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Indiana Fortuna: The Homegrown Roots of ‘Rudy’

Twenty-five years ago, an archetypal underdog story about an undersized Notre Dame football player hit theaters—but the movie was born long before that, when two wayward Indiana natives met in college

A photo collage of Sean Astin as Rudy Ruettiger in ‘Rudy’ Ringer illustration

During his last night on campus, David Anspaugh sat in a friend’s living room and passed a bong to his roommate Angelo Pizzo. The 1970 spring semester at Indiana University had just finished, and Anspaugh was musing about what he and Pizzo were going to do with their lives. Pizzo had one year of college left, but the pair of Indiana natives were planning to head to Aspen for the summer. And then?

“I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to go to Hollywood and make movies one day?’” Anspaugh remembers. “Angelo said, ‘Yeah, wouldn’t that be great to make a movie about Milan High School and the year they won the state championship?’” The folklore surrounding Milan, a town of about 1,100, and the school’s improbable victory over Muncie Central at Butler Fieldhouse in 1954 had remained potent years later. It’s still considered the biggest upset in the history of Indiana basketball.

“We were probably stoned,” Anspaugh says, “but we still thought it would be a good movie.”

Sixteen years later, Hoosiers was released, quickly cementing Anspaugh and Pizzo as sports-movie mavens and paving the way for the duo to make another movie. For their follow-up, they stayed in Indiana, but changed sports, turning their eye to a man who was best known by his first name: Rudy.

Released 25 years ago this week, Rudy is a sports drama about Rudy Ruettiger, the undersized Notre Dame diehard who was determined to play football for the Fighting Irish despite poor high school grades, little money for tuition, and an overall lack of athleticism. His persistence and determination to hurdle those shortcomings—to transcend them entirely—would eventually become one of the most inspirational fables in college football, and then in movies. It’s a quintessential underdog story, but in many ways, it’s also a quintessential Indiana sports story, typifying the grit and determination those within the state idealize. It feels only fitting that two kids from Indiana would come together to make Rudy. In truth, though, it feels just as unlikely, especially looking back now.

“That either one of us would have been so lucky to have even gotten into the film business, on any level, was pretty remote,” Anspaugh says. “But the odds that both of us [did]? That’s like winning the lottery.”

Pizzo grew up in Bloomington, just off the Indiana University campus where his father taught pathology. When he was 6 years old, he’d walk to the athletic facilities to watch basketball practice, later getting to know some of the players. “There was something about watching those first games that I went to and that arena that was so supercharged with a special kind of energy and passion and love and it just felt special to me,” Pizzo says. “My initial love was Indiana football and basketball.”

Just 170 miles northeast, in Decatur, Indiana, Anspaugh enjoyed a similar upbringing, though his was not as explicitly tied to Hoosier sports. He lived in a housing project that had a baseball diamond, a basketball court, a hockey pond, and a fishing hole, resources he took advantage of on his way to becoming an all-state honorable mention quarterback. Pizzo, meanwhile, wasn’t a gifted athlete and went through a rebellious phase as a teenager that got him kicked off the football team as a high school sophomore. But both were Indiana boys through and through, and even if neither really knew what he wanted to be when he grew up, both knew where they wanted to be. When it came time to go to college, both enrolled at Indiana—with the primary goal of partying, that is.

About to start his freshman year at IU in 1966, Pizzo met Anspaugh, then a sophomore, during the Sigma Nu fraternity’s rush weekend. “We hit it off immediately,” says Pizzo, who went through the requisite alcohol hazing that defined the first year of fraternity life. As Anspaugh recalls, Pizzo “had this brilliant mind and looked like Elvis Presley, and all the women were walking around [him].” The two would always see each other at parties and occasionally chatted about movies. As the calendar pages turned, so did the culture. The anti-war movement and the proliferation of fervent recreational drug use stoked divisiveness within the fraternity. “Our political, our artistic, our sensibilities didn’t mesh with our fraternity brothers,” Anspaugh says. “But when we got to know each other, we found out that both of us had this real passion for movies, so that really brought us together as friends. We ended up going to a lot of movies [together], and we talked about them all the time.” Pizzo left Sigma Nu in his sophomore year after he was ratted on for smoking marijuana; Anspaugh left after realizing he was, as he puts it, “on the wrong side of the fence.” Together, they fully morphed into hippies.

