Now that it is finally available on DVD, let me tell you a few things about Brett Rapkin’s have-to-make-this-movie-or-die-trying ode to Bill Lee.
Rapkin was the writer-director of the 2006 documentary “Spaceman: A Baseball Odyssey”. Rapkin also co-produced the film with Josh Dixon. They followed Bill, still playing baseball nearly 25 years after he threw his last pitch in the majors for the Expos, from Vermont to Cuba, while he teaches, manages and plays the sport he loves so much. The film (definitely worth finding – as is another documentary on Bill that was released two years later called “High & Outside” directed by Peter Vojt. It’s more of a straightforward but poetic look at Bill’s life and career) also provides the necessary background which focuses on Bill’s career as a member of the Expos. To provide context, Rapkin used some key footage from the original Bill Lee documentary produced by Bill Brownstein “Bill Lee – Profile of a Pitcher” which was released in the early 80s. (Now that’s a film that needs to be revisited.)
I helped organize the Montreal debut screening of “Spaceman: A Baseball Odyssey” aided by what was then The Team 990’s promotion department. It played to an overflow (and overly refreshed) crowd – which included Bob Gainey – at Concordia University. I recall a post event dinner at Vargas where Brett told me how pleased he was with the reception and how he eventually would love to make a motion picture about Bill’s life. I remember thinking “good luck with that”.
Woody Harrelson had already purchased the rights to Bill’s story. But when a script was sent to Bill at his home in Vermont it was – as he explained to me on the radio – tossed into the fireplace by his ex-wife Pam. Harrelson and Ron Shelton had teamed up for a classic sports-themed movie (kind of) “White Men Can’t Jump” and while the same combo sounded very promising for a movie version of Bill’s book “The Wrong Stuff” it just wasn’t going to happen, as years passed and Harrelson became too old to play a younger Bill Lee.
So Rapkin, who had moved from his home in LA to New York City to work for a sports film production company, did have an opening and never stopped thinking about it, even as he produced well received docs on the Israeli Baseball League and American skiing star Bode Miller, among many others. I knew he was serious because he kept coming back to Montreal to scout for locations. But then again there might have been another reason or two to return to Montreal as Brett, like many visitors before him, was smitten by our city.
A couple of years ago I received a call from Brett asking if I would be interested in joining a shoot in The Berkshires. Not just any shoot. The shoot. He was actually ready to go. Script, locations, actors, crew – it was all done. He wanted me to play myself in a cameo. It was an exciting time. But before I could finalize travel plans he called me back. One day before he was prepared to pack everything up and head to the hills for production Brett was distraught. He had been informed by Bill – who had script approval – that The Spaceman’s support had been withdrawn. I don’t know what happened, other than there were elments that Bill wasn’t happy about. But at that point I felt Brett’s pain. He had been living with the project for years and now it really did appear dead. (If you’re wondering who was going to play the role of Bill I can say this – He’s a well known, terrific actor who’s been around for decades. With the same last name of a former Expos bench player.)
But clearly Brett persevered. A year or so later he was at it again, back home in Los Angeles. Raising money had become an issue but he seemed very excited when I met him on the beach in Santa Monica in December of 2014. Josh Duhamel had agreed to play Bill for a fraction of what he normally receives. I was vaguely aware of Duhamel not necessarily through “Transformers” (I had seen only the original) but via 2004’s “Win A Date With Tad Hamilton!”. It wasn’t Kate Bosworth that brought me to the cinema but rather my daughters who were 10 and 7 at the time. I wasn’t aware of Josh’s long background in TV nor did I know anything about his love of sports. Rapkin filled me in.
Still, I’ll admit I was skeptical when I sat in the theatre for the debut screening of “Spaceman” during the weekend of ExposFest. But I was overjoyed in a hurry. I watched Josh Duhamel not only portray Bill Lee for 90 minutes, he was Bill Lee. The playfullness, the sweetness, the slyness and humour, the competitveness and the vulnerability – in addition to the spot-on mannerisms – that Bill possesses was captured beautifully. And he can throw (even if Rapkin did have to reverse the film to turn his star into a southpaw). My biggest concern was alleviated following the opening scene, although, as Bill likes to say, “His (Duhamel) ass is a lot skinnier.”
So then it was a case of watching the rest of the story, which I know so well, play out. Brett Rapkin’s love of Montreal was clearly established. He caught the spirit of the city at the time, especially through the scenes at Grumpy’s. It was a bar that many a Montreal legend hung at including Mordecai Richler, Nick Auf der Maur and, while he managed the Expos for seven years, Buck Rodgers. (When Buck was fired by Dave Dombrowski he decided to hold his farewell news conference at Grumpy’s, aided and abetted by Expos media relations director Rich Griffin. That tale is worthy of its own documentary.)
It’s May 1982 – seven months after Rick Monday had dashed the Expos World Series hopes – and Bill’s best friend on the team Rodney Scott, who is played by Emmy award winner Sterling K. Brown (Christopher Darden in The People V OJ Simpson: American Crime Story), has just been released. Any longtime Expos fan knows what happened next. Bill confronted manager Jim Fanning and was informed of his own release by President & GM John McHale (the names were changed in the movie on the advice of lawyers) but not before he bolted from the team during an Olympic Stadium match up against the Dodgers to get loaded at a nearby brasserie (bartender played by Cy Young award winner Eric Gagne who helped finance the film). The film traces Bill’s attempt to return to the majors while playing for the semi-pro (charitable term) Longueuil Senateurs (Ernie Hudson of Ghostbusters fame is their first baseman) while at the same time trying to deal with his crumbling marriage (in truth, he had already been divorced).
Brett Rapkin delivered a love letter to Montreal. And he made a movie with traces of “Slap Shot”, “The Bad News Bears”, “Bull Durham” and “The Big Lebowski”. On a budget that gives new meaning even to the term “Indie film”. One might quibble with a couple of scenes (including one featuring an Olympic Stadium security guard whose French accent is Parisian instead of Quebecois) but if you’re a Bill Lee fan you will love the warmth, sincerity and poignancy of the story. Plus you’ll laugh a lot. And if the final scene doesn’t move you to tears, then you probably think the Expos did the right thing in the spring of 1982 when they released Rowland Office, Rodney Scott and Bill Lee while ripping out the soul of the Team of the 80s.
Still can’t figure out if it was Bill re-living those heady days, Duhamel’s incredible performance (which should lead to some heavy duty gigs) or the what-might-have-been element that caused him to weep when he first saw the film at a private screening in Montreal. I always knew he had a big heart. But in many ways it’s still broken.
Spaceman: A baseball stoner movie that hits a triple. Now available on DVD: