Monday, October 15, 2018
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Baseball movie made in Tampa Bay in 1986 is 'Long Gone'

Long Gone is a baseball movie that didn't last in the major leagues.

Filmed around Tampa Bay in 1986, the $5 million HBO project changed the rules as one of the cable giant's first in-house productions, paving the way for today's Emmy superiority.

Then it disappeared, like a hanging curve crushed by Cecil "Stud" Cantrell, player-manager for the fictional Tampico Stogies, owned by Deep South shysters in a town resembling old Ybor City.

Never officially released on DVD and unseen on HBO for more than a decade, Long Gone is banished to bootleg discs and downloads, copied from an eroding VHS print. HBO lost the rights to the movie in 2004.

"It kind of disappeared when we first did it," actor William Petersen (CSI: Crime Scene Investigation), who is still called "Stud" by friends, said in a telephone interview. "A lot of people haven't seen it — but a lot who have, including baseball players, love it."

Baseball fans over the years embraced Long Gone as a lost genre gem, ranked 50th in The Ultimate Book of Sports Movies: Featuring the 100 Greatest Sports Films. John J. O'Connor of the New York Times called the movie an "almost exuberant depiction of likable oddballs, caught perfectly in a time and place."

That place was Tampa Bay, and it's time to get Long Gone off the bench.

Long Gone is based on a novel by the late Paul Hemphill, who more than five decades ago worked as a sportswriter for the then Tampa afternoon newspaper, the Tampa Times. It is about the Graceville Oilers, a Class D minor league team led by Cantrell, dim bulb rookie Jamie Weeks and Joe Louis Brown, whose blackness is passed off to bigots as being Venezuelan. Cantrell is distracted by bombshell Dixie Lee Boxx while facing a career crossroad.

If the characters seem familiar, you've probably seen Bull Durham — released 13 months after Long Gone's HBO debut. Virginia Madsen (Sideways), who plays Dixie, says Bull Durham writer-director Ron Shelton sat in the same row with her at a Los Angeles screening of Long Gone.

"He sat there during the film taking notes, which I thought was entirely rude," Madsen said from Boston, where she's filming Joy with director David O. Russell.

"Then maybe four years later I'm reading (a script) for him and I said, yeah, I met you at the screening of Long Gone. He goes: 'Oh, yeah, we stole every shot from your movie.' Like he's proud of it. I was like, grrrrr."

When reached for comment, Shelton denied that conversation occurred: "Those words don't come out of my mouth," he said in a phone interview from Los Angeles.

In an earlier email, Shelton said that he attended the Long Gone screening to see an actor he was considering to cast, and that any movies about baseball have similarities, like Westerns and war movies. "My staff was laughing at the idea I was taking notes at a screening," he messaged. "The only thing I take to screenings is a hip flask."

In the book and first screenplay for Long Gone, Graceville was located in the Panhandle. Director Martin Davidson (Eddie and the Cruisers) couldn't find a suitable location after a driving tour. On the way back to Tampa's airport, a friend suggested dinner at the Columbia Restaurant on Seventh Avenue.

"I look at Ybor City and I say, I don't want the Panhandle," Davidson, 75, said from his Los Angeles home. "We'll change the name. I see all these places that make cigars, and the Hav-a-Tampa sign, and I fall in love with Ybor City. This is where we're going to shoot.

"I've been back to Ybor since then, and now it's almost like Bourbon Street. Back then it was empty, a few stores and that was it. There wasn't even a bar; we had to build one for the movie."

A department store across from the Columbia became property of the Oilers' owners, a father-son team played by Henry Gibson and Teller, in a rare speaking role. A Fourth of July picnic scene was filmed at Safety Harbor's Philippe Park, while team meals are served in Ybor's Silver Ring Cafe, renamed the Silver Bat. A short walk away is the Oilers' Flamingo Hotel, a.k.a. L'Unione Italiana.

The Oilers played home games at the former Plant Field on the University of Tampa campus, previously a spring home for four major league teams. Road games were staged at Jack Russell Stadium in Clearwater, Bradenton's McKechnie Field and Lakeland's Henley and Joker Marchant ballparks.