As they did—a transformation aided by experimentation with hallucinogenic drugs—they weren’t really thinking about working in the movie industry; the interest would grow organically. Anspaugh, whose father was a prestigious photographer, had started experimenting with some 16-millimeter cameras and shot films—some abstract, some documenting the anti-war rallies—with an old Bolex he bought at a vintage store. Pizzo had started taking some movie history courses and occasionally helped Anspaugh with his films; “a lot of absurdist stuff,” he remembers. Anspaugh edited his first animated movie, Peanut Butter Woman, within the camera. “I have a copy of that which blows people’s minds when they see it today,” Anspaugh says. “When I said cut, I set up the new scene, there were no splices. It would kill you to see how well it turned out. I disguised it with a lot of fade-to-blacks.”

Anspaugh and Pizzo both loafed aimlessly around resort towns in the immediate years after college. A gap year in Aspen turned into five for Anspaugh, who passed the time as a ski instructor and a part-time substitute teacher. Pizzo spent some time in Aspen too, before moving to Hawaii at a friend’s request. It wasn’t until Pizzo had a particularly fierce drug trip that either of them began moving toward having a career. “I was in this hippie commune and got stoned every day,” says Pizzo. “I started having a really bad trip on this powerful weed and I felt like I was dying. I felt like I was going to go insane. I was losing my mind, having a lucid flashback. But I felt like I needed to get off the island as fast as I could—I needed to figure out the rest of my life—or else I was going to die there.”

Gene Hackman in ‘Hoosiers’
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He flew back to Bloomington, applied to USC, and was accepted into the School of Cinematic Arts. He planned to become a teacher, but after an internship working on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, his perspective changed. “It was the first time I saw myself inside and not outside writing or thinking [about] and analyzing [the industry],” Pizzo says.

Three years later, Anspaugh followed in his footsteps. He finally decided to leave Colorado and pursue his old idea of studying film, also applying to USC’s film school. Anspaugh didn’t have the grades, but, rather fortunately, he had something else: a letter of recommendation from Jack Nicholson, whom he had met while working as a ski instructor in Aspen. “I don’t want any money,” Anspaugh remembers telling Nicholson when he called for a favor. “My friend Angelo is at USC, I’d love to go study there.” A month after applying, he got a rejection letter. Then two weeks later he got another letter from USC, this time telling him he had been accepted into the program. “They finally got Jack’s letter,” Anspaugh laughs.

After USC, Anspaugh’s major break came when he was hired to direct episodes for the television series Hill Street Blues—for which he won two Emmy awards in 1982 and 1983—and later St. Elsewhere and Miami Vice. By this point, Pizzo was entrenched in the production side of the industry, working his way up to be vice president for feature film production at Time-Life Films. “I never had this aspiration to direct or write,” Pizzo says. “The fact that I got these jobs and being pretty good at it made me feel confident that I could continue to work in development. David kind of always wanted to direct; we just had different paths.”

In 1981, Time-Life restructured, and Pizzo was given a choice between a job at HBO or nine months’ severance. He took the latter, meaning he was free to develop one of own his stories. It didn’t take long to settle on an idea—all he had to do was think back on that hazy night in 1970. Pizzo moved back to Bloomington immediately to start researching the small Indiana town and the 1954 Milan High School basketball team. He looked for screenwriters, but none of them had the sensibility he wanted. Frustrated, Pizzo finally gave writing a try himself. “I went insane,” Pizzo says. “I literally wrote and wrote and I threw everything out. I probably wrote eight pages total in two weeks because I just couldn’t take it anymore. I said ‘Forget it, I’m not a writer. This is terrible.’” Defeated, ready to dump the idea of Hoosiers for good, Pizzo flew back to Los Angeles, where he ran into one of his former colleagues, novelist John Sacret Young. Young gave him some advice, telling him an extremely bookish anecdote about how Nabokov had a strategy where he’d never read a word that he wrote until he got to the end. “So about a week later in my apartment, I started writing again and I never re-read a single word that I wrote until I got to the end,” Pizzo says. Apparently, Pizzo was a writer after all. He sent a draft over to Anspaugh; after one read through, Anspaugh vowed to direct the movie. “Honestly, David and I had been talking about this for a long time,” Pizzo says. “It was always kind of a hidden dream for both of us.”

