Jerry Maguire at 20: Crowe's sports agent flick had us at 'hello'

Leigh Steinberg, the legendary sports agent whose roller coaster career was still soaring in 1993 when he represented some of the biggest names in sports, says that same year was when filmmaker Cameron Crowe shadowed him at major sports events all around the country, meeting elite athletes, team owners, general managers, sports journalists and yes, other agents like Steinberg.

“(Crowe) was attempting to do a film on the character of a sports agent. I had seen ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High,’ which he wrote the book for, and I thought it was hilarious,” Steinberg says, referring to the seminal teenage high school flick based upon Crowe’s book of the same name and for which Crowe wrote the screenplay. “I consented. Cameron was a very keen observer of the scene and very easy to have shadow me — recede into the background, yet still pick up what was happening. He was extremely meticulous and deliberate in his research and his film making.”

The months-long apprenticeship, of sorts, had Crowe attending Super Bowl parties and NFL games, the 1993 NFL draft in New York City (when the Patriots selected quarterback Drew Bledsoe with the first pick) and the ‘93 NFL meetings in Palm Desert, California. Crowe’s reporter background — he wrote for Rolling Stone as a teenager in the ‘70s before entering the film industry — went into overdrive over the next three years, developing a script and the characters that would eventually become the sports classic “Jerry Maguire,” with Hollywood star Tom Cruise in the titular role.

When it was released on Dec. 13, 1996, the 20th anniversary was last week, “Jerry Maguire” climbed to the top of the box office, earned five Oscar nominations, including one for Cruise as Best Actor, and introduced audiences to some of the most memorable lines in movie history, many of which became immediately embedded in the American lexicon — from “Show me the money!” to “You had me at hello” to “The human head weighs eight pounds.”

Renee Zellweger talks Tom Cruise and ‘Jerry Maguire’ reunion

Cruise was already a megastar when Crowe cast him in the role of Jerry Maguire, a character that is based upon Steinberg, even if the real sports agent cautions not to make comparisons between the two. “Jerry Maguire is a fictitious character out of the mind of Cameron Crowe. I’ve been very careful to only say that Cameron spent a lot of time with me doing research. I also agreed with (Crowe) not to talk about anything specifically that we might have done that might have led to anything on screen,” says Steinberg with a laugh.

But the film catapulted Cruise into an even larger stratosphere — at a time when social media was non-existent — while it also served to launch the careers of numerous actors in it, many of whom were just getting started in Hollywood: Cuba Gooding Jr., Renee Zellweger, Jay Mohr, Regina King and Jonathan Lipnicki, who was only 6 when “Jerry Maguire” hit the silver screen. Some of the biggest sports personalities of that time — athletes like Troy Aikman, Bledsoe, Ki-Jana Carter, Katarina Witt, and sports broadcasters Al Michaels and Roy Firestone -—appear in the film as well. The NFL agreed to license to Crowe the use of the NFL logo and various other properties which give the film a greater air of authenticity.

“Jerry Maguire” is a sports film first, but it’s also a profane comedy, a love story, a buddy film, a deep dive into an individual’s moral compass, a tear-jerker and a laugh-until-you-are-in-tears movie with a dynamite soundtrack, all rolled into one. Two decades after Crowe’s “Jerry Maguire” first lit up the screen — the audience hears a live version of The Who’s “Magic Bus” to open the flick — the journey of the sports agent protagonist soaring then crashing hard and then soaring again still resonates, and still makes you park the remote whenever the Crowe-directed movie pops up on the flat screen.

“I think (“Jerry Maguire”) holds up because the story is impeccable,” says Mohr, the New Jersey-born actor and stand-up comic who plays the backstabbing, smarmy sports agent Bob Sugar in the film. “At the end, every single character gets what they want because they’ve earned it. All of them. I think it is a story of triumph more than it’s a sports movie.”

