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March 31, 2005

Original 'Pitch' a mess

By Kevin Modesti, Columnist
Daily News of Los Angeles

A sports movie called "Fever Pitch" opens next week, and I'm so mad, the people responsible are liable to hear from my people, just as soon as I round up some people.

It was in a different sports movie called "Fever Pitch" that, years ago, yours truly made his motion-picture debut and silver-screen swan song at the same time.

And if Drew Barrymore and the rest of the upstarts behind this new "Fever Pitch" think they can match the original, well, they should hope to God that they can't.

My "Fever Pitch" sounded like a good idea at the outset. It had the bankable Ryan O'Neal to star. It had Oscar winner Richard Brooks to write and direct. It had the human drama of sports gambling, kneecap-breaking and big-city journalism to drive the plot.

It had a couple of dozen sportswriters pretending to be actors. But, hey, "Citizen Kane" probably had a few obstacles to overcome, too.

The first clue that "Fever Pitch" would not unseat "Citizen Kane," or even "California Split," in the hearts of cinema historians came early one morning in the sports office of the old Los Angeles Herald Examiner, as I and several other real-life Herald copy editors hit our marks for the filming of a pivotal scene.

An assistant director read out instructions and then wondered aloud if any of us were smokers. We said we weren't. At which point the guy shouted for a stagehand to place lit cigarettes in ashtrays at every desk. Reality would not get in the way of realism.

The second clue that "Fever Pitch" would be memorable only for being forgettable came at the end of that first day of shooting.

The same assistant director came by, thanked us for our performances, told us to be back at the same time the next day and asked if there were any questions. I had a question. Should we wear the same clothes tomorrow? He went away for a minute and returned to say ... yes.

"Fever Pitch" came that close to showing copy editors making a change of clothes in the middle of a shift. Talk about straining credibility. I know copy editors who don't seem to own a change of clothes.

Brooks had once been a Hollywood genius ("In Cold Blood"), but on this final project of his career he was an aging Willie Mays falling in the outfield.

Brooks' plot had an L.A. sports columnist (O'Neal) delve so deeply into a story about compulsive gambling that he becomes a compulsive gambler. There are highs (bed with Catherine Hicks), there are lows (beaten up by Chad Everett). There's a nervous moment when the sports editor (John Saxon), slow to become suspicious that the gambler in O'Neal's articles is O'Neal himself, threatens to cut off the columnist's ever-more-necessary expense checks if he doesn't come up with a photograph of the subject.

"I want a pikcha of Mr. Green," Saxon demands, and having sat in the smoky background for the filming of that scene, let me assure you it took Saxon no more than 946 takes to nail the lines. "No pikcha, no money."

I'm recreating this from memory, by the way. My videotape of "Fever Pitch" was loaned out long ago and, inexplicably, never returned.

The movie's only potentially redeeming quality, its crude anti-gambling message, craps out in the final scene. A flat-busted O'Neal drops a coin in a Las Vegas airport slot machine. And hits the jackpot.

Moral of this story: "A fool and his money are soon parted." Either that or "You can't win if you don't bet." One of the two.

"Fever Pitch" lasted in theaters for about a week. Soon it showed up on one of those lists of the 100 worst movies.

"You could live a long time," Janet Maslin began The New York Times' review, "and never see anything as awful as 'Fever Pitch.' "

Basically, it went straight to local press-room legend.

Allan Malamud, the late, great Herald columnist who moonlighted as a bit actor, had been hired by Brooks as the movie's technical adviser. Allan, ever generous, invited his buddies to play small roles. Jim Murray was in there, rooting next to John Nadel in the Hollywood Park press box. Bud Furillo, Bob Keisser and Diane K. Shah made the final cut. Steve Horn, John Beyrooty, Rich Tosches, Tim Liotta, Bill Caplan, Fred Robledo and Carol Crotta were in there. Gordon Jones had a few lines.

You may know some of these names, not others. Suffice it to say that, 20 years later, on press row at any big game in town, there's likely to be someone whose byline showed up in the credits for "Fever Pitch."

If that was my chance at stardom, I blew it. After one of O'Neal's columns makes a splash, he sweeps into the sports office, where Steve Clow and I are hunching over a computer terminal, conferring on a story. Clow and I are supposed to look up and greet O'Neal with "Heck of a piece!" and "Great work!" Clow's "Heck of a piece!" is preserved for posterity on film. My "Great work!" catches in my throat and ends up inaudible.

I'd like to think I helped make that movie what it was.

Look, anybody can be in a good movie. I was hoping to be in a really good movie. Since that wasn't an option, I'm proud to have been part of one of the dumbest movies of all-time.

Go ahead, Drew Barrymore and Jimmy Fallon, have fun with your "Fever Pitch," the one that seems to be about Boston Red Sox fans. Just as long as it doesn't knock my "Fever Pitch" off the "worst-ever" list.

Kevin Modesti's column appears in the Daily News three days a week. He can be reached at heymodesti@aol.com.