'Iron Will': Film fulfills dreams, and not just those of the extras
For a taste -- even for just a small taste -- of fame, of stardom, of being discovered by Hollywood, we took time off from work and from family, we stuffed ourselves into antique clothing, and we waited hour after long grueling hour, sometimes in frigid cold.
For the once-in-a-lifetime chance to step into the bright lights, to see ourselves on the big screen and to grab those 15 minutes of fame they say everyone gets, we eagerly jumped at the chance to be extras in the Disney film "Iron Will." This was 20 winters ago when thousands of us from Duluth and the Northland signed on. And we've been boring friends and families with our stories ever since.
I know I have. But can you blame me? I got to shoot a scene with Kevin Spacey. I got picked for two closeups. I hugged Mackenzie Astin after filming wrapped. I even got cussed out by David Ogden Stiers, not because I asked him about his days on M*A*S*H, a subject he made quite clear he was through discussing with anyone, but because I tried to be a sneak and take his picture after he politely declined to pose with me.
I'll never forget any of it. Who of us could?
As large a moment as the filming of "Iron Will" was for everyday Duluthians and Northlanders, would you believe it was a pretty big deal, too, for the Hollywood stars who came here to bring the story to life?
"I was so blessed to be there, and I had such a great experience," the star of the movie, Will Stoneman himself, Mackenzie Astin, said this week from his Los Angeles home after I reconnected with him by telephone. He'll be at the "Iron Will" reunion Sunday at the Depot, the event that brings to a close the Duluth Superior Film Festival.
Astin had ties to Duluth and Minnesota before landing the role of his career. His mother, Oscar-winner Patty Duke, filmed a movie called "You'll Like My Mother" at Glensheen in Duluth 20 years before "Iron Will." And his father, John Astin, who played Gomez in the "Addams Family" TV show, once was a student at the University of Minnesota.
"My dad told me before I went, 'The folks you meet in Minnesota will be the nicest and best people you'll meet in your entire life.' To a 19-year-old that was good to hear," said Mackenzie Astin, now 40. "And then to go and have the experience I had, and to be able to look back on it now: how fortunate. I had a wonderful, wonderful experience.
"To go from sunny California to wintry Minnesota and then ride a sled for 90 days in a row was so far from what I knew," he said. "What a blessing."
Astin still gets recognized for his part in "Iron Will" and doesn't mind a bit. It happened just last year, on the set of the TV series "Bones." A fellow actor recognized him. His face lit up. The inspirational story told in "Iron Will" had really struck him, had really affected him. He said so to Astin.
"Twenty years down the road and 'Iron Will' is still giving back to me," Astin said. "I remember when I was cast; I went from, 'Oh, it's just a Disney movie, a kids' movie,' to, when it was over, 'Hey, I made a good movie. I made a movie parents are happy to show to their kids. It was part of my own growth to understand how lucky I was to be a part of it.' "
Michael Laskin feels much the same way. He played a newspaper reporter in "Iron Will."
"It's one of those movies where people come up to you, even years later. Like "Eight Men Out" (the 1988 film about the Chicago Black Sox scandal, in which Laskin starred with Charlie Sheen and John Cusack). Those are the two movies I get asked the most about. ... I think ("Iron Will") is a classic. I still have a lot of people tell me how great that film was."
The film was even greater for Laskin because its filming gave him a chance to come home. He was born in Duluth in 1951, grew up here and graduated Duluth East High School. He lives in Los Angeles now, where he's still acting and runs an acting studio.
"It was an important movie for me to be in at the time," he said. "Having a nice, somewhat-meaty supporting part in a major Disney movie is a good thing. And it had very decent numbers."
Costing about $12 million to make (that's about $18.8 million today, after adjusting for inflation), "Iron Will" grossed about $20.6 million ($32.2 million now). Its economic impact on Duluth and the Northland was estimated at $7 million ($11 million now).
"It was a great shoot," Laskin said. "I have great memories of it."
So do the rest of us, even 20 years after enduring the cold and the long hours of waiting for lights and cameras and the ill-fitting clothes and the streets closed for film crews and more: We have great memories of how worthwhile all of it was. It was our shot at being movie stars, even if just for a few moments.
Chuck Frederick is editorial page editor for the News Tribune and was a featured extra in "Iron Will," playing the part of a race official. Contact him at email@example.com or at (218) 723-5316.