Set in 1951 in the fictitious tiny Indiana town of Hickory, Hoosiers (1986) starred Gene Hackman as Norman Dale, a man whose promising career coaching college basketball was forever ruined when he hit one of his players. After spending more than a decade in the Navy, Dale gets a second chance at coaching with the Hickory High School Huskers, where he quickly discovers how important even high school basketball is to the town and to the Hoosier state.
Slowly, Dale manages to win over the town and its former star player, Jimmy Chitwood (Maris Valainis), when his seemingly unusual tactics begin to yield positive results on the court. By changing Jimmy's mind and helping to get the local drunk, Shooter Flatch (Dennis Hopper), on the wagon with the promise of an assistant coach position, Dale also impresses his world-weary colleague, Myra Fleener (Barbara Hershey). In honor of the film's 30th anniversary, here are 10 facts you might not have known about the Oscar-nominated sports classic.
1. NORMAN DALE WAS BASED ON BOBBY KNIGHT.
First-time feature film writer Angelo Pizzo and equally-green director David Anspaugh grew up in Indiana and were roommates at Indiana University, so naturally they wanted to make a movie about the state and its love of basketball. But while they had heard and been inspired throughout their lives by the story of the tiny 1954 Milan High team that shocked everybody by winning the state championship, Pizzo discovered they were "too nice" and had "no real conflict," so instead he made the team out of five of his friends from high school, created an assistant coach from scratch, and made Dale with Bobby Knight, Indiana University's longtime—and legendarily volatile—head coach in mind.
“I wondered what would happen if Knight punched a player," Pizzo said. “I utilized Knight’s offensive philosophy: four passes before a shot. I also created an arc for him where he actually listened to a player.” (In real life, Knight was accused of several acts of violence, and eventually dismissed from his position at Indiana for what the school's president described as a "pattern of unacceptable behavior.")
2. JACK NICHOLSON WANTED TO PLAY THE COACH.
After reading the script, Nicholson told Pizzo and Anspaugh, "I have to play this character." However, he was unable to take the role because he was serving as a witness in a lawsuit, which sidelined him for six months. After the film came out, Nicholson said to Anspaugh that the movie and its stars were great, but that it would have been a "megahit" if he been its star.
3. HARRY DEAN STANTON WAS APPROACHED TO PLAY SHOOTER.
Venerable character actor Harry Dean Stanton was offered the role of Shooter, but passed. In 2013 he expressed regret over saying no to the film, and couldn't remember his reasons for declining it. Dennis Hopper was also reluctant to play Shooter, as he had "just stopped drinking," but eventually signed on and earned an Oscar nomination for his efforts.
4. SEVEN OF THE EIGHT PLAYERS WERE FROM INDIANA.
The lone non-Hoosier was David Neidorf, who played Shooter's son Everett. (He auditioned at the Beverly Hills Y.) The rest were picked from an open casting call in Indianapolis for anyone who could play hoops. Estimates on how many people auditioned range from 400 to 800 hopefuls.
The athletes studied 1950s game film and trained and rehearsed for over two months. "We'd spent all our lives learning to play one way, and then we had to start shooting a completely different way," Steve Hollar, who played Rade, said. "No behind-the-back passes, no hand-checking."
5. GENE HACKMAN'S AGENT TRIED TO GET THE DIRECTOR FIRED.
Hackman and Anspaugh clashed throughout most of the production. "Gene had me on the verge of a nervous breakdown," Anspaugh told Vulture. "He gave me my first anxiety attack: One morning I woke up and I couldn’t walk, the room was spinning. I thought every day on the film was going to be my last because Gene’s agent was trying to get me fired."
According to Anspaugh, the only thing that saved his job was the dailies. "The producers said, 'Look, David’s not getting fired,'" the director recalled. "And we showed a half-hour of dailies to Gene’s agent and he saw that what we were making was actually pretty good."
6. HACKMAN TOLD DENNIS HOPPER THAT THE MOVIE WAS GOING TO SINK THEIR CAREERS.
During a happy montage of Hickory winning a string of games, Dale was shown saying something to Shooter on the bench that made Shooter laugh. It wasn't until years later that Anspaugh learned what Hopper was laughing at: Hackman had told him, "Hopper, I hope you’ve invested well, because you and I are never gonna work after this movie. This is a career-ending film for both of us.”
7. HOPPER USED JAMES DEAN AS INSPIRATION.
Hopper had acted alongside James Dean in both Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Giant (1956). For a scene where he needed to act drunk in the latter film, Dean asked director George Stevens for 30 seconds so that he could spin around to better feel the inebriation. Remembering this, Hopper asked Anspaugh for the same 30 seconds.
There's another connection between Hoosiers and Dean: in 1951, the Marion, Indiana-born actor had played basketball against the Milan High School team.
8. HOPPER FOUGHT TO HAVE A SCENE CUT FROM THE FILM.
In the original script, Shooter leaves rehab to watch the state championship. Hopper, who had just gotten sober, thought it was detrimental to the story. "We sat down over coffee, and he said, 'Guys, I wish I had brought this up earlier. I knew there was something that bothered me about this scene. It doesn’t work. It can’t happen. It would suggest Shooter didn’t take his sobriety seriously. And I know from experience that Shooter made a real commitment, and there’s no way he would leave that hospital,'" Anspaugh recalled. "And Angelo and I had been living with that scene in our heads for years. And we really argued against [cutting] it. And Dennis said, 'No, trust me.' And we trusted him, and he was absolutely right."
9. ORION MADE THE FILMMAKERS CUT ALMOST A FULL HOUR FROM THE FILM.
Anspaugh and Pizzo wanted to release their two-hour-and-48-minute version of the movie. The studio insisted that they needed to cut it down to 114 minutes. Among the many scenes excised was Buddy (Brad Long) asking back on the team and two scenes that developed Norman and Myra's budding romance more. Anspaugh said "the audience really got cheated and robbed" over the cuts.
10. HACKMAN ENDED UP BEING IMPRESSED WITH THE FILM, AND ANSPAUGH.
Hackman insisted on viewing the movie before he agreed to go in to re-record some of his audio. "Angelo and I knew that if he didn't like the movie, he wouldn't show up at the studio to re-record his dialogue," Anspaugh said. "But he showed up. He walked in to the room, took his glasses off, looked me in the eyes, and said, 'How the f*ck did you do that?'"