thoughts of going pro?
Art LaFleur: I was too small, even then, it seemed to me. I was about six foot and weighed 210 pounds. Halfbacks were bigger then I was! (laughs) I held my own but they just kicked the hell out of us. It was one of those things where I just knew it was not going to happen as far as the pros were concerned. And actually I’m glad about it now because I can still walk. There are guys I know that played pro ball, especially back then, that had their knees messed up. Not a good thing.
MS: What made you decide to pursue acting?
AF: I came out to California in 1975. I was 32 years old. A friend of mine convinced me. I thought I wanted to be a writer and the only person I knew out here was an actor that I had known in Chicago. He convinced me that an acting class would help my writing. So I started studying acting with that in mind. And after about six months I just got more interested in the acting side of it. In 1978 I got into my first union, which was Equity. I did an Equity play at the Mark Taper Forum. And within a couple months of that I got my SAG card and my AFTRA card, so by the end of 1978 I was in all three unions. I was a working actor.
MS: You studied under Gordon Hunt (father of Oscar winner Helen Hunt). What is the best advice he gave you that has benefited you most?
AF: Gordon gave us a lot of good stuff but I think one of the most positive things that Gordon did was…every once in a while Gordon would be talking to somebody on the stage…actors who had just done a scene or a monologue. And every once in a while he would turn around to us, the class, and say, “Remember. Acting is fun. And an audition is a chance to act. It’s not adversarial, because the people at the audition are hoping you’re going to be the one, because if you are the one that they’re looking for…their job is solved.” He really introduced a very positive attitude toward acting that was great. And it’s served me well through the years.
MS: You had a brief part in “Any Which Way You Can,” which starred Clint Eastwood. Later you worked with him in “City Heat.” Did he remember you?
AL: I’ve worked with Clint on three different films and he’s always been very nice. But because I had small parts I didn’t really know him that well. It’s not like I could walk up and say, “Hey, Clint, how are you?” and he’d say, “Hey, Art, how are you?” Finally on “City Heat” I had a little bit more to do. Clint kept to himself and of course I didn’t want to bother him.
MS: You worked with Stallone on both “Cobra” and “Oscar,” two very different films. How was his approach to the two roles?
AL: When we worked together on “Oscar” we had already done “Cobra.” When we did “Cobra” he was nice. He was aloof…he was falling in love. His girlfriend at the time (later Stallone’s wife, Brigitte Nielsen) was appearing in the film so he of course had his own agenda. But then when I did “Oscar” I walked onto the set the first day and he was sitting at a table, in between takes. I saw him from a distance and when he saw me he said (in a great Stallone voice), “Arthur. How you doing, man?” (laughs) He’s always been very nice to me. I like Sly. He’s a very intelligent guy. You know, we had just finished the first week of “Oscar” here (California) at Universal when they had a big fire on the back lot. It completely burned the whole set. We were shooting on “New York” street, where they had all kinds of antique cars. They lost everything. So I was put on “force majeure” for about a week and then we moved the production to Universal and Disney in Florida. (Readers, “force majeure” is a clause in a contract that covers unexpected problems, including “acts of God,” which the fire would be classified as. In this case, had the production of “Oscar” been cancelled due to the fire, the studio would not be liable to pay the actors or filmmakers the balance of money owed).
MS: You played Chick Gandil in “Field of Dreams.” Did you have any sense about the effect the film would have on the public when released?
AL: You know, it was a really great script. I mean they didn’t change hardly anything. There was one scene, where James Earl Jones gets ready to go out into the corn, where they changed the lines a little bit to make the scene work better. But other than that, as far as I know, it was pretty much shot as written. It was such a good script that we knew it really had a chance of doing well. But did we know it was going to be as well received as it was? No. We didn’t know that but we knew we were doing something special. When I went to audition for the film, after I read for the part, they had all of the guys that were being considered to meet at a park at nine in the morning and try out…play some baseball so they could see how we handled ourselves. There were maybe 10 or 12 of us and they were looking for three or four actors…Ray Liotta was already cast as “Shoeless” Joe so they were looking for another three or four guys. They gathered us up on the infield and told us to go the base that we felt most comfortable at. They hit us some ground balls and had us throw the ball around so they could see how we could play. I immediately ran over to first base and there was one other guy, who was younger than I was…he was going to be my competition. There was just the two of us at first base. They hit a ground ball to me and I fielded it and threw it back. They hit another ground ball and I fielded it and threw it back. Then it was his turn. They hit him a ground ball, he fielded it…but the guy couldn’t throw. It was like he never played baseball before. And I remember standing outside the baseline watching and thinking to myself, “I think I’m going to get this job!” (laughs) We got to use modern day gloves then but for the film they had us report to Iowa about ten days before we were supposed to start shooting and we practiced using the older stuff. Wood bats and older gloves. And the old gloves were like holding a piece of leather. Someone threw a ball to you and it was like putting a piece of leather between you and the ball. So we put these big foam pads inside the mitts. Chick Gandil was known as “Iron Hands” because, in order to make ends meet, when he wasn’t playing baseball he was a fighter. There were times when Chick would be at first base and there would be a ground ball to the infield. He’d go over to cover first base and the ball would be thrown out of reach of his glove hand. But by stretching he could catch the ball barehanded in his other hand. Of course, everyone back then had to have iron hands because the mitts were nothing.
MS: Another film that is cherished by baseball fans young and old is “The Sandlot.” Were you nervous about stepping into the Babe’s spikes?
