LOS ANGELES, CA – Jared Keeso was a little apprehensive about portraying a 70-plus-year-old man.
Keeso delivered an award-winning performance of Don Cherry in Keep Your Head Up, Kid: The Don Cherry Story, but filmmakers wanted the Canadian actor to return to the role for a sequel focusing on the national icon’s broadcasting years.
“I was certainly caught off guard. They said we want you to play Don into his 70s, and I said, well how’s that going to work out?” Keeso recalled.
Canadians can see how Wrath of Grapes: The Don Cherry Story II turned out when it debuts on CBC in two parts in early March. Over a million viewers tuned in to watch both parts one and two of the original TV mini-series for its March 2010 debut on CBC. Keeso, 27, from Listowel, won Gemini and Leo awards for his depiction of Cherry, the CBC hockey commentator.
The four-hour production concentrated mostly on Cherry’s minor league playing days and coaching career, basically the first half of his life. The previous installment took two-thirds of a decade to come to fruition and was supposed to be a one-off, but Don’s son Tim, writer and executive producer of the original, explained strong ratings and an untold part of the story helped bring the sequel to life.
“CBC liked the numbers and said, you know what, obviously there’s more of a story to be told, so we actually moved very quickly on the concept of let’s do a sequel,” Tim said.
For Keeso, the key to depicting the star of Coach’s Corner this time around was two things: makeup and sleep deprivation.
“They said, well, instead of three hours in the makeup chair, this time it’s going to be five,” Keeso said over the phone last week from Los Angeles, California, where he’s been auditioning on a daily basis as networks carry out pilot season.
Last summer in Manitoba he would show up on set about 3 a.m. – five hours before most of the crew – so three makeup artists could transform his face and hair.
“I’d get poked and prodded like a lab rat for a little while and then go to work for 12 hours.”
When producers first approached him to reprise his role for the sequel, with a focus on Don’s broadcasting career up to age 75, Keeso realized it would take more than just makeup, despite the strong work done by department head Doug Morrow and his team, to cover that range.
“I had to make a handful of adjustments to play a guy almost three times my age,” he reflected.
Keeso first landed the role for Keep Your Head Up, Kid through a nationwide casting call and a search for Canadian actors living in the United States at the time.
Casting director Stephanie Gorin delivered dozens of DVD auditions to Tim, who then sat down with his dad and sister Cindy. They agreed to watch every tryout and make notes, only comparing opinions at the end.
Now living in Vancouver, Keeso was a first-round draft pick for the lead role by all three members of the Cherry family.
“Jared was our first pick. We all picked Jared,” Tim recalled. “Right off the bat Jared was the guy that we wanted. It took a little bit of convincing CBC, just because Jared was a little bit of an unknown quantity then, to say yes. The process at one point was hard because we looked at so many and were searching, but on the other hand Jared was our first pick.”
The trio felt most of the other potential Dons were trying too hard to mimic the star of Coach’s Corner.
“When (Keeso) was doing the lines you knew he was doing Don Cherry, but it wasn’t an impersonation, which is important. It had to be an interpretation of Don Cherry, not an impersonation. He just got it,” Tim said.
Viewers of the original will remember Eddie Shore, played by Stephen McHattie, calling him Madagascar and constantly harping at him to bend his knees while he skated. You wouldn’t know it from watching the two characters clash on screen, but Keeso really enjoyed working with McHattie.
“He’s probably the top actor that I’ve worked with. I’ve had so much to learn from (McHattie), I just took in as much as possible whenever we were on set together,” Keeso relayed.
Aside from the age factor, the part of Wrath of Grapes producers and writers – it was penned by Andrew Wreggitt instead of Tim because of time constraints – were all concerned about was the reenactment of Coach’s Corner. Bantering scenes between Ron MacLean, played by Jonathan Watton, and Keeso was a make-or-break proposal.
