Hollywood Flashback: 'Bad News Bears' Made Stars of Cussing Kids in 1976

The Bad News Bears Still - Photofest - H 2019
Courtesy of Photofest

"The thing that surprised everybody was that it was about kids, but adults loved it," says producer Stanley Jaffe of the film, as another movie featuring preteens who swear — 'Good Boys' — heads to theaters Aug. 16.

In its review of Good Boys, set for an Aug. 16 release, THR says director Gene Stupnitsky "has an endless fascination with hearing preteens curse." Maybe what worked for The Bad News Bears in 1976 might work again four decades later.

Back then, THR noted Bears' "sharp, salty screenplay," which featured kid Tatum O'Neal, fresh off her supporting actress Oscar victory for Paper Moon, saying such lines as, "You handled it like shit!"

The plot centered on an alcoholic former minor leaguer (Walter Matthau) coaching a San Fernando Valley Little League team full of misfits. O'Neal, who portrayed the star pitcher, says one of the movie's pluses was that it "took girls out of the girlie position and put them more in with the boys." (Among the other Bears was 15-year-old Jackie Earl Haley playing a Harley-riding outfielder.)

Beneath the mild verbal shocks lay an excellent screenplay handled by real talent. Written by Bill Lancaster — who, besides being Burt Lancaster's son, went on to write John Carpenter's The Thing — it was directed by Michael Ritchie, who was coming off 1972's The Candidate. The $3.5 million Paramount production ($16 million today) brought in $32 million domestically ($144 million today).

"The thing that surprised everybody was that it was about kids but adults loved it," says producer Stanley Jaffe.

What surprises O'Neal is the enduring interest that males have in The Bad News Bears. "The film had such an impact on boys," says O'Neal, 55. "Guys my age are always saying, 'You were my first love.' Quentin Tarantino told me I was the first fan letter he'd ever written. I was flattered. I think my grandmother threw it away. When I knew Jason Patric in the '90s, he asked if I still had the Bears uniform and would I put it on. I was like, 'Are you fucking kidding? That was when I was 11.' "

The movie spawned two O'Neal- and Matthau-less sequels — 1977's The Bad New Bears in Breaking Training and 1978's The Bad News Bears Go to Japan — a short-lived CBS series in 1979 and a Richard Linklater-helmed remake in 2005 with Billy Bob Thornton in the Matthau role.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.