Film Stripes: Top 5 Referee and Umpire Movie Characters
From the Marx Brothers' Horse Feathers of 1932 to Brad Pitt and Bennett Miller's Moneyball of 2011, American cinema has long been intertwined with the grand spectacle of sports.
From the 1976 make-believe thriller Two-Minute Warning to the reality-based Miracle on Ice (1981), sports have alternatively played supporting and feature roles in the movies.
Sports have become such a dramatic and comedic spectacle, the American Film Institute defined "sports" as its own genre, going so far as to rank the best 10 sports films of all time—in case you're wondering, Raging Bull edged out Rocky for the top spot.
Sports films are occasional award winners—Chariots of Fire and Rocky for instance. 1959 Best Picture Ben-Hur is also perhaps most famously known for its climactic chariot scene.
In most films, you have protagonists, deuteragonists—which may be an antagonist or sidekick—and tritagonists.
Famous sports-related protagonists include the aforementioned Rocky Balboa, title character Jerry Maguire, Morris Buttermaker (The Bad News Bears) and even the animated Lightning McQueen (Cars and Cars 2).
Balboa is an athlete, Maguire is an agent, Buttermaker is a coach and McQueen, well, is a race car.
Yet behind these iconic characters lie the men in stripes or coats—referees and umpires—whose calls can make or break a scene.
So follow along, as we reveal the best referees and umpires tever o grace the silver screen.
A brief disclaimer: You won't find any Adam Sandler movies here. He seems to have an unhealthy fascination with referees perpetrating violence (Eight Crazy Nights) and referees being the victims of violence (The Longest Yard).
That's just not acceptable, much less amusing.
No. 5: Referee Hannah in Youngblood (Martin Donlevy)
Youngblood (1986) tells the story of 17-year-old Dean Youngblood (Rob Lowe) playing in the Canadian Junior Hockey League with hopes of one day jumping to the NHL.
After the title character's friend and mentor is checked hard into the boards by opponent and antagonist Carl Racki (George J. Finn), tritagonist Huey Hewitt (Peter Faussett) confronts Racki with a dangerous slash to the head.
Referee Hannah (Martin Donlevy) issues Hewitt the slashing penalty, prompting a passionate argument from Hewitt.
Hannah matter-of-factly (and hilariously) tells Hewitt, "You've got two chances of winning this argument: Slim and None."
A thoroughly frustrated Hewitt then shoves the referee, finally shooting a hockey puck in Hannah's direction.
In calling for Hewitt's ejection, Hannah delivers his second gem, "Get the animal out of here!"
No. 4: Referee in Vision Quest (Darrell Driggs)
In this epic wrestling scene from Vision Quest (1986), protagonist Louden Swain (Matthew Modine) takes on his fiercest competitor, Brian Shute (Frank Jasper), who at the beginning of the film is two weight classes below Swain.
Swain goes to extreme lengths to lose enough weight to fight Shute, which he does during a scene which has become somewhat of a cult classic amongst the most ardent high school wrestlers.
In the middle of all this is an amiable high school wrestling referee played by Darrell Driggs.
With all the pressure of a film's climactic finale riding on his stripes, Driggs' character officiates the Swain-Shute match with tremendous impartiality and honor.
Dealing with injuries, illegal moves and all the variables you can imagine during the main event, the referee from Vision Quest delivers a monumental performance worthy of inclusion in any list of the all-time greatest fictional high school wrestling referees.
No. 3: Umpire in Bull Durham (Stephen Ware)
If you're at work, you might want to turn down the volume. One of the players just "used a certain word that's a no-no with umpires."
In the midst of 1988's Bull Durham, catcher "Crash" Davis (Kevin Costner) and pitcher Calvin "Nuke" LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) are not on the same page. After all, Davis is a 12-year minor leaguer going nowhere and LaLoosh is a rookie pitching phenom on his way to the bigs.
Animosity? Of course.
LaLoosh eventually realizes his potential and makes it to the major leagues to end the film on a high note, but not before Davis is thrown into the center of a tough play at the plate.
