This year marks the 30th anniversary of Rudy, which gave childhood star Sean Astin of The Goonies (1985) his first starring young adult role as Daniel E. ‘Rudy’ Ruettiger, the runt in high school who beat the odds and the height against him to fulfill his dream of playing college football for Notre Dame. Directed by David Anspaugh (Hoosiers), this true story written by Angelo Pizzo became the underdog’s quintessential movie anthem to inspire them to achieve greatness.
To take you down memory lane, the ensemble cast featured Ned Beatty as Rudy’s father, Daniel Ruettiger; Charles S. Dutton as Fortune, the head groundskeeper at the football stadium; Lili Taylor as Rudy’s girlfriend, Sherry; the younger version of Sherry earned Deborah Wittenberg her SAG card; Jon Favreau as Rudy’s bestie, D-Bob, who would go onto his own superhero heights; his real-life buddy Vince Vaughn as bully Jamie O’Hara; and Robert Prosky as Father Cavanaugh, who gets Rudy enrolled at a community college, Holy Cross.
The film also gave casting director Sharon Bialy, now a partner in the well-respected agency Bialy/Thomas & Associates (The Handmaid’s Tale, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Barry, The Righteous Gemstones, and Invasion are just a few of their most recent credits), one of her first major gigs casting for the film industry. Prior to that, she worked in regional theater, when her Brooklyn gumption led her to meet then-casting partner Rick Pagano simply by handing him her business card.
Below The Line reached out to Sharon Bialy via Zoom, where she reminisced about where she was personally and professionally 30 years ago, pointing out that, like the character Rudy, when she first started out in the business she was the underdog casting director.
Below The Line: Where did you grow up originally?
Sharon Bialy: Brooklyn, New York. I went to Midwood High School. I was on the gymnastics team. I am totally a Brooklyn girl. You know, you can take the girl out of Brooklyn, but you can’t take Brooklyn out of the girl, which, you know, infects everything we do.
BTL: As a fellow Brooklyn girl, how did that upbringing inform you?
Bialy: I think it brings a toughness. There’s an honesty to my opinion about people from Brooklyn. People know where they stand. Nobody’s like, really sweet to you, and then behind your back, it’s like, “no,” you know, which is refreshing after being a long time in LA, and you don’t always see that.
BTL: So how did a girl from Brooklyn become one of the best casting directors in the industry?
Bialy: Well, gumption, just like Rudy. I actually think that’s why I was so interested. I mean, when I read that script, I just fell in love with it. It wasn’t just me, and credit goes to Rick Pagano, my partner at the time. I had just had my second baby back-to-back. I think we had just made Debi Manwiller a partner. She was our associate, and we gave her credit. I called her and I called Rick, and I was like, “I don’t remember that much.” [laughs] If you called me about Mr. Holland’s opus, I could tell you everything, you know, but I think it might have been my first or second job right after the second baby.
BTL: How do you remember the past projects you have cast?
Bialy: I have these books, and for every actor that comes in, I have notes on them. I’ve saved them all, but that book I know is at the bottom of my mother’s garage. I’ve got to get that book! But there have been other books where, after moving offices right before the strike, we went through all of our black books and threw out the things you didn’t need and just kept the notes of all the actors. We were laughing so hard and reading the things about people, like the one day I think (partner) Sherry Thomas saw Channing Tatum and all these people in one day. It’s really interesting to write notes. I have them on all the actors from Rudy, but I don’t know where they are.
BTL: All right, so I’m going to jog your memory. I think this was Sean Astin’s first adult role. What did you see in him?
Bialy: Yes, he was in The Goonies, so he was slightly unnamed, but yes, it was his adult role. Well, clearly, we were trying to look for someone smaller in stature because otherwise it doesn’t work, youthful and maybe a touch wide, which he wasn’t, but what he had was this beauty, and I watched the movie again recently. I cried at the end. It held up, and he underplayed it so beautifully and honestly. You never saw him trying to be naive. He just let it be.
I remember in the audition it wasn’t fancy. He just let it be, and he looked the most like [the actual] Rudy Ruettiger, which I remember was very important to Angelo Pizzo, the writer who was in the auditions, and [Director] David Anspaugh. We auditioned quite a number of people. There was also somebody who came close to what I really wanted, which was Matt Damon. He’d really done nothing at that time. He was very slight, you know, but he didn’t have the build or the thickness. Sean, at the time, was more of a name.
BTL: Wow, it would have been a completely different film with Matt Damon in the role.
Bialy: I was young, so you get so excited, and I really made a pitch for him as well. They were like, “He’s too tall.” And I was like, “Just put taller, bigger football players around him.” To Angelo and David’s credit, Rick Pagano and I really all talked about it, and I think we all came to the realization that Sean was just so right for it, and it was so important that you follow that character’s journey all the way through.
I do think he was the right guy for it. Sean just had this lovely innocence. He knew how to hold on to innocence without overplaying it. I think why this film is so universal is because we can all relate to that feeling of not giving up when everybody tells you “no.”
