The Day The “The Odd Couple” Went To A Mets Game

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The following is an excerpt from my memoir MAGIC TIME: MY LIFE IN HOLLYWOOD

One of the more complicated issues involved in shooting The Odd Couple was a scene we wanted to film at Shea Stadium. Walter’s character is a sportswriter who is covering a game between the Mets and the Pirates. We had to get permission from Major League Baseball, the New York Mets, and the Pittsburgh Pirates to film them at the stadium. There were contracts and all sorts of legal hurdles to scale.

We presented the scene to the higher-ups at those organizations, and naturally were met with “What are we going to get out of it?” Great producer that he was, my dad came up with an idea. “How about we make it ‘Odd Couple Day’ at Shea Stadium? We’ll have Walter and Jack there to sign autographs, and you can interview them. They’ll do whatever you want. You can promote the hell out of it and get a much bigger afternoon game attendance. That’s what’s in it for you.” They agreed, so we moved on to the next challenge.

The game was to start at two o’clock, which would mean we would have from one thirty to one fifty, to shoot our scene. A mere twenty minutes. Walter and Heywood Hale Broun, a famous sports writer, were to be sitting in the press box watching the game when Heywood would announce, “Well, the Mets are up one-nothing, top of the ninth, no outs, bases loaded, Clemente up. The Mets are gonna lose another one.”

After Broun said his line, Matthau would say, with a mouthful of hotdog, “What’s the matter? You never heard of a triple play?” Just as he says that the phone rings and somebody yells, “Hey, Oscar, it’s for you.”

Oscar turns away from the game, still chewing, and picks up the phone. It’s Felix, who says, “Oscar, don’t eat any dogs at the game today ’cause I’m making franks ’n beans for dinner.”

As Felix is saying that, a triple play happens, and since there was no such thing as instant replay back then, Oscar—who had his back to the field to answer the phone—misses the play. Oscar proceeds to go insane because he missed one of the rarest plays in baseball.

One of my jobs was to go down to the field and work with the Pirates, the Mets, and the umpires so that we could pull off that triple play at the appropriate time during the scene. First, I went to the Mets and explained that they’d be the team on the field. The idea was that when Clemente came up, they’d throw a pitch wherever he wanted, he’d hit into the triple play, and the Mets would go crazy and run off the field. The Mets, of course, agreed.

Then I went to the Pirates and talked to Roberto Clemente (yes, all you sports fans, I really did get to meet Roberto Clemente), their Hall of Fame right fielder and one of the greatest baseball players of all time. I told him the plan, and he said, “Okay, but I want ten thou- sand dollars to do it.” It was a hitch, that’s for sure, but I wasn’t too surprised because naturally, Clemente wouldn’t like the idea of hitting into a triple play. A home run maybe, but not a triple play.

I radioed up to my dad and his response when I told him what Clemente wanted in order to hit into the triple play was, “No way we’re paying ten thousand dollars. Who else ya got?” I went back to the Pirate’s dugout, and I recognized a World Series hero, second baseman Bill Mazeroski. He had hit a home run in the ninth inning of the seventh game of the 1960 World Series for the Pirates to beat the Yankees. I asked him if he’d do it. “Sure, I’ll do it for five hundred bucks.”

I didn’t bother to call back upstairs, I just said, “You got a deal.” We were all ready to go as it neared one thirty, but the only problem was the umpires hadn’t come on the field yet. When they finally showed up, I met with them at home plate, and I explained what was about to happen. I said, “Mazeroski’s gonna hit a hard ground ball to the third baseman. He will step on the bag, throw to second, and the second baseman will throw to first to complete the triple play. When the play’s over, just do what umps do at the end of a game—walk or run off the field—and each time I’ll ask you to come back for another take, and we’ll hit into another triple play until it works.” “Got it,” they said. So far so good.

Then I asked, “Who’s the first base umpire?” Turned out it was Augie Donatelli, a short, loud Italian man. Here’s how I know he was loud: I said, “Augie, if it’s a close play at first, call him out because, from the angle of our cameras in the press box, we’ll never be able to see whether the guy was out or safe. Then we’ll get out of your hair so you can play the real game.”

Augie looked at me and while shoving—hard—at my shoulder with his pointer finger, said extremely loudly, “Listen, kid. I’ve been callin’ ’em as I see ’em for twenty-five years and I ain’t gonna change that for any goddamn movie!” After several takes, we’d gotten our play. We’d actually gotten our play a few times, but to be safe, to make sure we had it, we did extra takes until we knew we were covered. That’s typical.

When it was all done, I thanked the Pirates, the Mets, and the umpires. That’s when Augie Donatelli called me over and said, not so loudly, “I want you to understand something: there are thirty thou- sand fans in Shea Stadium today. If I called him out when he was safe, I could never umpire again at Shea for all the crap they’d give me. You gotta call ’em as you see ’em, kid.” I think that’s great life advice offered by one helluva ump.

For more, check out MAGIC TIME: MY LIFE IN HOLLYWOOD.