On a deep drive to the outfield, Davis fields a high throw from the cut-off man and attempts to tag an opposing runner as he slides head first into home. The hallmark of a great sports scene, the angle shown gives the audience an inconclusive view of the dramatic play at the plate, allowing a reasonable belief of the home plate umpire (Stephen Ware)'s "safe" call.
As Davis throws insults around like sunflower seeds, the umpire asks Davis to repeat a certain phrase that indubitably gets the veteran catcher ejected on the spot.
As far the fictional league office is concerned, the ejection was justified.
No. 2: Umpire Lt. Frank Drebin in Naked Gun (Leslie Nielsen)
Ah, the baseball scene from Leslie Nielsen's Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988).
Frank Drebin (Nielsen) is a lieutenant with Police Squad, working to prevent evildoer Vincent Ludwig (Ricardo Montalban) from assassinating the Queen of England during a California Angels game she is attending (filming actually was at Chavez Ravine).
As Police Squad receives intelligence that Ludwig is planning to assassinate the Queen by using one of the players as a mind-controlled killing machine (it turns out to be Reggie Jackson), Drebin elects to go undercover.
After gaining access to the playing field by posing as scheduled National Anthem singer Enrico Pallazzo, Drebin happens to run into the contest's umpires while heading through the umpires' tunnel.
Hilarity ensues as Drebin incapacitates and swaps clothes with the scheduled home plate umpire, using the umpire's mask and balloon chest protector to hide his identity from Ludwig.
Nonetheless, Drebin proceeds to make a complete mockery of the game with his antics, such as making a few strike calls before the pitch even reaches the plate, regardless of pitch location.
When Drebin learns Ludwig plans to assassinate the Queen during the seventh-inning stretch, he does everything in his power to prevent the final outs from being recorded, including getting involved in a rundown and ejecting real-life umpires Hank Robinson and Joe West, playing fictitious versions of themselves.
Needless to say, the film is a comedy.
Interesting how Drebin calls a runner safe at home plate in a fashion similar to the umpire from Bull Durham.
No. 1: Referee Mickey Gordon in Forget Paris (Billy Crystal)
A true rarity in fictional sports films, Forget Paris (1995) features NBA referee Mickey Gordon (Billy Crystal) as its protagonist. Forget Paris is an unusually wonderful romantic comedy, delving into the personal life of a referee and showing a side of officiating that few people ever see.
Gordon is depicted as a wonderful basketball official, the best there is. The opening scene features Gordon making the gutsiest of calls, negating a Charles Barkley buzzer-beater that would have sent the Phoenix Suns into the NBA Finals.
Instead, the Suns lost and audiences were even treated to the gratuitous Barkley-ism, "that was turrible."
Replay the video and you'll see that, of course, our hero Mickey got the call right.
The film does a tremendous service to its sports-loving audience, treating the viewer to a montage of a fake referee calling a staged game played by real-life NBA players.
But it's a story. It surely has to be a conflict, right?
Absolutely. Gordon becomes depressed, upset and annoyed due to trouble in his personal life and takes it out on both the Lakers and Pistons during Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's fictional final game.
Forget Paris is told in flashbacks by Gordon's friends. One friend describes Gordon's breaking point: "He snapped, he threw out both starting teams, the coach, the trainer, Kareem's parents and the guy who puts cheese on the nachos."
During his all-too-public tantrum, Gordon delivers some wonderful zingers, punctuated by his ejection of Abdul-Jabbar:
Abdul-Jabbar: What are you, nuts? This is my farewell game!
Gordon: Oh yeah? Well let me be the first to say, "farewell!"
As is stated at the end of the film, Gordon "committed the cardinal sin of refereeing: He brought his personal life onto the court."
This fictional referee story has it all: comedy, romance, NBA superstars and the happiest of endings. Gordon reminds us that referees are people, too.
For these reasons, Mickey Gordon is the No. 1 movie referee of all time.
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