WATCH: Tom Cruise recreates his most iconic movie scenes

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�TriStar Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Newcomer Cuba Gooding Jr.’s character Rod Tidwell tells his agent to ‘Show me the money!’

(©TriStar Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection/©TriStar Pictures/Courtesy Ever)

Manhattan-born actor Jerry O’Connell — who plays stud quarterback Frank Cushman, Maguire’s “most important client” — and Mohr were already good friends before both of them auditioned for parts in “Jerry Maguire.” As both actors tell it, they each got their roles in somewhat backwards fashion.

“What’s funny is, I went in for the agent, Bob Sugar, a bunch of times,” says O’Connell, who got his movie break as a kid actor in the 1986 Rob Reiner classic, “Stand By Me”, playing chubby Vern Tessio. “This was like a major movie, a big deal. I am 6’2. I’m actually 6’3. I just say I’m 6’2 so people in Hollywood don’t think I’m a monster. I came in on one of the final auditions and I could just tell they were not vibing me as the agent. I was going to get my rental (car). I was bummed out. One of the assistants said, ‘Hey will you come back in?’ They gave me sides (any portion of the script an actor is asked to read during an audition) for Frank Cushman, the quarterback who’s from Odessa (Tex.). They said, ‘We think physically you might be better to play Frank Cushman.’ I somehow got the role and it was really exciting.”

Mohr had cut his acting chops as a cast member and writer for “Saturday Night Live” in the early ‘90s and had also done plenty of stand-up in comedy clubs in the New York City, New Jersey and around the country. But his first few auditions in front of Crowe and the film’s producers did not draw rave reviews.

What’s Frank Cushman from ‘Jerry Maguire’ up to?

“I originally auditioned for Cushman. My mother grew up in Odessa (Tex.), I’ve got family down there in Del Rio,” says Mohr. “For some reason that particular day, I could not in a million years wrap my mind around a Southern accent at all. It was awful. I blew it. I was terrible. I knew it. They knew it. It was an incredible letdown.”

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Kelly Preston plays opposite Tom Cruise as Maguire’s Type-A fiancee, Avery Bishop.

(Cooper, Andrew)

Mohr was later asked to read for the role of the nerdy, male nanny Chad — played by actor Todd Louiso — and says he thought he nailed that audition. That is, until he heard nothing but crickets in the room. That’s when Mohr says Hollywood heavyweight James L. Brooks, one of the “Jerry Maguire” producers, suggested Mohr try the Sugar role. Mohr says it helped that he had honed his skills doing stand-up. “As a comedian, you’re thrown into the No. 1 fear in the world immediately, and that’s speaking in front of strangers,” says Mohr.

Crowe asked Mohr to read for the Sugar role opposite Tom Cruise, and the two actors did the cringe-worthy scene when Sugar has to fire Jerry Maguire from the sports agency where they both work. Mohr says most actors might have cratered under such circumstances — auditioning opposite one of the most famous actors in the world — but that he took a page out of the carpe diem handbook.

“Cruise tried to murder me with the scene. He tried to end me,” says Mohr, laughing. “He knew the whole script by heart and it was like, ‘If you want the part, you’ve got to f—ing fire me.’ And I remember in the moment thinking, ‘Oh it is on. This is like a street fight. He’s not goofing around,’” says Mohr. “It was one of those moments where you either just wilt, or you say, ‘I can go here with this person. I trust myself. This guy wants to know if I trust myself.’

‘Jerry Maguire’ kid ‘flips out’ over childhood fame

“I remember in that specific moment, I had a line next. And I waited, and waited and stared Tom Cruise in the eye and I realized they think I have forgotten my line. But I haven’t,” Mohr continues. “I’m staring him down because he is fired and he can kiss my ass. I need him to know I’m not afraid of him now and in this script. I just kept staring and staring. I had to energy-wise, feel out when somebody was about to say the line for me. When it became unbearable, I just went, ‘You wanted smaller…’ I felt the room sort of shake shift in relief and I realized I had taken the exact shape of the container with that pause, that I had actually fooled them because they thought I’d forgotten the line.”

