Just in time for Super Bowl LIV, EW brings you the tales behind the gritty gridiron film that the NFL tried to spike, as told by the players themselves.
Two decades after failing to get a football film called The Linebacker off the ground with Charles Bronson, Oscar-winning director Oliver Stone was determined to get back in the game, even if it meant piecing together multiple projects.
OLIVER STONE: I was really interested in the subject of a football movie. Warner Bros. had Raiders doctor Robert Huizenga’s book [You’re Okay, It’s Just a Bruise] and John Logan’s screenplay, which was a very lovely character piece about a kind of loser coach. I combined the two scripts at the last second.
JAMES WOODS (HARVEY MANDRAKE): I was surprised Oliver did it. I didn’t even realize he was a football fan. He said, “It’s a great metaphor for my getting older as a director and wanting to be relevant and on the cutting edge.”
STONE: In the ’90s, Hollywood was becoming more and more corporate, and so was football; sports just became a giant and almost ridiculously outsized industry. The salaries are enormously inflated and lose meaning for most people. I felt like football is not just about now, there’s a tradition; people play for money, but there’s something else going on.
WOODS: Oliver got postponed, and I actually waited a year out of loyalty to him.
STONE: There was a long wait to make the movie. It was a tremendously political thing.
WOODS: It’s a very political movie. We decided to really go for it.
BILL BELLAMY (JIMMY SANDERSON): Originally, we were supposed to be the Miami Dolphins, but [the script] was too edgy, so we became the Miami Sharks.
LAWRENCE TAYLOR (LUTHER LAVAY): The league wanted no part of Oliver [laughs].
STONE: The NFL was very nasty. They hated the script. They tried to kill the deal by telling players not to be involved. We barely got the stadiums. [Cowboys owner] Jerry Jones helped by telling them to f— off and giving us Texas Stadium. It was a fight all the way. And then when the film came out, the NFL went out of its way to completely black ball us. There was no coverage from the sports shows. It was not fun to fight them, it’s like fighting the Pentagon.
Stone set out to put together a diverse and eclectic team, recruiting legendary actors, up-and-coming stars, rappers, comedians, and pro football players. He had just one rule: If you were going to step on the field, you had to be able to play. And a workout in Los Angeles quickly eliminated many possible stars, including a Grammy-winning rapper and media mogul.
STONE: Robert De Niro was involved before me. I remember talking to him and he came very close, but he was asking for a lot of money and it complicated the movie at that price. I worked with Al on Scarface, and he was willing to do it and make the movie possible.
AL PACINO (COACH D’AMATO): I had access to great coaches: Mike Shanahan, Bill Parcells, and Steve Mariucci. I’ll never forget the openness in which these coaches spoke, very congenial and receptive. I learned a lot.
LL COOL J (JULIAN WASHINGTON): I always dreamt of being a professional football player, so it was a dream come true.
TAYLOR: I was actually in rehab when my agent got a call that Oliver wanted me to come audition.
BELLAMY: Oliver was like, “The way I’m going to shoot this film, you’ve got to be able to do this s—.” If you lied during that interview, you were exposed, because we had to show up [and play] at USC. We were out there running with real quarterbacks, running backs, and receivers.
LL COOL J: People think they’re athletic until they have to be athletic.
BELLAMY: Actors were getting that tap, like, “Thank you for your services.” When we started, it was 20 guys at receiver. After lunch, it was just me.
STONE: We had Puff Daddy at one point. He was not really a natural athlete, so we waited him out.
BELLAMY: They wanted Puffy to play the quarterback, and what ended up happening is Puffy got the tap. He could not throw. His mechanics were just off. He could not put enough velocity on the ball.
STONE: He was going to acting classes, but he was a ways away. The bigger issue was the arm. He just didn’t have the throwing ability, and you can’t double him, because it’s going to look phony. Jamie was really our first choice because he was a high school quarterback. He was brought to my attention because he had a hit show called The Jamie Foxx Show, and he was under contract to Warners, so it was kind of perfect.
JAMIE FOXX (WILLIE BEAMEN): Oliver really challenged me. The first time I auditioned he was like, “You’re terrible.” Because I was loud, TV is loud. I learned how to be smaller and go toe-to-toe. I was going toe-to-toe with Al Pacino and doing this big scene and at one point he flubbed his line and goes, “[Deep voice] You’re crazy, you’re out of your mind… you’re a good actor!” And I was like, “Wow, this great, no matter what happens after.”
Getting cut loose by Stone might not have been the worst thing, considering the painful and hard-hitting journey that would follow over the next few months for those who were left standing.
BELLAMY: Once you made it, we went to camp in Florida, which is where we shot. We had to learn like 52 plays.
STONE: I wanted certain type of plays. I wasn’t the kind of director to turn this over to a specialist. I didn’t want it to be conventional. What I saw in football was a pretty modern game, where you have a black quarterback running and passing; the game was changing.
FOXX: There’s a lot of Willie Beamens, both black and white — like Baker Mayfield. These guys live on the edge, and sometimes that edge is going to make them great, and sometimes it’s going to make them disintegrate.
