As faith-oriented films from Jesus Revolution to Sound of Freedom make big box-office impact this year, a small-town baseball drama hopes to inspire families with a story of overcoming.
Titled The Hill — a reference to the pitcher’s mound and to Rickey Hill, the boy at the center — it features rising star Colin Ford (We Bought A Zoo), silver-screen veteran Dennis Quaid (Blue Miracle, On a Wing and a Prayer) as his preacher father, and Golden Globe nominee Bonnie Bedelia (Parenthood) as his tough-as-nails grandmother.
The family flick opens in theaters nationwide on August 25.
Growing up in rural Texas in the 1970s, Hill had a driving passion for baseball — despite not owning the sport’s bare necessities. “My earliest dream was to have a baseball and a bat,” Hill told me in a video interview. “So my older brother and I had to play with a stick and a rock.”
But poverty was hardly his only challenge to reach the major leagues. Born with a degenerative spinal disease, Hill had to wear leg braces, starting in childhood.
“Mentally, it was just as hard to take as it was physically, because the pain was very great,” said Hill, today 67. “I had no disc in my spine, yet a baseball swing involves your entire body. So I fought through it. And I broke records at local ballparks starting at age 10 on up.”
Personal Story, Universal Themes
Director Jeff Celentano, who joined the project in 2006 through a chance encounter, spent 17 years with Hill to bring this true story to the big screen.
Their first move as producers alongside Darren Moorman (Blue Miracle, Sight) was to have screenwriter Angelo Pizzo, known for sports classics Rudy and Hoosiers, craft the script.
“Great sports movies are not about the sport,” said Celentano in an interview. “I wanted to make a movie about a little boy trying to find the love of his father and a family coming together — so that was the focus. Rickey's quest to play baseball is the backstory.”
Quaid, who has had a recent run of faith-and-family films including I Can Only Imagine, those mentioned above, and the upcoming Reagan biopic, is a highlight in the role of stern-but-loving Reverend James Hill.
Newcomer Jesse Berry (Good Trouble) plays Rickey as a boy, with Colin Ford stepping into the role as Hill approaches the majors.
Ford has generated buzz lately with diverse roles, from co-lead in Karen Kingsbury’s A Thousand Tomorrows on PureFlix, to a co-starring role in Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story on Netflix.
In an interview conducted prior to the start of SAG-AFTRA’s strike (which now bars actors from promoting their films), Ford contrasted The Hill with his recent acting gigs.
“This film feels really personal,” he said. “Rickey is going through this metamorphosis with his Christian faith, his belief in himself, and his ability to play baseball.
"In recent years, I re-found the faith of my childhood. So, there's a lot of similarities between us.”
As Celentano and his team began the film’s casting process, three young actors auditioned for the critical role of Hill as a young adult. Each of them read lines opposite Quaid.
“Colin was the last one,” said Celentano. “That audition was so powerful. Dennis grabbed him and shook him. Then Dennis leaned over and told me, ‘I don't think we need to look anywhere else, do we?’”
But then Quaid called the director hours later, at midnight, sounding worried.
“Dennis said, ‘This kid's not big enough.’ I said, ‘We'll pad him up.’ He said, ‘No, he doesn't look like a power hitter, Jeff. It's got to be convincing.’”
Hill told me that he had been 239 lbs. in his prime, while Ford in his teen years was lanky and thin.
In what the director calls “unexpected divine intervention,” it took the film’s producers five years to line up funding to get production underway.
When Celentano met Ford again, the actor had put on 40 lbs., which astounded the director.
“He told me, ‘I had a feeling this movie was going to get made and I've been working on it.’ And he meant it. Then we sent him to training camp for four months.’”
Training Past the Pain
Ford calls that months-long camp experience “tough” and “definitely intense.”
He added: “I had played baseball up until about the ninth grade. So I had some familiarity, but I was unpolished.”
Hill began to work with Ford at camp, then on-set when they began filming in Augusta, Georgia, which was a stand-in for rural Texas in the mid-1970s.
“I worked his butt off,” said Hill of training Ford, alongside top baseball trainer Glenn Zielinski. “I wouldn't let him go home until he got exactly what we wanted in terms of his swing and stance.”
Ford recalls Hill was “very adamant” about getting the power hitter’s look right, including the physical limitations like a limp that came with his degenerative spinal disease.
A motivational speaker in baseball circles and among disability advocates, Hill demurred when asked about the challenges of producing a film considering his physical limitations.
The young actor noticed, though. “There are times where he feels good and times where he feels pretty bad,” said Ford. “He has all sorts of treatments and medications that he has to do.
“Seeing him navigate physical pain at all times, but still be jovial and have this positive faith attitude when he was around, it was so uplifting.”
Dreams of a Father
The film grapples with how a devout parent — Hill’s preacher father — can have a different vision for a child’s career path.
Even after allowing young Rickey to play ball, Reverend James Hill never attended his son’s games until he finally inked a contract with an MLB team.
Rickey Hill noted the film is accurate, while seeking to honor his late father’s perspective.
“He was building a church with his bare hands,” Hill told me. “He had a fourth-grade education. How in the world does a man pull off something like that? It's harder than me trying to make it in the Major Leagues.”
Raised in a Christian household, Ford said he’s seen similar dynamics at play in his life and acting career.
“My parents always wanted what's best for me,” he said. “Sometimes they corralled me into doing more of a safe thing versus something that was dangerous but might pay off.”
In a crucial third-act scene, James Hill says: “I’ve been the one who’s been the cripple.”
He adds, about trying to shoehorn his boy into ministry alone: “That wasn’t God’s plan, it was my plan.”
“Ricky's uninhibited faith in God and in his ability supersedes any sort of fear or doubt anybody else has about him,” observed Ford.
“He knows in his heart and mind that, if he goes out there and does what he thinks he can do, he might just impress some people—and himself.”
Finish the Course — Through Faith
The film’s climax involves a high-stakes try-out involving a handful of baseball legends, including Hall of Famer Larry Doby, then manager of a pro team, and the scout who discovered pitcher Nolan Ryan, Red Murff (played by Scott Glenn from Marvel’s Daredevil).
“I'm not going to give it away because Jeff won't let me,” Hill says about the finale. But he did recount how, after the try-out game, the Expos flew several of their executives out to watch Hill.
They had their doubts, considering Hill’s condition.
“They had a guy throwing 101 miles an hour,” said Hill. “That first pitch, I just happened to tag it, and it went over 500 feet. It seemed to be all they needed, because then the try-out was over.”
Hill signed as an outfielder with the Montreal Expos in 1975, and played four years on Minor League teams. Hill’s father presided over an on-field wedding ceremony for Rickey and his wife.
Ford commented on Hill’s journey, noting his own favorite Bible verse is in the film.
“It's Philippians 4:13. ‘I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength,’” said Ford. “It tells me to go out and put the hard work in. Then, with faith in Christ, anything is possible.”
Hill stated what he hopes sticks with people as they leave the theater.
“A lot of young men get discouraged in life — and I did at times, because everything wasn't rosy,” he said. “But I want them to take away from this that: You fight the fight, and you keep the faith. Then you finish the course that’s in front of you.”
Rated PG for thematic content, brief language, and some depictions of smoking, The Hill opens in theaters nationwide on Friday.
Image: (L-R) Colin Ford stars as Rickey Hill, and Dennis Quaid as Pastor James Hill, in THE HILL, a Briarcliff Entertainment release. Credit: Briarcliff Entertainment / ©2023 Briarcliff Entertainment
Josh M. Shepherd covers culture, faith and public-policy issues for various media outlets. He and his wife are raising two children in Northern Virginia.