O’Connell, 42, and Mohr, 46, both Los Angeles residents now, say Cruise and Crowe were absolute professionals and masters of their craft during filming in 1996, but that the “Top Gun” star and the director were exceptionally generous as well, treating everyone as equals. O’Connell, however, fully admits to being star-struck around Cruise.

“I was real quiet. I was not rude. I did not want to bother (Cruise),” says O’Connell, who was 22 when the film was shot. “Jay Mohr was always cracking jokes around Tom Cruise. I was just a little nervous. Jay was so cool around Cruise. I couldn’t believe it. People were working out on set. Jay said to Tom one time, ‘Hey Tom, let me go in your trailer and get your jump rope. I want to do some jump rope while we’re waiting around.’ Tom is like, ‘Yeah, man, just go in my trailer.’ I watched Jay do this and I’m like, ‘I can’t believe Jay just asked Tom Cruise if he could borrow his jump rope.’ I was just out of my league.”

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The sound of the ice cracking in a drinking glass at the fictional Cronin’s restaurant at the 21-minute mark is loud enough to drown out all the white noise surrounding Jerry Maguire, moments after he’s been told by a smug Bob Sugar he’s been terminated from the L.A.-based fictional Sports Management International (SMI). “It’s real, you should say something,” Sugar says to a stone-faced Maguire.

�TriStar Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Jerry O’Connell auditions for the bad agent, but ends up playing star QB Frank Cushman.

(©TriStar Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection/©TriStar Pictures/Courtesy Ever)

Maguire is the quintessential uber agent when audiences are first introduced to him prior to that Cronin’s scene — the stop-at-nothing, cold-hearted gunslinger agent who’s engaged to Type-A “goddess of rock climbing” Avery Bishop (Kelly Preston). Maguire tells one client, “I will not rest until I have you holding a Coke, wearing your own shoe, playing a Sega game featuring you while singing your own song in a new commercial starring you broadcast during the Super Bowl in a game you that are winning.”

But it all changes when the son of a hockey player client calls out Maguire’s soullessness at a hospital, where the boy’s dad is bedridden after suffering a fourth concussion but Maguire assures the boy his dad will be back on the ice in no time. On an ensuing work junket, Maguire pulls an all-nighter to write the mother of all mission statements, spilling his conscience onto the page because he has “lost the ability to bull—.” He then makes dozens of copies of the mission statement to share with his co-workers.

Oops.

To say that Maguire suffers an epic fall after that moment of honesty and vulnerability is putting it mildly. Sugar fires Maguire, then proceeds to steal all but two of Maguire’s 72 clients, a hilarious sequence where Maguire, sweating profusely, frantically calls his stable of stars from his office while Sugar, a few office doors down, lures them to the dark side one by one.

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Cuba Gooding Jr.’s Rod Tidwell celebrates a touchdown against America’s Team in the ’96 hit.

(Rights Managed/Ronald Grant Archive / Mary Evan)

“I haven’t seen you since we were with that stripper in Laguna Beach,” says Sugar to one of Maguire’s clients. “You remember her name? I do, it was April. That’s my job, to remember the names of (expletive) that you b— on the road. That’s what I do.”

Maguire is only able to hang on to Rod Tidwell (played by Cuba Gooding Jr.), the mouthy, chip-on-his-shoulder Cardinals wide receiver and the two forge an unlikely bond that evolves into a unique, symbiotic friendship. When Maguire slumps out of SMI for the last time, one employee is willing to leave the company with him — single mom Dorothy Boyd (Renee Zellweger).

“Let’s see how they do without us,” Maguire says to her, while clutching a bag filled with a company goldfish Maguire takes as his own parting gift.

Maguire is able to retain Cushman as well, but only after he travels to Texas to meet with the QB and his dad, Matt (Beau Bridges). Maguire gets the assurance that Team Cushman is sticking with him, even if nothing is put into writing. “You know I don’t do contracts, but what you do have is my word. And it’s stronger than oak,” says Matt Cushman.