Two years went by, as Pizzo and Anspaugh struggled to raise money for the movie. In a last-ditch effort, Anspaugh reached out to Nicholson again and asked him to read the screenplay. “He was actually hung over when we met him that Saturday morning,” Pizzo says. “I know that when he read the script he had no memory of what we were asking him.” But, Anspaugh says, “About two weeks later, I get a call out of the blue and [Jack], just flat out, he said, ‘I want to do this movie, this is great.’”

The movie, released in 1986, received glowing reviews, made $28.6 million at the box office, and earned two Oscar nominations. The process was full of learning experiences—Anspaugh legitimately thought about leaving the film until he watched dailies one night. “I did think, I don’t even know what I’m doing … [but] I looked at the movie and because of the color, the texture, the locations, the basketball, I [realized], we’re not copying anybody. We’re actually making something really original. This is straight from the heart. Maybe that’s a good thing.”

Proof to the studios that a small, parochial movie could appeal to a national audience, Hoosiers allowed both Pizzo and Anspaugh to strike a deal with Orion Pictures, which set them up with overhead and the freedom to pursue more movies together. They followed up their success with another story from inside their home state, this time about the Indianapolis 500 and the relationship between Michael and Mario Andretti. They spent a year on the race circuit researching, creating a budget and schedule. And then, Paramount announced that Tom Cruise had begun production on Days of Thunder. “That was the end of it,” Pizzo says. “And [the project] tanked.” Anspaugh and Pizzo were forced to go back to square one.

In 1990, four years after the release of Hoosiers, Pizzo received a phone call from a friend. You gotta hear about this guy Rudy Ruettiger, the friend said. “I said no,” Pizzo says. “I didn’t want to do another sports movie set in Indiana. I grew up hating Notre Dame. I just didn’t have any interest in it at all.” Still doing his due diligence, Pizzo did eventually talk to Ruettiger over the phone and agreed to meet him for lunch in Los Angeles—and then never showed up. “I totally forgot about it,” Pizzo says. “I went out the night before and partied and was hung over the next day. That was part of it.” Ruettiger, ever the model of persistence, found Pizzo’s address through a mailman and banged on his door. “He was like, ‘Hey, I’m Rudy,’” Pizzo says “I said ‘Oh shit, I’m sorry.’ And he said, ‘Do you know any writers that can help me?’ And I said ‘No,’ so we kind of ended it that way.”

Sean Astin and David Anspaugh on the set of ‘Rudy’
Sean Astin and David Anspaugh on the set of ‘Rudy’
Getty Images

Anspaugh found Rudy’s story to be much more attractive. He had bumped into Rob Fried, an executive at Columbia Pictures, who mentioned Rudy’s story offhandedly. “Rob went crazy because he had just had lunch with the president of Columbia Pictures [Frank Price], who told him one of the greatest regrets of his life was being turned down by Notre Dame,” Pizzo said. “He had Notre Dame paraphernalia in his office and that was something that meant a lot to him and [Fried] said we could sell this to him.” Fried set up a pitch meeting the next day, which Anspaugh dragged Pizzo to. Because Anspaugh was so passionate about the movie, he took over the room, acting out the different parts in front of Price while Pizzo just watched. “I remember sitting across the desk from Frank and I remember him looking at me and never taking his eyes off me,” Anspaugh says. “It doesn’t happen very often when you’re pitching something [this way]. Usually, it’s a room full of executives. This was just with Frank and me and Angelo. But he was just riveted.” As soon as Anspaugh finished, Pizzo recalls, “Price just leaned over and said, ‘I can’t wait to see this movie, congratulations boys, let’s get on it.’”

“I was in a state of shock,” Pizzo says.

The next step to making Rudy was getting Notre Dame on board—Anspaugh made a deal that if they didn’t receive permission to shoot there, they’d refuse to make the movie. But it was still a long shot—not since Knute Rockne All American, which was released in 1940 and featured Ronald Reagan, had a movie been shot on the school’s campus. “I suppose I thought the movie would never get made,” Pizzo says, “because I was convinced that Notre Dame wasn’t going to give us permission to shoot there.”

