Thornton Wilder


LOS ANGELES—The most cosmopolitan cracker ever to play Santa Claus and Davy Crockett, Billy Bob Thornton is a walking contradiction, reconciling the conflicting aesthetics of Northern and Southern truth and fiction. In person, he seems to have fewer of those sharp, hillbilly angles than appear on screen. He has skin that could advertise an L.A. salon (despite the scrollwork of tattoos up and down his arms). And while he’s wearing cowboy boots, he bought them—as the cowboy sneers in the salsa commercial—in New York City!

“But they’re made in Texas,” Thornton cautions. “All the good boots are made in Texas. Some in New Mexico, but mostly Texas. I used to go to this place in Soho called . . . uh . . . Buffalo Chips, it was called. They sold Western wear. They had these boots made for me. The little diamonds are brown lizard.”

Speaking of diamonds, Thornton plays down-and-dirty, drunk-and-disorderly Little League baseball coach Morris Buttermaker in Richard Linklater’s remake of The Bad News Bears (opening July 22), a production that seems unlikely at best (they might have called it Before Happy Hour). Like the 1976 original, the film about a foul-mouthed coach and his equally foul-mouthed players is proof that even in a vulgar world, vulgarity can be hilarious.

“Oh yeah, absolutely,” Thornton says. “The only difference is that kids are exposed to so much more language and stuff now. It’s funny: The society is becoming more p.c., while the people are really exposed to more.”

Despite rumors to the contrary, the film avoided an R rating without going under the knife. “Somehow or another we got our PG-13,” says Linklater. “I feel we got lucky there. They worry about kids with anything—kids touching alcohol or referring to genitalia. On some of the stuff, I shot alternatives. Like when the one kid says, ‘I’m going to tell someone you touched my pecker,’ in another shot we had him say, ‘I’m going to tell ’em you got all Catholic on my privates.’ ”

That was better? “Yes, actually.” Still, pecker made it by the MPAA.

“They’ve seen and heard it all,” Thornton says of his sawed-off co-stars. “One kid, his favorite movie was Goodfellas. Man, I didn’t know the word fuck till I was in junior high school! That wasn’t stuff we threw around when I was a kid. You’d hear sonuvabitch and things like that, every now and then. From your dad . . . ”

Mention Thornton’s childhood and the subject of the South comes up, how it won the Civil War (didn’t it?) and how a son of Arkansas can star in movies that defy every ethos currently associated with the vast cultural wasteland below the Mason-Dixon Line. Oops.

“A lot of it’s chapped my ass over the years,” he says. “I always put it this way: It’s OK for a guy from the Bronx to make a movie about the South. Nobody really raises hell about it except Southerners who know it’s not real. But if I made a movie about the Bronx, they would kill me. Or if I play a guy from the Bronx, they’d pick up any little slip in my accent. But a guy from the Bronx can play a guy from the South and be horrible—you know, do that Foghorn Leghorn accent, which never existed anyway.

“I always remind people of this: If it weren’t for the southern part of the United States, we wouldn’t have any modern music . . . we’d be singing polkas. You can trace rock and roll, country, hip-hop, soul, r&b, pop to Memphis and New Orleans, and a great percentage of our greatest authors are from the South. It’s gotten a bad rap over the years, but plenty of guys from the upper East Coast bought slaves and had plantations. I mean, those poor fucks down in Alabama didn’t have the gear to go get people.”

Thornton was a ballplayer and, like Morris Buttermaker, had his moment in the sun. And a moment it was. “I actually had a tryout with the Kansas City Royals,” he says. “I was a pretty good pitcher, a junk ball pitcher, but I got my collarbone broken after about 30 minutes of being there. They never even got to see me pitch. I was standing there, they were taking infield practice, and the guy wasn’t looking or something and the ball hit me in the collarbone . . . ”

“Did he tell you how good he was?” Linklater asks later, referring to he and his star’s shared background in baseball (Linklater played for Sam Houston State University). “Isn’t it funny how aging athletes, y’know, like fishermen, everything gets bigger and better with age.”

But Thornton isn’t dreamy about it. “Let’s say by some miracle I had gotten to the major leagues,” he says. “I’d be retired for 10 years already. I’d be selling cars somewhere by now.

“So in retrospect,” he adds, smiling, “I think it worked out real good.”