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Jay Mohr tells the Daily News about his dramatic staredown with Tom Cruise that helped him get the role as rival agent Bob Sugar.

“It’s funny how, I have so many people come up to me, probably as much or more than anything I’ve ever been in, and quote that line to me,” says Bridges, the older brother of Oscar-winning actor Jeff.

Of course, the Cushman patriarch line comes back to bite Maguire, who proceeds to lose “Cush” (his truncated surname that is used throughout the film) — the No. 1 pick of the NFL draft — on the night before the draft. His engagement to Avery collapses soon after. Sitting in the airport with Tidwell, after his life has caved in, Maguire anguishes to his lone client.

“What are you doing with me Rod? I’m finished,” says Maguire. “Twenty-four hours ago I was hot. Now, I’m a cautionary tale.”

But Maguire isn’t finished, as Tidwell begrudgingly maintains his loyalty to his agent. Maguire slowly finds his way behind his one client and through his budding romance with Dorothy Boyd. Bonnie Hunt makes a star supporting turn as Dorothy’s “disapproving sister Laurel,” and Lipnicki plays Dorothy’s son, Ray, a role that endeared the California-born Lipnicki to millions of people because of his adorable, bespectacled face and his hilarious lines, like asking Maguire on a drive to the airport if he knows that bees and dogs can smell fear.

The movie also introduced us to young actor Jonathan Lipnicki.

The movie also introduced us to young actor Jonathan Lipnicki.

(Corkery, Richard)

“My life will always be different because of that path. I found out what I wanted to do for the rest of my life when I was 5-years-old,” says the now 26-year-old Lipnicki, who’s still acting and still lives in California. “Not a lot of people get that opportunity. The first time I was recognized, I had no clue how they knew who I was. It was photographers at the premiere of “Jerry Maguire.” I really wore glasses at the time. People could be really nice or weird. As a little kid, people coming up and grabbing you and touching you, wanting to hug you, it could be a little scary sometimes.”

Lipnicki says Crowe and the producers originally cast another boy for the Ray Boyd role, but that after two weeks, that actor “wasn’t working out for some reason.”

“They went to recast it. But they wouldn’t see me because I was already on a list of people who’d already been seen. My agent really fought for me,” says Lipnicki. “He said, ‘You don’t understand. Don’t see any of our other clients. See this one kid. I stake my reputation as an agent on it. I have Ray Boyd sitting in my office right now. You need to see him.’” Lipnicki adds that when he went to the premiere, his parents had to cover his eyes for the R-rated scenes.

Maguire’s professional career and personal life continue to unravel, compounded by his hastily-arranged marriage to Dorothy that is more for convenience. It all comes to a head in a key “Monday Night Football” game between America’s Team, the Cowboys, and Tidwell’s Cardinals, who are fighting for a playoff spot. Even the real, mid-’90s “MNF” broadcasting trio of Al Michaels, (the late) Frank Gifford and Dan Dierdorf call the game in the movie.

Cameron Crowe (far. l.) with Cuba Gooding Jr. and Tom Cruise on the set of Roy Firestone's TV show.

Cameron Crowe (far. l.) with Cuba Gooding Jr. and Tom Cruise on the set of Roy Firestone’s TV show.

(Courtesy of Roy Firestone)

“The great thing about the movie is that 20 years later I still get residuals,” jokes Michaels.

His marriage in shambles, Maguire races to Arizona to be with his lone client, who has been shaming Maguire endlessly about his poor personal life decisions and how he’s failed to secure Tidwell a monstrous contract extension. Maguire arrives at the stadium, tracks down Tidwell before kickoff, only to see Sugar standing next to the wide receiver.

“This is a nice moment for you. I’m gonna let you have it,” Sugar says to them after Maguire shoves Sugar aside.