“We shot that about halfway through the shoot and I was really – that was the one day I was really, really nervous,” Tim said. “Either they’re going to be fantastic and this is going to make the program, or it’s going to bomb and we’re in big trouble.”
“We were definitely at risk of coming off farce-y or fake with two guys, I guess at a grassroots level, doing impersonations,” Keeso figured. “We showed up for the first take, I don’t know what [Watton’s] going to do, how he’s going to sound. He doesn’t know what I’m going to do or how I’m going to sound. It was tough, but after that first take I remember looking over at the guy and saying you know, I think we’re going to be all right.”
Similar to two years ago, the real-life Don, now 78, will not watch the finished product until its debut along with the rest of the nation. Kitchener’s Sarah Manninen’s accurate portrayal of his late-wife Rose is difficult at times for him to watch.
“It’s still tough for him to see Sarah play my mom, she does such a good job,” Tim said.
MacLean, however, saw Wrath of Grapes a few weeks ago alongside his father. He was impressed, according to Tim, saying it was fantastic and the two actors captured the Coach’s Corner moments.
Keeso, a former Jr. B and C hockey player for teams in southwestern Ontario, moved around pretty well on the ice in those uncomfortable-looking 50-year-old skates in the first film. Most of the time he actually wore his own skates doctored-up to look old school, but this time around there was no cutting corners: he strapped on actual boots from that time period.
“These skates are much different than the skates that we wear today, because really they’re just a slab of leather slapped on a slab of metal,” he explained. “Absolutely no ankle support at all. One of the things that Don Cherry said [is] Bobby Orr used to just tape the hell out of his ankles, he’d just wrap them ‘round and ‘round so that his boots were stiffer.”
That technique worked, but it was still a struggle as other actors and on-ice extras were rolling ankles and falling over.
“It was a spectacle,” Keeso chuckled.
The 40-day shooting schedule returned to Manitoba, the site of the first shoot, from May until mid-July 2011.
The crew had a large stable of returning members and was once again led by the same director in Jeff Woolnough. They generally shot Monday through Friday, unless there was a need to use schools or arenas on the weekend.
B.C. native Tyler Johnston, 24, plays Cherry from ages 15-18 for a handful of scenes, then Keeso takes over for ages 20-75.
It was a seamless transition, despite a two-year hiatus between filming, as soon as Keeso locked in to Don Cherry mode.
“As soon as Jared got on set and got into costume and got into Don Cherry mode, things just fell right back into place,” Tim noted.
The key to Cherry mode in the first work was capturing the Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em voiceovers, Keeso explained prior to the original’s debut two years ago. As the story shifts to his broadcasting days, the integral part was just plain keeping up.
“Linear thinking isn’t exactly his preference, [Don] rarely finishes thoughts and kind of stops sentences and goes on to another thought. Doing that for five pages straight take-after-take was taxing, but to see the end product turn out so well was very pleasing,” Keeso said.
The first production was in the mould of a Goodfellas, according to Tim, while the follow-up is more down the lines of The Godfather.
The story goes into greater detail of Don’s life with the now-defunct Barrie Flyers, more on the struggles with Shore, and the trials and tribulations on Hockey Night in Canada, including detailed looks at behind-the-scenes drama.
With multiple generations growing up watching Don on HNIC, the audience will get a look beyond the bright lights and cameras of some infamous Coach’s Corner moments, and more on the backlash at CBC. In a sense it’s almost like the HBO series 24/7 detailing two teams leading up to the previous two NHL Winter Classics.
“A lot of people that watched it were really kind of, I can’t believe that happened at CBC, and I think they connect with it a little bit more,” Tim said.
Keeso has seen tidbits of the finished product and is pretty happy with the outcome.
“I’ve seen a bit of it edited together and I’m really pleased with how it turned out,” he said, adding that hearing positive feedback from MacLean and Tim took weight off his shoulders.
“It’s kind of exciting to see it finished up and aired, but it’s also kind of a little sad because you go through so much,” Tim said.