It's not just an act Actors prove to be athletically apt


Los Angeles -- He shoots! He scores! She hits! She runs! They surf! They skate!

Or at least that's what performers as diverse as John Goodman and Madonna appear to be doing in the recent flurry of films about sports and athletes.

Appearances are often deceiving, and with special effects and stunt doubles, filmmakers can do wonders. But illusion has its limits, and these days, actors and actresses usually put in a fair amount of time learning at least some of the skills they seem to be displaying on film.

For example, the women who played members of the Rockford Peaches professional baseball team in "A League of Their Own" trained for four months, including four weeks in Los Angeles and another month or so on location in Chicago even before photography began.

"We worked out every day, like a spring training team," recalled Bill Hughes, a former USC baseball coach and scout who was the production's resident coach. "We basically were a team for four months."

The actresses' ability varied widely, with the best players being Lori Petty, Rosie O'Donnell and Freddie Simpson, Mr. Hughes said. "Some of them had played softball . . . but the others had never picked up a ball, I don't think."

Mr. Hughes knew this because he and the film's baseball adviser, retired USC coach Rod Dedeaux, had conducted baseball tryouts for about 1,000 actresses.

"We had a motto, the women and I, which was 'No doubles,' " Mr. Hughes said. Ultimately, the only scenes with doubles that director Penny Marshall used were of a collision at the plate.

In "White Men Can't Jump," however, Ron Shelton did Ms. Marshall one better. Not only were no doubles used, none of the shots were faked.

"There was nothing like, if you saw a ball leaving Woody's [Harrelson] hands, there would be another shot going into the basket," said Dick Baker, the former Loyola Marymount coach who was the film's resident basketball coach.

He believes Mr. Harrelson's basketball skills may have earned him the co-starring role over Keanu Reeves, who had solid

credentials as a box-office draw at a time when Mr. Harrelson was known only for his role on "Cheers."

"I worked with him [Mr. Reeves] for four or five days, and he wasn't bad, but he wasn't as good as Woody," Mr. Baker said. Some observers have said Mr. Reeves was simply too expensive for Mr. Shelton's budget.

In any case, Mr. Reeves proved himself an apt pupil of a very difficult athletic endeavor in "Point Break," learning to surf well enough for almost all of his scenes as an FBI agent who goes undercover to bust a ring of beach-based bank robbers.

"Keanu's character wasn't ever supposed to be good," said Dennis Jarvis, the Hermosa Beach surf shop owner and actor who became the film's technical adviser after auditioning for a role.

Lori Petty, the "League of Their Own" co-star who played Mr. Reeves' surfing instructor and love interest in "Point Break," told Mr. Jarvis after the film she would never surf again.

"She was scared," Mr. Jarvis said. "She got beat up by the waves a couple of times."

Two or four months may seem like a long time to spend learning a sport for acting purposes, but Moira Kelly and D. B. Sweeney spent six months preparing to play Olympic figure-skating pairs contenders in "The Cutting Edge."

"D. B. had skated as a kid, but Moira had never skated at all," said Olympic gold medalist Robin Cousins, who supervised their training.

Doubles were used for the pair's skating routines, but by the end of their training period, "both Moira and D. B. were proficient enough for them to have full-body dialogue shots on the ice without having them look like they were going to fall over any minute," Mr. Cousins said.

No doubles were used for John Goodman in "The Babe" after the actor spent four months learning not only how to throw and bat left-handed but to emulate George Herman Ruth's idiosyncratic style.

Of course, when an actor is a natural athlete, training is much easier. As transportation coordinator in Japan for "Mr. Baseball," Denny Caira, a former minor league player in the St. Louis Cardinals farm system, observed Tom Selleck playing a professional ballplayer who is recruited by a Japanese club.

"As far as I'm concerned, Tom Selleck could have hit major league pitching," Mr. Caira said.

Mr. Selleck did have a personal trainer who helped him get into shape. "He had to look like a major league MVP, and he did," Mr. Caira said.

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