LL COOL J: I was so sore that when I sneezed, my ass hurt. We felt it, physically. That is a tough, tough way to make a living. If people knew how these players felt after they play, they would have a newfound respect. You don’t realize the level of physical sacrifice that these guys make.
BELLAMY: Cats were like, “Oh s—, this is real. Maybe we should have got tapped out.”
PACINO: The hits were intense and you could feel that.
WOODS: When you’re really close to it, it’s just astonishing how quick and powerful they are.
AARON ECKHART (NICK CROZIER): You would look at a guy on the set and he’d be a day player or an extra, and I’d be like, “You have to be a professional football player, because you’re so big and so strong.” No, that guy couldn’t even get on the practice squad.
BELLAMY: My biggest thing was that I wanted it to be authentic, because I was a basketball player and I’ve never played football, so I had to really learn how to look and run routes like a real receiver. So I had Terrell Owens teaching me, Deion Sanders teaching me, Antonio Freeman working with me, Michael Irvin working with me. Each person gave me a tip on how to look right and the pride that goes into being a wide receiver.
TERRELL OWENS (TERRELL OWENS): They had me running a reverse and they had these dollies that were following me, and I didn’t really know how movies work and how they can make you look faster than you really are, and so I was just being a football player, and everybody was fascinated at how fast I was.
STONE: I got the Saving Private Ryan cameraman, because I knew the look I wanted.
FOXX: You watch and [it’s] like you’ve had four cups of coffee when it comes to the jittery feeling.
STONE: These guys are playing for their lives and laying out their bodies. I cut to Ben-Hur footage, because it’s a gladiator sport. Ironically, [Ben-Hur star] Charlton Heston shows up in the movie, too.
BELLAMY: We had injuries, we overcame adversity. We became real football players.
TAYLOR: Son, I had no problem shooting the football.
The Miami-set production of Any Given Sunday could probably best be summed up as “War by day, party by night.” While Stone treated the film like he was making a sequel to Platoon, the young actors were enjoying a very different scene.
LL COOL J: Oliver is not a conservative director. It was like organized chaos.
AARON ECKHART (NICK CROZIER): We were at war in South Beach. I don’t know who we were at war with, but we were at war.
STONE: It was war, because I was dead when it was over. [Laughs] It was a monster movie to make; it was like a war movie with the five football games serving as five different battles. It was as tough as making Platoon and a war film, in it’s own way.
ECKHART: I just remember the insanity of it. Oliver loves the idea of chaos and clashing and coming up against each other and creating that tension. He always kept everybody off balance. I remember the first day I got there and I wasn’t even working, and everyone was on the field, and Oliver comes up to me and says, “Go say something to Al.” I said, “Oliver, I’m not working today,” and he goes, “I don’t care, this is the big leagues.” So I went on the field and Al looks at me like, “What are you doing here, kid?” I was like, “Oliver told me to come out and say something to you.” [Laughs] I’ll never forget that moment. And the whole movie was like that, for everybody.
WOODS: A lot of what we did was improvisational. I said to Oliver, “Hey, every time you cut away to me on the sideline, have me flirting with one of the cheerleaders,” like the guy’s being sort of a rock star doctor. Then, when Matthew [Modine] has taken over my job, sure enough, Oliver has him flirting with one of the cheerleaders.
PACINO: I have a fond memory of it, everybody together. It had a good vibe. A lot of it is in the open air, not too many scenes in small rooms; it had an expansive feel.
WOODS: I have never in my life laughed that much. I mean, if you could imagine this group of guys, the s— that L.T. would give to Jim Brown, in a fun way. Dennis [Quaid] and I would be crying laughing. You hardly ever are privy to two of the greatest athletes that ever lived, just shucking and jiving each other all f—ing day, every day.
TAYLOR: It was a bit of a circus atmosphere; there were a lot of interesting individuals and pretty ladies around. I was trying to get clean, so I stayed away from most of the mayhem.
LL COOL J: It was Miami, we was going crazy.
BELLAMY: We took over Miami. We was walking around that city on fire. It’s amazing the movie got done, we was partying so much.
ECKHART: It was what you think. [Laughs] It cannot be told.
Costars butting heads is nothing new to Hollywood, but throw in the physical and emotional nature of football, and an alpha-dog showdown during filming between LL Cool J and Jamie Foxx turned physical.
BELLAMY: We had to acclimate to the bravado. So, when we were onscreen, we weren’t acting anymore, we were living it. I mean, there were fights, there were disagreements, there were hard hits. Thank God we didn’t have social media back then, because we would have either been the biggest scene ever, or it would’ve just been like, “Oh my, they’re killing each other.”
STONE: It was a physical and rough movie. It does get down to the basics: Sometimes your ego gets in the way, and that broke out.
BELLAMY: With LL and Jamie, you got two alpha-males coming up in the game, both famous, both trying to make their own way, and then they get together on set — who’s the big dog? Who’s the real alpha-male? People started teasing each other, jokes go left, jokes go right, and now the tension is really building up. No one thought that these two knuckleheads would start fighting for real.
