Cooperstown Confidential: Hollywood meets Mr. Boggsby Bruce Markusen
August 26, 2011
So while my wife and daughter are asleep on the living room couch on Saturday night, I’m watching "Swamp Shark" on the SyFy Channel—yes, this is what I do, watch bad horror movies on Saturday nights—when I suddenly notice one of the secondary characters in the film. It’s one of the deputies in the town located next to a swampy river that has been invaded by a shark the size of an elephant.
The guy playing Deputy Stanley looks familiar. Upon a second look, I realize that the actor looks remarkably like Wade Boggs, the Hall of Fame third baseman.
Not believing what I’m seeing, I checked the IMDB listing for this spectacular new SyFy Channel release, and sure enough, Wade Boggs is listed as one of the actors! He’s the one playing Deputy Stanley. What’s a Hall of Famer doing in a made-for-TV B-movie that stars the talented but bloated D.B. Sweeney and an equally bloated Kristy Swanson? Unbelievable.
I never would have thought of Boggs, who was relatively monotone in interview settings during his career, as an aspiring actor, but I must admit that he did a pretty credible job portraying the Louisiana deputy. Sporting a legitimate Southern accent and sounding nothing like his normal self, Boggs is fairly convincing as the somewhat dimwitted deputy who reports to a corrupt sheriff played by the devilish Robert Davi.
Granted, the movie was highly mediocre—which is actually better than most of these SyFy straight-to-video dandies—but Boggs made a good showing. With a little coaching, he may be able to make it as a bit player in better quality films, perhaps something that would eventually make it to the more respected Hallmark Channel.
Boggs’ performance, which actually marked his second appearance in a movie (he appeared in 2002’s dreadful "Bending All The Rules"), got me thinking about other ballplayers-turned-actors. There have not been many, at least in terms of long-term success. (And no, I’m not counting Ron Cey’s 1982 appearance in the cult horror classic, "Q.") I’m not talking about players who portrayed themselves in movie or TV roles, but ballplayers who actually took a turn at acting—attempting to portray another character, whether fictional or not.
One of the first that came to mind was Jim Bouton, the author of the best-seller Ball Four , who was given a small but vital role in Robert Altman’s controversial "The Long Goodbye." Well spoken and good looking, Bouton was very believable as one of the chief villains in the 1973 film, but had to wait three more years for his next role. He earned the lead in the TV series that was based on Ball Four, but the show lasted only six episodes.
Bouton would have to wait 34 years for his next acting gig—a small role playing a bullpen coach in the 2010 romantic comedy, "How Do You Know."
Another ballplayer-turned-actor of recent vintage was Bob Uecker, who played the lead role on the 1980s television series “Mr. Belvedere” but gained most of his fame portraying loudmouth broadcaster Harry Doyle in the series of "Major League" films.
Uecker was terrifically sarcastic in that role, particularly in the first one, but has done no acting since 1998. (He also needs to explain himself for agreeing to participate in the egregiously horrific "O.C. and Stiggs.") Of course, he does keep busy as the lead play-by-play man on Milwaukee Brewers broadcasts, something that he does with both professional and comedic competence.
While the ratio of struggling actors to acclaimed stars will always be high, at least two former major leaguers have made a successful long-term transition to the world of acting. The first was Johnny Berardino, a serviceable middle infielder who put up two good offensive seasons for the St. Louis Browns in 1940 and ‘41 before becoming a light-hitting utility infielder with the Indians and Pirates. Berardino’s playing career stretched from 1939 to 1952, sandwiched around a three-year stint in the military during Wolrd War II.
Berardino actually claimed to have been an actor prior to becoming a professional ballplayer; he said that he performed as a child in Hal Roach’s silent “Our Gang” shorts, but he has not been officially identified in any of the surviving films of that show. “I had been contemplating leaving the game (baseball) as early as 1947 to concentrate on acting,” Berardino once said.
“Most people don't realize that I was an actor long before I was a ballplayer. I was one of those brat actors in the 'Our Gang' comedies.” Whether he actually appeared in “Our Gang” remains a debatable point, but it’s unquestionably a good thing that he decided to continue playing past the '47 season. The following year, despite batting .190 in 179 at-bats, he earned a World Series ring as a member of the world championship Indians.
That was also the year that Berardino earned his first officially credited role in a film. He played a trainer in an obscure movie called "The Winner’s Circle," which told the life story of a racehorse. The film appearance did not surprise his teammates, given Berardino’s habit of performing skits and monologues in the clubhouse and dugout.
After playing sparingly again for the Indians in 1949, Berardino moved onto the Pirates early in 1950. But he couldn’t gain any traction over his final three seasons, as he made returns to each of his previous stops in St. Louis, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, respectively, before hurting his shoulder and retiring in 1953.
With his baseball career over, Berardino waded full depth into his acting career. In 1953, he appeared in two TV series, including the “Abbott and Costello Show,” and two feature films. From there, he made a number of brief and mostly uncredited appearances in a string of movies. One of his most notable early roles came in the “Adventures of Superman,” in which he drew solid reviews for the low key manner in which he played a small-time criminal. An even bigger break seemed to occur in 1955, when he gained a recurring role as special agent Steve Daniels in a TV series called “I Led Three Lives.”
