Walk into the Yankees' locker room on the set of ESPN's new eight-hour miniseries The Bronx Is Burning (premiering tonight at 10 pm/ET) and the only thing missing is the smell. The odor that permeates the bowels of the real House that Ruth Built combines tobacco spit, wet socks, dog hair, moldy basement and body odor into one toxic brew. But the spot-on replica in a Waterford, Connecticut, studio, where the Bombers' 1977 world-championship season is being re-created, smells just fine. Daniel Sunjata (Rescue Me), who plays Reggie Jackson, gives a visiting sports writer an annoyed look and says, "Well, is the smell all we're missing?"
Actually, yes. To stroll on the set of The Bronx Is Burning is to take a remarkable walk back in time. Inside the Yankee clubhouse, no detail goes unchecked. The blue carpet is tattered; a sign reading "Pick Up Your Stuff, Your Mother Doesn't Live Here" hangs from a post. Atop pitcher Mike Torrez's locker rests an Ace bandage, a used toothbrush and a bottle of aftershave. In pitcher Ed Figueroa's sits a yellowed paperback copy of Politics in Africa.
"The goal here isn't to make something that looks like the Yankee clubhouse," says Jeremiah Chechik, who's directing the film based on the Jonathan Mahler 2006 best-seller. "The goal is to make the Yankee Stadium clubhouse. To make the Yankees come back to life."
The miniseries juxtaposes the clubhouse clashes with the wider tensions of a nervous New York City being terrorized by the Son of Sam killer, David Berkowitz. It was a summer of heightened emotions — especially in the Yankees' locker room. Arguments broke out constantly between brash manager Billy Martin (John Turturro) and blustering owner George Steinbrenner (Oliver Platt); between Martin and egomaniacal new recruit Jackson; and between Jackson and the entire team.
"I remember that team, and liking all the players, Reggie and Billy and Thurman [Munson]," says Brooklyn-born Turturro, who dons startling prosthetic ears to play Martin. "Even though there was all this dissension going on, it was a team that really did give the city something to cheer for."
Looking around the set, Chechik marvels: These are the Yankees. Really. Munson (played by Erik Jensen), the gruff catcher who tragically died in a 1979 plane crash, sits at his locker, staring into a mitt. Outfielder Lou Piniella (Mather Zickel) nervously smokes a cigarette. Ron Guidry (Lou Provenzano), the quiet ace, rubs his John Oates-esque mustache and listens to a reporter's question. Jackson (Sunjata) struts back and forth, barking about his greatness in a way only Mr. October can.
Most noteworthy is Steinbrenner. Platt's Boss waddles up and down the stadium bowels with enough arrogance to fill 100 plaid suits, Steinbrenner's outfit of choice back in the day. Platt fits the part perfectly — even if he is a die-hard Red Sox fan.
"It'd be easy for me to judge George Steinbrenner from afar, decide I don't like him and play the character in a negative way," Platt says. "But I'm fascinated by him. Everything he did was bold and powerful. Not just his thinking, but the way he walked and presented himself. I'm not trying to clone him, because that's impossible. But as an actor, the idea is to capture his spirit."
It's clear the actors have taken their roles to heart. Late in the day, Turturro rises from his chicken dinner to chew out a member of the production team who (the nerve!) speaks to him during a meal. Meanwhile, Chechik has made a habit of rubbing cast members the wrong way with his biting comments and snide suggestions.
"There's a lot of energy here," Jensen says from beneath a shaggy wig and mustache. The emotions on set mimic the story but Jensen is a voice of calm, as Munson was in '77. "I have no problem with the pursuit of perfection, because I want to be in something great. This has a chance to be great."
Maybe. But could we get some old cheese? A used sweatband? It smells too damn normal.
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