Together, Pizzo and Anspaugh flew to South Bend to meet with Father William Beauchamp, then the school’s vice president. By luck, Beauchamp had watched Hoosiers at a dinner party the weekend before. “It was sort of like God was talking to him,” Anspaugh said. Father Beauchamp gave the duo permission on the spot to film on campus. “Somebody once said for a movie to get made it’s like a lock with 20 tumblers,” Pizzo says. “All 20 have to fall into perfect synchronicity. And another 10 or 20 have to fall into synchronicity to be made well. And we had 40 tumblers to fall into place. We needed a lot of good fortune and luck and we got it.”

The studio suggested Brendan Fraser or Chris O’Donnell to play Rudy, but Anspaugh fought hard against them for aesthetic reasons: they weren’t small enough. Pizzo had seen Sean Astin in Encino Man and suggested that Anspaugh organize a lunch meeting. “I got there before he did. I saw him pull up, get out of his car, and walk across the room, and he had a T-shirt and Levi’s and some tennis shoes,” Anspaugh says. “I knew right then and there, that’s it. He just carried himself so much like Rudy.”

Philip Seymour Hoffman was in line to play Rudy’s best friend D-Bob, but Anspaugh wanted to cast someone from the Chicago area. They pulled in Jon Favreau, who at the time was working at a pizza parlor and taking classes at Second City. He nailed the audition. “He gets the job right on the spot,” Anspaugh remembers. “He kills us, we’re laughing, it’s just magic—we know that’s him.” On set, Favreau would eventually meet and become lifelong friends with Vince Vaughn, who was playing one of Rudy’s teammates. The studio rounded out the team with former Division I players. Anspaugh encountered multiple stories in which ex-players auditioned, if only to fulfill their own desire to wear a Notre Dame jersey. “There was one guy that was in our line, bless his heart,” Anspaugh recalls. “He actually talked his wife into allowing him to sell their car so that he could afford to try out for the movie. Because all his life he dreamed about running out of that tunnel.”

Rudy filmed for 50 days in the fall of 1992. Anspaugh remembers the experience being the most fun he’s ever had in his career. Each day that he’d drive to the production houses, located on the lake in the middle of campus, it felt like film camp. “We had a phenomenal cast. We got incredibly lucky with the weather, every time we needed a good day, we got it,” Anspaugh says. Ruettiger was on set each day too, helping provide details as he watched Astin recreate his life. “You walk around that campus and it’s something special,” says Pizzo, who also assisted as a second-unit director. “I tried to get in Rudy’s head and I tried to get in his heart and I tried to get his sense of vision and what it was and why it meant so much to him.”

Sean Astin and Charles Dutton in ‘Rudy’
Sean Astin and Charles Dutton in ‘Rudy’
Getty Images

Midway through the film, after Rudy has spent semester after semester at Holy Cross waiting for an acceptance letter to Notre Dame, he finally tears open the letter of congratulations, then stares at it in disbelief. On that day of shooting, sitting on a bench overlooking campus, Astin had trouble finding the right emotional state. “It was pretty bad and he just wasn’t getting there,” Anspaugh says. “I tried every trick in the book. Finally, I just walked up to him and I said, ‘Sean, look me in the eye.’ I said, ‘What are you afraid of?’ And he goes, ‘Roll the cameras right now.’ That was the magic word. It was the fear of not delivering, the fear of not being good enough.”

Pizzo never concerned himself with complete accuracy in his script, like when the entire team lays their jerseys onto head coach Dan Devine’s desk before the final game. The protest to get Rudy onto the field never happened that way, “but I still think we captured the spirit of what Rudy meant to those players,” Pizzo says. That was also the case for Fortune (Charles Dutton), the stadium’s groundskeeper and Rudy’s mentor, an amalgamation of a few people in Rudy’s life. His speech in the tunnel, the one in which he urges Rudy not to give up on his dream after coming so far, remains one of the greatest in sports movie history—even though it never actually happened. “[Fortune] was an observer of conscience, he was the guy to point out what was important about this quest,” Pizzo explains. “It wasn’t the end of the journey, it was the journey itself. I think that’s the most important lesson in this movie.”