“It was such a great line because the first 10 times you say it, it’s too arch. It’s very difficult to say that line without twisting your mustache,” says Mohr. “Once you get real benefit by a great director like Cameron, maybe a part of you has a little compassion and you do want them to enjoy it. Not really, but I need to feel it a little bit. Like maybe (Sugar) means it a little.”

Roy Firestone plays himself in Jerry Maguire with a key seen interviewing Cuba Gooding Jr.'s Tidwell.

Roy Firestone plays himself in Jerry Maguire with a key seen interviewing Cuba Gooding Jr.’s Tidwell.

(Courtesy of Roy Firestone)

Tidwell puts on the performance of a lifetime, including catching the winning score, but he’s demolished in the end zone by two Cowboys defenders on the play. Steinberg says the scene is perhaps one of the few in the movie that is “a little dubious,” since Tidwell lies prone on the turf for a few minutes before leaping up and carrying out the longest post-TD celebration in history. But it’s important to note that 20 years ago, the concussion/brain trauma issue was nowhere near the lightning-rod issue it is today.

“Tidwell is lying on the field and then jumps up after what is essentially a concussion,” says Steinberg. “But I was pleased with the film. It was a fun experience for the athletes because they were made for the process. You would think with a film that was 20-years-old, that the recognition factor for contemporary youth would be incredibly diminished. But it’s in a small group of films that’s playing somewhere almost every single day.”

* * *

Roy Firestone says he is forever remembered as the sports TV personality that had athletes bawling their eyes out on the set of his ESPN show, “Up Close.” He says he was surprised when Crowe reached out to Firestone to see if Firestone would be interested in being in “Jerry Maguire.”

�TriStar Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Bonnie Hunt joins the ‘Jerry Maguire’ cast as the protective older sister of Zellweger’s character.

(©TriStar Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection/©TriStar Pictures/Courtesy Ever)

“I don’t bother to know much about movies,” says Firestone. “I looked at the page of the script and thought, ‘This is not to going to make it in the end of the movie.’ When I got to the set, Tom Cruise was there, and I didn’t even know he was in the movie,” says Firestone. “Dennis Rodman was at one time going to play Tidwell. When I met (Gooding Jr.), I thought he was from Cuba, and not named Cuba. I didn’t know who the hell he was, so I spoke in broken English. Cuba wasn’t even a sports fan, so that’s what we had to start with.”

But Firestone’s scenes not only survived the cutting room floor, his scene at the end encapsulates Jerry Maguire and Tidwell’s signature moment — the grateful athlete canonizing his humbled agent after Firestone presents Tidwell’s brand new, multi-million dollar contract. And yes, the tears do flow.

“Out of the 5,000 interviews I’ve done in my life, only about 20 people actually cried,” Firestone jokes.

Steinberg also makes a cameo in that scene, standing off camera with Katarina Witt and Troy Aikman (who play themselves), when they congratulate Maguire. Witt says she got a lot of ribbing from friends about her cameo.

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‘Jerry Maguire’ goes down as one of all-time great sports movies in recent Daily News poll.

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“My three seconds of fame,” Witt, the German Olympic gold-medal winning figure skater, says with a laugh. “The poster of me (at the beginning of the film) is on the screen longer. My friend Brian Boitano was having a blast on the set, and he made fun of me, saying that I could practice my line 30 different ways. But it’s a great movie. It’s sports, but it’s a love story, and it shows the passion of someone, a sports agent, and you hope that’s how it should be in real life, showing a human side.”

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Beau Bridges says he ran into Tom Cruise at a New York City sushi restaurant right before “Jerry Maguire” was to begin shooting in California. Bridges was a big fan of the younger actor, and says one of the big reasons he was excited about being in the film was to work alongside Cruise.

