Feature: Berenger takes on 'Bear'

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter  |  Dec. 13, 2002 at 3:00 AM
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LOS ANGELES, Dec. 13 (UPI) -- For actor Tom Berenger, filming the new ESPN original movie "The Junction Boys" was a crash course on one of college football's all-time crash courses -- legendary coach Paul "Bear" Bryant's 1954 boot camp of a college football training camp at Texas A&M University.

The Oscar- and Emmy-nominated actor is 10 years older than Bryant was when he took the head coaching job at Texas A&M and subjected his team to a brutal pre-season regimen at Junction, Texas -- where temperatures routinely climbed into the 100s and there was little relief from an ongoing drought.

But Berenger told United Press International he felt like a college student when he was preparing for the role and shooting the picture -- mainly because it seemed as though he was trying to cram a semester into one night. He had two weeks to get ready for the shoot, so he read some books about Bryant, talked to some people who knew the coach and looked at some footage of Bryan making speeches.

Three weeks after getting the role, he was shooting in Australia. Four weeks later, he was flying back home to South Carolina.

"I don't think I've ever worked so fast," he said. "I told the director if one thing goes wrong -- the weather, or somebody getting sick -- the whole thing would have fallen apart like a house of cards."

Mike Robe -- directing from his own adaptation of Jim Dent's book, "The Junction Boys" -- brought the steady hand of a veteran to the project, with a resume that includes the TV movies "Scared Silent" (2002) and "Within These Walls" (2001), the miniseries "Return to Lonesome Dove" (1993) and stints on the '80s TV series "Hotel" and "Matt Houston."

For the football scenes, Robe had help from a cameraman from NFL Films, which -- as much as any other film company -- elevated sports cinematography to an art form.

"He did scrimmages, blocking drills and tackling drills," said Berenger, suggesting that viewers who know their football will find the scenes believable.

"The Junction Boys" is ESPN's second original TV movie, following last year's "A Season on the Brink," starring Brian Dennehy as legendary hothead college basketball coach Bob Knight.

Bryant was never as volatile as Knight, but he was every bit as intense.

"His entire life was spent as an obsessive-compulsive workaholic, a perfectionist -- all those things," said Berenger.

The "Summer of Junction" may have constituted an extreme example of Bryant's dominant theme as a coach: "If you believe in yourself and have dedication and pride and never quit, you'll be a winner. The price of victory is high but so are the rewards."

But Berenger said Bryant began to mellow after that summer.

"From age 40 until he died at 69, he learned how to apologize," said Berenger. "He learned how to have some grace. He learned to lose."

But Bryant never learned to work less than 16-18 hours a day, which Berenger said is probably what killed him.

"One reason he was successful was because he worked so hard," said Berenger. "He didn't believe entirely in talent. Some of the teams he had were not the biggest, strongest, fastest, but they had heart. He was pretty mean but pretty fair as well."

Bryant started the Junction training camp with more than 100 prospects. After 10 days, all but 34 had gone home.

The survivors went 1-9 in 1954.

"Part of it was because they were so depleted," said Berenger, "but even the games they lost, they lost by one or two points. The next year they were winners."

Two years later, they were undefeated, and Bryant was well on the way to becoming the very model of American college football coaches.

"A lot of coaches base themselves after Bear Bryant," said Berenger. "They adopted his coaching methods, his training methods -- guys even built towers (to look out over every aspect of practice) like he did later at Alabama."

Bryant was national coach of the year three times and coached six national championship teams (1961, '64, '65, '73, '78, '79). In 1981, he became the winningest Division I football coach in history -- a record that stood until Penn State's Joe Paterno surpassed it 20 years later. Sixty-five of his players were named first team All-Americans.

A veteran of more than 50 feature films -- including "Major League," "The Big Chill" and "Gettysburg" -- Berenger won a Golden Globe and was nominated for a support actor Oscars for "Platoon" in 1987. In 1993, he was nominated for an Emmy for a guest-star appearance on "Cheers."

"The Junction Boys" premieres on ESPN on Dec. 14.

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