The historic Spottiswoode estate in Clearwater doubled as home to owners of the Oilers' rival for the pennant.

The mostly male cast, many of them Petersen's Chicago theater pals and state college athletes, passed time between takes by playing baseball, for as long as 10 hours in sweltering heat and scratchy wool uniforms. One Stogie, nicknamed Pukey after the actor overheated, is played by former St. Petersburg resident Neil DeGroot, now a producer of NBC's The Biggest Loser; another by Bill Murray's kid brother Joel. Lots of beer and ribbing.

"We couldn't believe we were getting paid," Petersen said. "We would've done it for free."

From Madsen's seat in the stands: "It was like having a big family barbecue and I was the only girl."

Petersen also cleared up the lore that he turned down Tom Berenger's role in Platoon to do Long Gone, "rather than go to Thailand and spending six months in a trench."

In fact, director Oliver Stone didn't offer the role. Petersen had his mind made up, anyway.

"He wanted everyone to do basic training for six weeks, no pay," the actor said. "I said, no, I'll be at a hotel in Tampa, making a movie with Virginia Madsen. You and Berenger can all go over to the jungle and have a great time. I'm going to be in Tampa, playing baseball."

Fun and games took a physical toll on Petersen, who had his own style of hotel rehab after shooting ended for the day.

"I'd get one of those big garbage cans by the pool," Petersen said, "fill it with ice from the vending machine and water from a hose, and put my whole body into the damn thing. I'd take a six-pack and get right in."

Or else blow off steam wherever beer was closest. Petersen and Madsen each recalled watching the '86 World Series — Red Sox and Mets — in a Harbour Island hotel bar jammed with Long Gone colleagues. "This was one of those movies where the lines blurred between cast and crew," Madsen said. "We just fit together."

Holly Bird of Palm Harbor, Long Gone's scenic and storyboard artist, recalls a "foxhole mentality" created by producers cutting corners on a nonunion production. At one point, several crew members wore "please fire me" signs on their backs, hoping to go home and sleep.

"It was horrible; unsafe, incredibly long hours," Bird said. "I pulled a 100-hour week at one point. It was just insane."

Bird, whose storyboard credits include Caddyshack, recalls decisions by producers that were "a little shifty."

One suspicious activity involved a drawing for $1,000, a reward to one lucky volunteer extra after a sundown-to-2:30 a.m. shift at Jack Russell Stadium. The then St. Petersburg Times was contacted by extras insisting the winner worked for Long Gone, handing out costumes. One woman complained the production was "pulling the wool over the people of Clearwater's eyes." The claim was denied by organizers and dropped.

Long Gone premiered on HBO on May 23, 1987, to generally positive reviews. One exception was Times TV critic Janis D. Froelich, who wrote: "Too bad this stinker had to land on our shores."

Back then, cable television shows weren't eligible for Emmy awards. HBO petitioned the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences on behalf of Long Gone, to get the rules amended. One year later, the rules changed, too late for Long Gone.

Instead, the movie earned eight CableACE nominations, winning for Davidson's direction. "We were nominated at the 11th annual awards," Davidson said, "and it turned out to be the last one."

When shooting wrapped, Petersen and a couple of friends rented a Cadillac, tossed new golf clubs in the trunk and road-tripped back to Chicago, visiting courses and Graceland along the way. Since then, the CSI franchise has made him one of the richest performers on television.

Davidson had a few more movies fall between the cracks. When anyone asks what he has done, he typically mentions directing the first episode of Law & Order in 1990.

Madsen now has more than 100 acting credits, including an Academy Award nomination for Sideways. She still gushes about Long Gone, what it did for her career, and especially Petersen.

"I've run into him a couple of times, and it's like we really shared something. We all have roots in this movie, and everybody still holds it in their hearts. People ask me what was my favorite film to work on ... and it's at the top of the list. One of the best times I ever had."

Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall. Times librarian Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

     
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