AL: When I went to read for the part…I had just read “The Babe,” a biography of Babe Ruth. So when I went into the audition I went in “as” Babe. I wore a newsboy kind of hat. I went in with a cigar…the Babe always had a cigar. Babe Ruth, when he would see kids, he would always say, “hi keed.” He would always use the word “keed” for kid. And he had a habit of slurring his words. When he would talk about baseball he would say “baysh-baw.” I went to read for Mickey David Evans (the writer/director of the film) and about halfway through he said, “he’s the guy!”
MS: What film gets you recognized most: “Field of Dreams” or “The Santa Clause?”
AL: It used to be “Field of Dreams,” then later “Santa Clause” but lately it’s been “The Sandlot.” You know it’s funny, every once in a while someone will come up and say, “Hey, you’re Art LaFleur!” They’ll use my real name. And I’m so shocked at that. I can understand somebody recognizing me from one of those films we’ve talked about but knowing my actual name? When they say, “you’re Art LaFleur, aren’t you,” I’m always surprised. I’m always recognized for “The Sandlot.” In fact, just yesterday, I had somebody say, “Hey, Babe Ruth! How ya’ doing, Babe?” I was at Wrigley Field in Chicago with my family many years ago. It was like one of the hottest days ever in Chicago. The Cubs had won that day, thank God, and we were downstairs after the game in one of the men’s room. Inside there is a big circular hand washing trough and people were putting their heads underneath the spray of water because it was so hot. So I put my head under and when I take it out I start drying my dripping face with paper towels. And I look into the doorway and catch three guys all looking at me. Finally, one of them says, “Hey, you look just like that guy from “Field of Dreams.” And with a dripping head I look up at him and say, “well, I was in that movie.” And the guy says, “Nah! But you look just like him.” (laughs)
MS: You worked on “Hill Street Blues.” The producers never revealed what city the show was set in, though I’ve always thought it was Chicago. Any idea?
AL: No. I’ve always assumed it was more like Los Angeles but it’s interesting that you say that because that’s an aspect I never really thought about. It never came up. Interesting.
MS: You appeared in my all time favorite episode of “The John Larroquette Show.” Which do you prefer doing: comedy or drama?
AL: I like comedy and, if it’s the right script, I like drama. I think when playing comedy you have to play it just a little more broadly. You need to really be assertive and convinced that you’re the person when you’re playing comedy. And the more sincere you are…that makes you a little more broader. But the more sincere you are and the more convinced you are doing the right thing…if it’s funny it’s funny and if it’s not it’s not.
MS: Would you prefer to spend several months on one film role, developing the character or to have several television roles in the same period?
AL: Obviously I think that the more time you have to spend with a character the more you find out about him. When I did the movie “Air America” I had time before each audition…I did like three or four auditions for that film…and finally, on the last one I read with Robert Downey, Jr. and I got the part. But I had three auditions leading up to the last one and each time I had the time to explore the character…to make it my own. And then when I got the part I had a few weeks prior to us going to Thailand. Then we did the cockpit stuff in England for five weeks. So I think the more time you have the better. You can make the character more interesting.
MS: As a former football player did you give the cast any tips on “The Replacements”?
AL: No. (laughs) Alan Graff was the second unit director and also the football coordinator and adviser on the film. When all of the good hits happened on the field, he was the guy behind them. Alan had played for USC and was on one of the national championship teams of the early 1970s. I had known Alan because I had seen him on commercial auditions for the past 15-20 years prior to shooting the film. So one day Alan asked me if I’d like to come out with the second unit. So we went out and he had all of the different outfits that were worn depending on the team that we played. Alan would have me get in wardrobe and stand on the sidelines with all of these extras and he would have me go through all of these different gyrations…the ones a defensive coordinator would go through. Sending signals, that kind of thing. They would have me throw my hat down…I was elated…I was pissed off. So I’m in these different outfits and he shot almost little vignettes of me doing different stuff on the sidelines. The only thing I asked was that he make me look like I knew what the hell I was doing! Because playing football is one thing. Being a coach is another. I’ve always thought I was a good football player. Football coach…I’m not so sure. But I was very committed to looking like I knew what I was doing. We worked on some hand signals and had fun with it. And when the final film came out they used a lot of it. During the games they would cut to me and I’d either be happy or sad or whatever. I was very grateful to Alan for that because he made me look like I knew what I was doing. Having played the stuff where I’m on the sled and yelling at the players…I already knew how to do that!
MS: What do you have coming up?
AL: I just did a pilot presentation called “The Guy Suave’ Project.” What they are doing more and more is something called a pilot presentation. Rather than having a $15 million budget to shoot an actual full hour pilot, what they do is take a couple million bucks and have a three day shoot where they shoot a 10-12 minute version…a short scenario of what the show could be like. “The Guy Suave’ Project” is for the Cartoon Network. It was a four day shoot and it’s a live action spoof on the spy genre…the 007 genre. When I first read the script I saw there was a lot of foul language. The first scene has Guy Suave’ parachuting into some compound and as he’s landing he’s shooting the guards. And as he shoots the first guard he says, “F*** you!” Boom. “Asshole!” Boom. And when I read it I thought, “what the hell is this?” This is never going to make prime time…”Pussy!” Boom. (laughs) There was all of this foul language. So I called my agent and said, “What is this?” And he told me it was a legitimate thing for the Cartoon Network. It will only run late at night for adult viewing. So I went and auditioned for it and then I did the call back and I got the job. So I’m waiting to hear on that. And I’m also getting ready to do a webisode project…a short scenario that the writer/director will take and try to sell. And I’m still auditioning for commercials and whatever comes up. I’m looking for work!
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