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Engelberg recalls 'Bears' fondly

By KEITH NIEBUHR
Published August 28, 2005


Does the name Gary Lee Cavagnaro ring a bell?

Probably not. Okay, how about Engelberg? Yes, that one you surely know ... if you've seen the original Bad News Bears (1976) that is. Engelberg was the Bears' portly and volatile catcher, the kid who ate candy bars at practice and cussed at his coach. He was played by Cavagnaro, a Dallas native picked for the part after attending - what else? - a cattle call. Today, Cavagnaro, 41, works for Phoenix Passive Components, an electronics company in Texas. He and wife Kimberly have four children: Matthew (21), Emily (14), Blake (12) and Gary Jr. (10). Engelberg ... err Cavagnaro ... recently kicked back with Times staff writer Keith Niebuhr.

Let's start from the top. How were you picked to play Engelberg?

My mother worked at the Apparel Mart in Dallas, and that summer, they were filming Logan's Run there. They put it out on the radio for children under the age of 13 to come audition. Everybody assumed it was for a part in Logan's Run. We found out after we got there it was for a new motion picture. They ended up liking me and spent 31/2 hours with me. The director and the producer told me they wanted me to come back in a couple of days, but I was one of 15. I was either first or second to go in, and they ended up not seeing anybody else. After I got there, they spent the rest of the day with me.

Doing what?

They had me going through lines, running in place, eating fried chicken, candy bars with wrappers. At lunch, I had a burger and fries, and then they started feeding me again. I was like a stuffed pig. When we finished up, they said, "Don't call us. We'll call you." We went on vacation, and one day, the light was flashing on the hotel phone. They said I needed to be in the studio in L.A. the following Monday. The first couple of weeks, I still didn't know I had the part for sure. Later, (director) Michael Ritchie told me, "We did that so that you would be calm. I knew you had the part the day we sent for you."

Okay, how fat was Engelberg?

I was 5 feet tall and weighed 205 pounds. And I was only 12.

Oh, my.

It was way too big as a matter of fact. We had a family doctor, and he kept telling me I needed to lose weight but never pushed it. He figured it was baby fat. When I got to California (for filming), I got bronchitis, and the doctor said, "You need to lose weight or you'll be in a wheelchair by the time you're 18 and dead by the time you're 21."

Who was the coolest person on the set?

Let me break it into adults and kids. Of the kids, Chris Barnes, who played Tanner. As far as the adults, Walter Matthau (coach Morris Buttermaker) was in a class by himself. As great as he was around the kids, he was even better around the moms. Behind the field, the tree-lined area between the field and the concession stand, the mothers would camp out there. And during off time, Walter would come out with Jack Lemmon occasionally and do an old vaudeville routine, which would keep the mothers in stitches.

What was the most fun scene to shoot?

I think the best for me was the Milk Dud scene, where I got chocolate on the ball, because of the one-on-one interaction with Walter.

Did you ever play any real baseball?

Briefly, yes. But before the movie. Afterward, it was kind of anticlimactic.

What position?

Outfield. I was mediocre. I was much better as a batter than as a fielder.

To anyone who ever played youth baseball, the movie seems so real. We all knew a coach who drank, a bratty kid who swore and a temperamental parent or two. Even today, the film still works. How did you guys pull it off?

It was cutting edge. It was taboo. Michael Ritchie was really good at delivering a message to you without you knowing he was doing that. I defy anybody to find a movie prior to this where kids were told to act like you would if your parents weren't around. At the premiere, when there was the line where I (cursed at) Buttermaker, people gasped. Then they paused. Then they started breaking out in laughter. I think they all sat back and thought, "That's probably what they say when we're not around."

Still keep in touch with the gang?

We fell apart for quite a while. But in 2001, when TV Guide and Sports Illustrated did 25th anniversary stories, we all started finding e-mail addresses and phone numbers.

I think I speak for all of America when I ask, was Timmy Lupus really that bad?

Quinn Smith (Lupus) and Jaime Escobedo (Jose) were younger than the rest of us by two years ... but yes, he was that bad.

Does watching the movie ever get old?

No. After 300 times, I can still find something new or just remember things. I still remember Walter up in the tree with Erin Blunt (Ahmad) like it was yesterday.

At 40, what would Engelberg be doing?

If he didn't lose the weight, I think he'd be dead.

BAD NEWS BEARS: MEMORABLE QUOTES

Engelberg: You're not supposed to have open liquor in the car. It's against the law.

Coach Morris Buttermaker: So is murder, Englebert. Now put that back before you get me in real trouble.

Engelberg: (helping Buttermaker clean pools) When we're through, can we go swimming?

Coach Morris Buttermaker: No! Don't jump in Engelberg. You'll flood the valley.