Along the way, Berardino decided to change his name, only slightly at first, but then repeatedly. He called himself John Barardino. Then he switched back to Berardino. Then came Baradino, followed by Barradino. And finally, he settled on John Beradino, which would remain his name for the balance of his acting career.
After making numerous appearances in a wide swath of TV shows and over a dozen B-movies (including the Sci-Fi classic "Them"), Beradino made a career move that would define his legacy as an actor. In 1963, he joined the cast of a new soap opera called “General Hospital.” Beginning with the pilot episode, Beradino took on the role of Dr. Steve Hardy, the friendly and fatherly character that he would play for the next 30 years.
Along the way, there would be brief appearances in notable shows like “Batman,” “The Love Boat,” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” and even a small role in the TV movie, "Don’t Look Back," which depicted the life of Satchel Paige. Yet, “General Hospital” would remain his niche, with Beradino continuing to appear on the soap opera until a week before his death from cancer in 1996.
Though he never became a major A-list star, Beradino won respect as a credible and accomplished actor. He was deemed skilled enough at the craft to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. That made him the only man in history to earn both a Hollywood star and a World Series ring.
While Beradino quietly won the respect of his peers, Chuck Connors became a more well-known star. As an athlete, he was talented at both baseball and basketball. He played for the Rochester Royals in the old National Basketball League before joining the NBA’s Boston Celtics. After serving a four-year stint in the Army during World War II, he decided to pursue a career in baseball.
Working his way up the minor league chain of the Brooklyn Dodgers as a left-handed hitting first baseman, he made his major league debut with one game in 1949. In his lone at-bat, Connors grounded into a double play. It might not have mattered if he had hit a home run. With Gil Hodges blocking his path, the Dodgers considered Connors somewhat irrelevant in their scheme and traded him to the Cubs.
Connors received a more significant chance with the Cubs, who needed a first baseman, as he appeared in 66 games in 1951. With his 6-foot-5 frame and lantern jaw, Connors certainly looked the part of a slugger, but he struggled in his Cubs tenure, hitting only two home runs in 201 at-bats. He never made it back to the big leagues.
Even as a ballplayer, Connors gave indications that he might be better suited for the Hollywood world of entertainment. As a minor leaguer, he sometimes played the role of the team clown, performing cartwheels as he rounded the bases on a home run. (The pitchers must have loved that spectacle.) He would also recite poems in the clubhouse, drawing attention to himself with his booming voice and his theatrical style.
Though Connors was not good enough to last in the major leagues, he continued playing in the minor leagues, putting in two productive seasons with the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League. The proximity to Hollywood allowed him to pick up bit parts in movies. When he eventually gave up baseball, Connors had already laid the groundwork for a prominent career in acting.
Connors freely admitted that he found acting easier than playing baseball. “In acting, if I mess up a scene, if I strike out on a speech, they re-shoot it,” Connors once told the New York Times. “So when I’m acting I have to be batting 1.000.”
At ease in front of the camera, Connors began to land roles in a number of films during the early 1950s, including "Pat and Mike, "Target Zero" and "The Big Country." In 1958 he received his biggest break, earning the title role in a new TV show, “The Rifleman.” Connors portrayed Lucas McCain, a widowed single father living on the New Mexico homestead, protecting himself and his son from a variety of villains, whom he often disposed of his with his fast-firing Winchester rifle.
The role of McCain fit Connors to a tee. With his muscular, rugged build, Connors was so believable in the role of a Western protagonist that many fans assumed that he had been born on a Midwestern farm. He wasn’t; he hailed from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. With Connors’ charismatic character leading the way, “The Rifleman” remained on the air through the late '50s and early '60s, at a time when Westerns were particularly popular in both television and film. When the show ended in 1963, it wasn’t because of declining interest; Connors simply wanted to pursue other projects.
Even with his signature role ending, Connors remained a significant presence on the Hollywood landscape. He appeared in another TV Western series, “Branded,” which ran for two seasons in the mid-1960s. He played supporting roles in numerous films. One of his most critically acclaimed performances occurred in the mid-1970s, and it ran against the type of heroic characters he usually played. Portraying a lustful slave owner in the acclaimed TV mini-series “Roots,” Connors picked up an Emmy nomination. He would later execute another villainous role as the evil Jeb Hollister in an applauded but short-lived TV series, “The Yellow Rose,” during the early 1980s.
By the time Connors retired from acting in the early 1990s, he had appeared in more than 30 films, including "Geronimo," the cult classic "Soylent Green," and "Nigbhtmare in Badham County." Given the volume and range of his roles, Connors deservedly received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, which prompted the usual tough guy to break down in tears.
The successes of Connors and Beradino are not meant to indicate that Wade Boggs will be appearing on stage at the Oscars any time soon. But a film career usually has to begin modestly, with the actor unable to pick and choose the most ideal or appealing roles. If Boggs ever becomes a major player in Hollywood, he can thank "Swamp Shark" for giving him a boost.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.
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