With the writers’ strike currently raging in the US, we’re showing solidarity by focusing on screenwriters in the Unsung Auteurs column. When the plaudits are handed out for a film of high and lasting quality, they usually get to the writer last. First kudos often go to the high-profile director, many of whom like to talk casually about how they “rewrote” the script, or to the above-the-title actors, many of whom also like to talk about how much they improvised during the shoot. All of which, of course, goes to diminish the work of the writer, who provided the blueprint for it all in the first place. Unless it’s a bells-and-whistles type script full of “sparkling” dialogue and action that calls attention to itself, the screenplay is usually mentioned way down the bottom of the ladder of praise.
Late screenwriter Bill Lancaster only has a few credits to his name, and they’re all incredible, but they also boast very high-profile participants who have always received the lion’s share of the praise whenever it’s handed out. It’s hard to get a look-in, right, when you have genius horror master John Carpenter in the director’s chair on one flick, and the great Walter Matthau as your leading man on the other. So next time you watch 1982’s The Thing or 1976’s The Bad News Bears, siphon away some of your appreciation for little known Bill Lancaster.
The son of true Hollywood royalty in the form of legendary actor Burt Lancaster, Bill Lancaster was born in Los Angeles in 1947, and contracted polio at an early age, leaving one of his legs shorter than the other. This, however, didn’t stop Lancaster from playing his beloved baseball, where he was positioned at first base due to his limited mobility. Following in his father’s footsteps, Lancaster began his film industry career as an actor, with a minor role on TV’s The Big Valley, a later appearance in the 1974 thriller The Midnight Man (co-directed by Burt Lancaster in his second and final stab behind the camera), and a gig playing the young version of his father’s title character in the TV mini-series Moses The Lawgiver.
Lancaster made the jump to screenwriting in 1976 with The Bad News Bears, a kid-based baseball comedy that still rates as one of the best sports of all time. The film follows Morris Buttermaker, a rumpled, crumpled, boozy former minor league baseball pitcher who takes up a position as coach to a team of shambolic misfits, and turns their fortunes around when he recruits a gifted female pitcher and a juvenile delinquent who also happens to be a brilliant athlete. Lancaster based the screenplay on his own experiences with his father, a charismatic misanthrope of famed proportions.
Superbly directed by the great Michael Ritchie (Prime Cut, The Candidate, Downhill Racer, Smile, Fletch) with his characteristic mix of looseness and pithy bite, and brilliantly performed by Walter Matthau (at his grumpy, cantankerous, smart, loveable best), Tatum O’Neal, Jackie Earle Haley and a stellar cast of youngsters, The Bad News Bears is also, most importantly, brilliantly written, with wonderfully fleshed out and imaginative child characters, inventively profane dialogue, and a fine line in deft social commentary about competition and sports. “It’s so funny,” said star Tatum O’Neal of the film. “It’s so sweet. It’s sweet and, yet, it’s completely wrong. It’s just so wrong on so many levels.” It’s a really great piece of work, and though The Bad News Bears performed well at the box office, it didn’t push Bill Lancaster into the screenwriting stratosphere as it truly should have.
Lancaster sat out the largely effective 1977 sequel The Bad News Bears In Breaking Training (which put Jackie Earle Haley’s juvenile front and centre in the absence of Matthau and O’Neal), which was instead penned by Paul Brickman, who would later go on to direct Tom Cruise in Risky Business. Lancaster returned, however, for 1978’s The Bad News Bears Go To Japan, which saw Tony Curtis’ smalltime hustler saddled with the eponymous baseball team for a trip to Japan. Though funny and entertaining, the film is hardly the equal of the first, and it would be the last in the series, though it would be later resurrected as a short-lived TV series, and then remade in 2005 by director Richard Linklater via a script by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, and with Billy Bob Thornton in the lead role.
As terrifying as The Bad News Bears was funny, Lancaster’s script for John Carpenter’s 1982 horror masterpiece The Thing is a true masterclass in the building of tension, paranoia, and, finally, complete nihilistic chaos. Adapted from the novel Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell Jr, the film follows a group of researchers in Antarctica horribly menaced by an alien being that imitates other life forms. “We met with a lot of people on The Thing and it was only when Bill Lancaster talked about what he would do with the short story that I thought, ‘This is the guy,’” John Carpenter told Cinephilia & Beyond. “Bill was an incredibly charming person and I loved his movie, The Bad News Bears. He was just brilliant, and that script was really, really good. He was the one who came up with a couple of really key scenes. He came up with the scene where the doctor tries to shock another character and The Thing comes out of his chest. And we discussed the idea of the blood tests; that’s the reason I wanted to do the movie. That’s the showdown; that’s the big scene.”
A profoundly gifted writer with two truly stellar and key cinematic credits to his name, the film world was robbed of more of his work when Bill Lancaster passed away at the age of just 49 from a cardiac arrest.
If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Lucinda Coxon, Ernest Tidyman, Shauna Cross, Troy Kennedy Martin, Kelly Marcel, Alan Sharp, Leslie Dixon, Jeremy Podeswa, Ferd & Beverly Sebastian, Anthony Page, Julie Gavras, Ted Post, Sarah Jacobson, Anton Corbijn, Gillian Robespierre, Brandon Cronenberg, Laszlo Nemes, Ayelat Menahemi, Ivan Tors, Amanda King & Fabio Cavadini, Cathy Henkel, Colin Higgins, Paul McGuigan, Rose Bosch, Dan Gilroy, Tanya Wexler, Clio Barnard, Robert Aldrich, Maya Forbes, Steven Kastrissios, Talya Lavie, Michael Rowe, Rebecca Cremona, Stephen Hopkins, Tony Bill, Sarah Gavron, Martin Davidson, Fran Rubel Kuzui, Elliot Silverstein, Liz Garbus, Victor Fleming, Barbara Peeters, Robert Benton, Lynn Shelton, Tom Gries, Randa Haines, Leslie H. Martinson, Nancy Kelly, Paul Newman, Brett Haley, Lynne Ramsay, Vernon Zimmerman, Lisa Cholodenko, Robert Greenwald, Phyllida Lloyd, Milton Katselas, Karyn Kusama, Seijun Suzuki, Albert Pyun, Cherie Nowlan, Steve Binder, Jack Cardiff, Anne Fletcher ,Bobcat Goldthwait, Donna Deitch, Frank Pierson, Ann Turner, Jerry Schatzberg, Antonia Bird, Jack Smight, Marielle Heller, James Glickenhaus, Euzhan Palcy, Bill L. Norton, Larysa Kondracki, Mel Stuart, Nanette Burstein, George Armitage, Mary Lambert, James Foley, Lewis John Carlino, Debra Granik, Taylor Sheridan, Laurie Collyer, Jay Roach, Barbara Kopple, John D. Hancock, Sara Colangelo, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Joyce Chopra, Mike Newell, Gina Prince-Bythewood, John Lee Hancock, Allison Anders, Daniel Petrie Sr., Katt Shea, Frank Perry, Amy Holden Jones, Stuart Rosenberg, Penelope Spheeris, Charles B. Pierce, Tamra Davis, Norman Taurog, Jennifer Lee, Paul Wendkos, Marisa Silver, John Mackenzie, Ida Lupino, John V. Soto, Martha Coolidge, Peter Hyams, Tim Hunter, Stephanie Rothman, Betty Thomas, John Flynn, Lizzie Borden, Lionel Jeffries, Lexi Alexander, Alkinos Tsilimidos, Stewart Raffill, Lamont Johnson, Maggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.