LL COOL J: Jamie was upset because he felt I was being too physical in the scene where we’re arguing, and for some reason he thought it was a good idea to punch me in my face…and I strongly disagreed. [Laughs]
BELLAMY: The first take, I was like “Oh, that was pretty aggressive, I didn’t know we was going to be hitting in this scene.” The first three takes nobody got hurt ’cause we had helmets on. I’m the only other person in the scene, so I’m sort of the mediator, like, “Guys, let’s stay focused, let’s shoot our scene.” Everybody said they’re good. We must’ve did it like nine times. “Here we go, again.” Eventually, Jamie punched LL in the face, and then he knocked Jamie out.
LL COOL J: Put it this way, we didn’t film anymore that day.
BELLAMY: They kept some of it in.
STONE: It was contained. Nobody got killed. I think the danger was when Al tried breaking them up. That was what we were concerned about. He’s a small guy compared to them, and we didn’t want him to get hurt.
LL COOL J: Nobody got to worry about Al. You’re worried about Scarface?!
[Foxx, who declined to comment on the fight, previously said he and LL have reconciled: “When you’re young, it’s cool to have your emotions on your chest. But we’re grown now.”]
“Either we heal now as a team, or we will die as individuals. That’s football, guys. That’s all it is.” Any Given Sunday‘s most memorable scene doesn’t take place on the field, but rather in the locker room before the big climactic game, when Al Pacino’s Coach D delivers one of the great movie speeches of all-time.
ECKHART: Al giving the “inch by inch” locker-room speech is unforgettable.
STONE: It was based on a speech I was giving to students when I was making college tours and talking about what happened to me in Vietnam and what happens in the movies. I remember going into the analogy of six inches in front of my face, this combination of war and strategy and your own personal experience and your gut. I wanted to put that into what football is. It’s an homage to the difference between getting by and really making it, between winning and losing.
PACINO: I may have changed a couple words here and there, but it was in the text. I was grateful it was filmed toward the end. I got to know the guys and where I was coming from. I felt more in it.
STONE: You get to a certain age and people question your ability. That’s where he is, and he talks very honestly about his life, which coaches don’t tend to do, they don’t personalize. Perhaps I took liberties there, but I think it was important for that moment, because they were really up against the wall.
FOXX: I told Al, “These guys are from the hood and the only father figure they’ll ever know is their coach, so talk to them like your kids.” Next thing you know, “You fight with your family.…” It’s an incredible speech that football teams still play before games even to this day.
TAYLOR: It was remarkable watching Al. He was reciting the lines out loud, kind of fumbling them, but, when the light came on, he f—ing nailed it. Absolutely iconic.
ECKHART: The jaws were on the ground. I really felt like I got to see greatness.
BELLAMY: We did it eight times, and we could have run through a brick wall every time.
Upon release, Any Given Sunday was a modest hit, earning $100 million at the box office and a slightly less impressive 52 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. And yet, in a world of generic Disneyfied sports films, the legacy of Stone’s picture has only enhanced as the years have gone on. Not just because of the quality, but for the impact it has made.
LL COOL J: Oliver’s always been ahead of the curve in terms of how he thinks about things and how he approaches things. That was the first time that we got an inside look at what professional football is like, even though it wasn’t an NFL-approved movie.
MATTHEW MODINE (OLLIE POWERS): I think the film woke players, doctors, and coaches to the necessity to address head injuries and concussion protocols.
WOODS: It was sort of prescient, actually; this was before Will Smith’s [2015 film] Concussion and that concern. There was a tendency to rush people back [into the game].
ECKHART: These guys hit so hard, I don’t see how they survive. If one of them hit me, I would be dead. I’ve had my share of concussions, pretty bad ones. It’s no joke; I wouldn’t hit my head up against anything right now, and even talking about it makes my head hurt.
MODINE: I loved how James’ character challenges mine with the Hippocratic Oath. He essentially asks, if the oath a physician takes is to do no harm, wouldn’t a doctor be doing harm by not allowing the athlete to risk his own life in the profession they’ve chosen? It’s a question that audiences need to ask themselves: By supporting dangerous sports, are you culpable when an athlete is injured, crippled, or even killed?
OWENS: They wanted to make it as realistic as possible. These things happen. Guys risk their lives and bodies for the sake of a win. It’s a great representation of what happens behind closed doors.
FOXX: Being a young kid to who football was everything, to be in a movie about pro football and look over and see Warren Moon, Dick Butkus, Terrell Owens, Lawrence Taylor, Jim Brown, Al Pacino, and Cameron Diaz, there was nothing better than that. And it set the dramatic ball rolling for me.
STONE: The critics were tough, they always are with me, but I think it delivered for people who love football.
BELLAMY: We felt like we made a classic.
FOXX: It’s the ultimate gladiator film. If you fall, they take you off, and then somebody else takes your place.
BELLAMY: Players come up to me like, “Dog, did you play?” I’m like, “Hell no, but I did in that movie.”