BTL: Did you have a similar underdog experience in the beginning of your career?
Bialy: I remember coming to Hollywood, and I remember (that person will remain nameless) saying to a casting director, “You know, I think I really want to do this. I think I’d be good at it. I have a great memory. I love to read. I have a background in acting. I know actors.” She just looked at me and said, “You’re never going to do this. You’ll never make it.” I should thank her because if you have a burning desire to do something, it’s so interesting when you don’t give up, no matter what people say.
When I came out here (to Los Angeles), I knew nobody in the business—no family, nothing. My mother knew one person, and I called him, and he said, “I’ll make an introduction to you for the head of casting somewhere.” I don’t want to say the studio because I don’t want to badmouth her, and I called—same thing. She just didn’t call me back. I kept calling, and she finally said, “You know what? You’ve done nothing. I don’t have time for this.” And I was like, “Watch me!” I was the Rudy underdog in casting.
BTL: Did you know anything about football going into the casting?
Bialy: I took a crash course in football. It was funny because I was so embarrassed if I said something. It’s a football movie, and it’s one of the great sports movies ever, but it’s still a movie about someone’s heart. That’s how I went into the movie. That’s how I went into the casting. It didn’t matter if they played football; what mattered was if they understood where the heart of the movie was and then how to play it naturally. You wouldn’t think a Jewish girl from Brooklyn would be the right person to cast Rudy, who doesn’t know that much about football. Although I do now because of Sherry Thomas (laughs). It was a universal theme.
BTL: When you re-watched Rudy what came to mind?
Bialy: I think it just spoke to so many people, and every element was so beautiful. The score was so beautiful. Of course, I wouldn’t know that going into it, but it was very interesting because I do remember it being on a small budget. We were trying to cast a lot of roles, and then they decided they were going to have to cast more out of Chicago, which is how Jon Favreau came to be. Jane Alderman was the local casting director, and she really did a great job.
BTL: Interesting that you didn’t cast Jon Favreau. What about Vince Vaughn?
Bialy: Vince Vaughn was in Los Angeles and auditioned for one of the football players. I remember his audition clearly. I think it was a different role, or the role might’ve been bigger, but you knew it when he walked in. There was no discussing with Vince Vaughn, none.
BTL: Could you ever have imagined Jon Favreau would go on to become a director?
Bialy: No, but I thought he was great in the movie. He had done an extra in another movie and something really tiny, so this was a big part, and he just grabbed it. He was fantastic. I don’t think he and Vince knew each other. Rudy was the first time they appeared together, not Swingers. But you know, they’re not in scenes together at all.
BTL: What do you remember about casting the ensemble?
Bialy: Rick Pagano and I were and still are, throughout my career, gravitating towards theater actors because I’m from the theater. I grew up going to the theater in New York, and I studied theater. I cast theater throughout my career, including with Rick before Rudy for La Jolla Playhouse. I knew Ron Dean (Coach Yonto), who was from Chicago but was in Los Angeles, and Chelcie Ross (Dan Devine) came from David and Angelo because he had been in Indiana. I remember Rick Pagano loving it; it was his idea about Jason Miller (Ara Parseghian). I was frightened of him because of The Exorcist. I just stayed out of that one [laughs].
Ned Beatty was an offer at the time, but I was a huge Ned Beatty fan. I remember my father-in-law loved his work, and he was that guy who was working all the time. Then we both knew Robert Prosky from his theater days because he got very late into Hill Street Blues. He was someone that we just felt would really resonate. And Charles Dutton, Rick, and I also knew from the theater, and that was exciting when we got him.
BTL: Lili Taylor was a very interesting choice to play Rudy’s girlfriend. I personally would not have put them together, but talk about that.
Bialy: Well, we gave Lili her first movie. I met her on a general call because she had come from Chicago, and we put her in Say Anything, and it was so exciting, and I thought she was fantastic in that. So you kind of keep track of actors, and I think there’s something about Lili to this day that has such depth. She surprises you. She’s one of those actors who you think is going to go down one road, but then she takes the other and puts her own spin on it. That’s what I love about her work.
I think both Rick and I never wanted to have the cliché girlfriend, which, to this day, you see all the time. What was wrong with having a girl from that socioeconomic background who had a brain and who stood on her own? I thought that was a really great thing to have. I think when I really believe in an actor to this day, I will be passionate about them and fight for them. And if they don’t see it in the room, it is my job as a casting director to know the breadth of an actor’s work and to introduce that. When you are working with people who respect your opinion and want to collaborate, that’s when it’s most exciting. There were a lot of discussions in that movie, but I thought that both David and Angela were very respectful.
BTL: So who were some of the actor that you felt fiercely for that they might not have seen?
Bialy: Definitely Lili I felt fiercely about Charles Dutton because I knew him from the theater. You see that speech he has with Rudy still on YouTube, and I just thought you have to have a real actor deliver that speech if you want that speech to resonate all the way when you go home and think about the movie. So he was really important to me for that.