“My wife and I were (in NYC) doing publicity for another movie and my wife said, ‘Isn’t that Tom Cruise over there?’ So I went by him on the way out and he asked me, ‘What are you doing here? Aren’t we supposed to be working pretty soon?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He says, ‘How are you getting home?’ I said, ‘I’m taking a United flight early in the morning.’ He says, ‘No, no. Come with me.’ We ended going back in his jet,” says Bridges, 75. “He’s really a wonderful guy. He brought a lot of passion to the role and the project. A real professional. He comes with his sleeves rolled up, ready to work.”

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Cuba Gooding Jr. reacts and jumps on the stage at the Oscars in 1997 after winning best supporting actor for his role in ‘Jerry Maguire.’

(AP)

Bridges says he was also eager to see what Crowe brought to the table, as the director had made just two films prior to that, “Say Anything” and “Singles.”

“He was the hot, young talent,” says Bridges of Crowe. “He’s the real deal.”

Mohr and O’Connell echo those feelings, and they both say the set was relaxed and fun. It didn’t hurt that the actors had a sharp, hilarious and poignant screenplay as the foundation for the story.

“The script is so well-written, that the words are impossible not to memorize,” says Mohr. “It was wonderful. Maybe the unfortunate part was it was my first movie ever. Everybody was so fantastic, so kind, so caring, so friendly. Then you do other movies and you go, ‘Oh, they’re not all like that? This director is just an actual jerk.’”

O’Connell, who went to NYU film school, says he remembers showing the “Jerry Maguire” script to a buddy who had just moved to L.A. “He read it and was like, ‘F—, this script is so good.’ All that stuff about the stations and songs that (Jerry Maguire) is trying to find on the radio after he signs Cushman. It’s just art,” says O’Connell, referring to a scene when Maguire belts out Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” to celebrate the moment after switching the car radio stations several times. “Once again, I was coming from low-budget television. No prose at all. Cameron Crowe is an artist.”

O’Connell jokes that he is always recognized for either his “Stand By Me” character or for the Cushman role, and on one rare occasion, some drunken fans identified him as both.

“I was doing a movie with Gary Sinise in Vancouver after “Jerry Maguire.” I went to the baseball game with him and his kids, like a farm league team. We go to the minor league park, and these drunk guys above us, in the upper deck are yelling, ‘Lt. Dan!’” says O’Connell, referring to Sinise’s role in “Forrest Gump.” “Gary was being cool and ignoring them. I had to go up to the upper deck and say, ‘Hey, fellas, I don’t want any trouble with you guys. You’ve got to stop yelling. You’re ruining the day for us.’ They were kind of quiet and one of them said, ‘Hey, you’re the guy that should have signed with Jerry Maguire.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, but that was a fictional character. That really didn’t happen.’ And they were like, ‘And you were in “Stand By Me” too, right?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ I was amazed, these guys knew my whole body of work.

“I go back down and sit with (Sinise). I’m feeling pretty good about myself. Those guys up there start yelling, ‘Hey, fat kid from “Stand By Me”! You should have signed with Jerry Maguire!’” says O’Connell, who says he’s still a huge Jets fan. “It’s definitely one of those things where at sporting events, people always call me out for it. It’s sort of a fun thing to be an alumnus of.”

Cruise didn’t win the Oscar for “Jerry Maguire” — he’s been nominated three times in his career, but has never won — but Gooding Jr. received the Best-Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as Tidwell. The movie grossed $275 million worldwide, an eye-popping amount then, and as Steinberg says, it continues to enjoy a healthy rotation on cable. Sony, the studio behind the film, is releasing a 20th-anniversary Blu-Ray Jan. 3, which includes new interviews with Cruise and Crowe and numerous other special features.

The movie lines and story have never gotten old, a tribute to Crowe’s genius.

“It’s a movie about someone recognizing their value and sticking with something that is of higher import than the aggregate, and the company, and the corporate umbrella,” says Mohr, whose sports fan allegiance is with the L.A. teams now. “You can just keep coming back to the mooring ball that’s “Jerry Maguire.” It’s a movie where there’s actually no negative.”

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