The film’s ending, cued to Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic score, in which Rudy sacks Georgia Tech’s quarterback as time expires and is carried out of the stadium on his teammates’ shoulders in the final game of the 1975 season, was another miracle. The film crew had been granted access to shoot Rudy’s moment in the sun during halftime of Notre Dame’s games against Boston College and Penn State. Anspaugh had hired an NFL Films crew to capture the action from the sideline, and they rehearsed many times to make sure everything was communicated properly. As the Irish and Eagles headed to the locker rooms, the electronics cut out. Anspaugh couldn’t communicate with any of his six camera operators. “It was Keystone cops. It was crazy,” Pizzo remembers. But the chaos ended up working in their favor. “We handed out flyers for people to come in and I don’t think anybody read them … Then they saw a Notre Dame guy tackle somebody and then get carried off the field, so they got into it. I would say 90 percent of the people in that stadium had no idea what was going on.”

Anspaugh somehow got all the shots he needed, and the hours of rehearsals proved extremely fortunate, considering it snowed the next week against Penn State. “It was one of those things where we were just blessed,” Anspaugh said. “There wasn’t a hair in the lens of any camera, every guy got it right.”

On Oct. 13, 1993, Rudy premiered. It made $22 million at the box office, gaining steam later on home video and cable. It’s still revered as an archetypal underdog movie and part of the greater football film canon, even if the key to Rudy connecting with audiences was never really about the gridiron.

Ruettiger’s quest to don the golden dome and emerge from the tunnel relied on the dedication and hard work that was part of the state’s blue-collar pride. “This isn’t really a football movie,” Anspaugh said. “If you think about it, the guy wants to play on the team, but it’s his journey, all the obstacles that get in the way.”

Years after its release, Anspaugh was playing in a golf tournament when a woman approached him in tears. “She said, ‘You helped save my daughter’s life.’ She tried out for volleyball in high school and she got cut, and she was almost suicidal, wouldn’t speak to anyone and locked herself away.” Then one of her friends brought her a copy of Rudy. “She saw the movie, walked out and said, ‘You know what, I’m going to play next year,’ and now she’s on scholarship at college.” Anspaugh adds: “Occasionally we hear these stories, and that’s what the movie’s about. That’s a universal theme that doesn’t end.”

After spending time on individual projects for the next decade, Pizzo and Anspaugh teamed up for another movie, The Game of Their Lives, in 2005, about the 1950 U.S. soccer team beating England in the World Cup. As they tell it, their third collaboration was slightly more contentious, a battle between Anspaugh’s right brain and Pizzo’s left brain—and the studio—but they remained friends nonetheless. Pizzo eventually directed his own film, My All American, in 2015, and continues to write scripts he’s offered, opportunities he wouldn’t have without Hoosiers and Rudy. “I’ve known a lot of people in this business over the years and to sustain a career as long as I have, as a filmmaker, as a writer, is kind of unusual, and I owe it to those two movies,” he says.

David Anspaugh and Angelo Pizzo at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2016
David Anspaugh and Angelo Pizzo at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2016
Getty Images

Pizzo moved back to Bloomington in 2004, eager to return to his roots, and much like earlier in his career, Anspaugh followed him there 10 years later. They live a mile apart now, still connected to their communities and by the two movies that elevated their home state. They speak to each other every couple of weeks and are in the planning stages of teaching a seminar together at the university. “We go to basketball games together occasionally because [Angelo’s] got the greatest seats in the house,” Anspaugh says.

Their return to Indiana has, in some ways, completed an odyssey that began by passing weed to each other some 50-plus years ago, ruminating on the possibilities of working together in the movie industry. It was a fantasy then, a reality later, and now it feels like a surreal alternate universe they once lived in.

Anspaugh still recalls what a film professor at Indiana once told him and Pizzo on the first day of class; it makes him laugh. In a 200-student lecture hall, the professor told them that their chances of making Hollywood movies were just as good as walking on the moon. Much like Rudy’s own journey, they beat the odds, and then some.

“For that to happen,” Anspaugh reflects, “the fact that we’re both over 70 and still alive and—knock on wood—have health and [are] back in Bloomington, it’s kind of bizarre. But it feels right.”

Jake Kring-Schreifels is a sports and entertainment writer based in Washington, D.C. His work has also appeared in, and The New York Times.

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