BTL: When you look back on your career over the years, who would you say have been some of your bigger discoveries?
Bialy: I don’t really have that kind of list, but casting Lili in Say Anything. Brendan Fraser: I helped him get his first agent because he came in and read. I met him on an open call and literally sat him down and said, “You have to come to LA; I want you to screen test for this movie. You probably won’t get it, but you should meet the people, and they should know who you are in the studio.” He didn’t get it, but it was Blood In, Blood Out for Taylor Hackford. It didn’t matter because that started his career, and he got an agent, the first audition he went on, and all of that.
It was interesting because I read so much press, like, “Who knew that Brendan was a real deal actor?” And I was just like, “I knew!” From day one, he was the real deal. I think Margot Robbie is a really exciting one. We put her in the series Pan Am for (director) Tommy Schlamme, so even though all of the press says her first movie in America was Wolf of Wall Street, her first job in America was Pan Am. Rhea Seehorn (Breaking Bad) said, “You used to bring me in, and you were the only person who brought me in for things other than comedy and believed in me.”
I remember she was really close on a pilot we did right before Breaking Bad, and she was so upset. I had just read the Breaking Bad pilot, and I’d never done this before, but I said, “Please don’t be upset. I have something that’s perfect for you, and if you had gotten this job, you wouldn’t have been available. So just be patient.”
BTL: It’s all about keeping those notes. Do you hear from the Rudy cast, and have they sent you “thank yous” over the years and all that?
Bialy: I think that happens when you develop friendships with people, which I didn’t have the opportunity to do in that movie. I mean, we just cast Sean Astin last year in Perry Mason, which we did for HBO in a couple of episodes. So that was funny. It’s funny when you start negotiating with their attorney and you stop them and you go, “You know what? I’m sorry, but I knew him for 30 years. I think he will want to do this irrespective of how much money you want, because it’s such good material.”
I’ve stayed in touch with my Breaking Bad friends. It just depends on the show and the movie and where you are in your life. I don’t stay in touch with people because they’re stars; I stay in touch with people with whom I feel a connection, like Jonathan Banks from Breaking Bad. I’ve stayed in touch with Aaron [Paul] and Bryan [Cranston] and Danai Gurira [Michonne from The Walking Dead], whom I consider friends.
BTL: What do you recall about your first big breaks in casting ?
Bialy: I bumped into Rick Pagano, and I said, “You know, we’re the only two people who love the theater in this town. That might not have been true, but we should work together.” I gave him my card, and one thing led to another. When we started working together, he couldn’t believe how many actors I knew, and it was mostly because of the commercials I cast, because you’d see a hundred people a day.
I started in commercials. “They want a white guy between the ages of 20 and 30.” I remember they wanted a really tall, athletic guy from 20 to 30, and I brought in the late Leslie Jordan. He actually got the job, but that doesn’t happen often. He might have gotten his SAG card on that because we stayed close for a long time. Then I started with Rick in the theater with La Jolla Playhouse, and then we started in movies, and my television career came after. I’m very blessed. It wasn’t by a great, ambitious design, but I am thrilled to be in the landscape of television because, especially in the past 15 years, that’s where the writers are gravitating because you don’t have to wait 10 years to get your movie made.
I would say that the pilot for The Walking Dead and the pilot for Breaking Bad are probably two of the greatest scripts ever. I couldn’t be prouder to work in television. The first film I worked on was Blue Velvet, which was just fantastic. I was the girl out front, and those actors that I met and saw how they sat down and talked with the casting director and David Lynch couldn’t have been nicer to the little girl out front. I remember Priscilla Pointer (Mrs. Beaumont) coming in with a walker. I remember he had his assistant send her flowers, and I thought it was such a class act.
BTL: So what did you take away from your experience with Rudy that you’ve carried throughout your career?
Bialy: Oftentimes, the most exciting audition in the room is not ultimately the best choice for the role. That’s what I came away with. I think what Rudy did was cement my respect for the script. You really need to respect the writing, especially when the writing is good, and that’s got to be the map and the template for everything. You still have to take all of the guts and instincts from the script. I’m a big reader, which is one of the reasons I wanted to be in casting because I loved reading scripts and reading novels, and sometimes you go in for a movie and I’ll have read the book, so that’s fun.
BTL: Were you working on casting anything when the strike hit that you’re excited to get back to?
Bialy: We were about to start the last season of The Handmaid’s Tale. We’re doing Vince Gilligan‘s new series, which I can’t say one thing about. I was deep in that. I think one of the great things about us in our office, what you miss, and why I’m so looking forward to getting back with everybody is the creative juices flowing when we are all together. When I can’t remember something, I can yell out, “Hey, Russell, do you remember that? “And if he doesn’t, but he almost always does, or somebody will go, “What about so and so?” It’s so much fun to do it with other people who love what they do. I think the thread in our office is that all of us do love actors, and we do love what we do.
Rudy is available to watch on DVD and Blu-ray as well as streaming on Peacock and Prime Video.