It must be every 11-year-old brat's dream to have Billy Bob Thornton as a dad. But Mr. "Bad Santa" only lets children use naughty words when the director yells, "Action."
"They love it," says Thornton, speaking of the sweet kids cast to play the bratty Little Leaguers in the remake of the "Bad News Bears."
"They get an opportunity to curse in a movie," Thornton says. "That's like magic to them."
Not that the 49-year-old approves of potty-mouthed kids, he's got five of his own (not to mention four ex-wives), and he teaches his children to mind their manners. But Thornton has never been accused of being politically correct. Witness his much-heralded 2003 portrayal of a drunken, depraved Father Christmas.
Now, in "Bad News Bears," opening today, he's back, taking on the role Walter Matthau originated as -- you guessed it -- a drunken, depraved little league coach.
Truth is, however, moviegoers have no problem accepting Angelina Jolie's heavily tattooed ex-husband as someone who can foster a youngster's ardent spirit. Witness Thornton's acclaimed performance as a hard-driving high school football coach in last year's "Friday Night Lights."
Thornton is once again acting with kids, and this time they're even younger, putting the notorious Hollywood bad boy in the awkward position of role model. And after casting a cussing, boisterous batch of preteens to wreak havoc on a baseball diamond, it's not so easy to get them to sit still.
"I loved working with these kids. They're really a good bunch … And let's just say they're all very powerful personalities.
"You got to mess with the kids a little bit to keep 'em on their toes," says Thornton.
"They would try to tell me some nasty little thing, and I'd say, 'No you can't do it'," he said. "I acted kind of like a father to them in a way. I wouldn't let them curse when we weren't shooting."
Dark 'Chocolate' May Be Good for 'Bears'
It's going to be interesting to see if the box office brings good news to these Bears. The 1976 original became a subversive hit, showing just how crude sweet-faced kids can be, and just how immature their parents get when little extensions of their ego step up to bat.
Nearly three decades later, Americans are all too familiar with the problem of raging soccer moms and dads who need to be restrained when junior gets benched.
America is also less accepting of cheap ethnic jokes. In the original, the Bear's shortstop Tanner Boyle famously rants, "All we got on this team are a bunch of Jews, Latinos, African-Americans, homosexuals and one mentally disadvantaged young man," only not in those words, of course.
Today, the diminutive shortstop's exact words would bring down a rainbow coalition of protesters who simply don't tolerate that sort of language in a PG-13 movie.
The original "Bad News Bears," however, was never meant to be a movie for young kids. Rather, it was a movie about kids that more than stretched its PG rating to the limit.
The remake is still pretty salty, and the coach is still a stinking drunk. But as in the original, the misfits learn to play ball and compete. The kid everyone makes fun of finally catches the ball and therein lies redemption. Thornton is pretty confident it'll find an audience.
"In terms of language, kids see 'South Park' and 'Family Guy' and stuff like that. They see way worse on television," he says.
"This movie actually has a pretty decent message for kids to hear, and that is, with all the obsession with winning and being the best, all you really need to do is go out there and just try."
Churning a Bitter Buttermaker
Times do change, and apparently the remakes must change with them. Just last week, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," hit theaters with Johnny Depp playing a far darker Willy Wonka than Gene Wilder. With a $56 million opening weekend, the movie more than found its audience.
In reviving the role of Coach Buttermaker, Thornton knew he was treading on sacred ground, and would have to come up with something new. "I'm a big fan of Walter Matthau and the original movie, so I would never even pretend that I would ever be as good or as funny as he is," he says.
"I purposely didn't watch the old movie before we did this," he said. "I'd seen it years ago, but I didn't want to pick up any of his mannerisms because I didn't want to imitate him."
Instead, Thornton drew upon his own field of dreams. Growing up in Hot Springs, Ark., he fancied himself a big league junk-ball pitcher, and in the early 1970s he got as far as a Kansas City Royals tryout camp.
"I had no idea I would ever be an actor," he said. "All I really wanted to do was pitch for the St. Louis Cardinals."
That dream ended before the Royals ever let him step on the mound. He broke his collarbone in a minor collision and had to settle on multiple Academy Award nominations for his acting, and a screenwriting Oscar in 1996 for "Sling Blade."
Thornton's interpretation of the mess of a man that we call Buttermaker clearly fits in the pantheon of his bleak characters.
"Buttermaker pitched two-thirds of an inning in the majors a long time ago. And since then, baseball's only been something he can use as a pickup line in a bar," he says. "He's bribed to coach this team, and though he starts out doing it for the money, the old spirit of the game comes back to him."
Baseball is not always kind to screwball pitchers, but Thornton is already into his windup and nobody denies the kid's got loads of heart and wicked stuff. Certainly, the jeers won't spook him.