Tom Atkins has been in 30 feature films, appeared on more than 100 television shows, and taken the stage in 150 plays, but the character he connects with most is the legendary Art Rooney, Sr., in the one-man show, The Chief.
Atkins speaks in a deep, husky voice, akin to Morgan Freeman, when he calls and gives a hearty laugh, speaking amicably about the play that sold out seven years running at Pittsburgh Public Theater and is now coming to DVD on October 14.
“Honest to God, it’s one of the joys of my life to have done that play,” he says, suddenly serious. “I think a lot of the Chief was in me because we were both Pittsburgh guys. It was a good fit, a good match, you know?”
Atkins met Rooney when he was just 10 years old. Happily taken to the racetracks with his father, Atkins ran into the Pittsburgh Steelers team founder, who knew his father from their days playing semi-pro baseball. Rooney asked the young boy who he would pick to win the first two races, known as the daily double. Atkins arbitrarily chose horses numbered 1 and 3, and lo and behold, both racers won. Later, Rooney saw Atkins again and exclaimed with a smile, “We did pretty good on that daily double, didn’t we, kiddo?” Atkins recounts. “Art Rooney had the gift of making you feel like the whole world for the two minutes he was with you.”
In The Chief, Rooney’s life is told in a series of vignettes, stories that will both crack you up and bring you to tears, Atkins says. The play, written by Gene Collier and Rob Zellers, tells the powerful story of a man who was a treasure to the city and brought the Pittsburgh Steelers to life.
“Andy Russell and Dan Rooney gave me a game ball the first night we did The Chief,” Atkins says with humility. “The old guys: Chuck Noll, Dwayne Woodruff, Mel Blount, Franco Harris, they were all there to see the play, and the Rooney boys came every year.”
The story is about Pittsburgh, and the movie stays true to the Pittsburgh vision, as the crew of the movie consisted entirely of locals.
“It’s this huge love letter to the city,” says movie director Steve Parys. “Without hyperbole, Pittsburgh has the best film crews in the nation. Tom Atkins embodied that. He works really hard, no B.S. He is very Pittsburgh in that way.”
Everyone raves about Atkins, though he has a favorite accolade among his many praises: “Art Rooney, Jr., says [watching the play is] like going down and spending an hour-and-a-half with his dad in the office. I don’t see how you can get a better compliment than that,” he says.
The play touches the hearts of the Rooney family and of Pittsburghers alike. “There were members of the audience who saw the performance at the Public every year that it played,” Atkins says. And the show was, of course, a raving success.
“It was hands-down the most successful play in Public Theater history, and probably the most popular play in Pittsburgh,” says Pittsburgh Public Theater Producing Artistic Director Ted Pappas. “It wasn’t just a play about football; it was a play about a great American city and a way of life. I believe in the play.”
The passion of those who brought The Chief to life is palpable, as they all talk gregariously about the movie’s premiere and awards they are submitting it for. But in the end, the play comes back to Art Rooney and Pittsburgh.
“As Rooney grew, so did the city, and they were both part of each other’s nourishment and blessing,” Atkins says. “I have done the play so many times, I feel like I know him. He’s in me.”
Although The Chief has finished its run at the Public, Atkins shares that he secretly hopes they will revive the play in a few years.
As far as his career goes, he has just finished working on the feature film Drive Angry with Nicholas Cage.
“I plan to continue acting as long as someone is silly enough to hire me to act,” Atkins says, his laughter booming over the telephone line. “As long as I can remember the words, I’m going to keep on doing it because I love it.”
He even jokes about how great it would be if he could take The Chief to Ireland, where Dan Rooney is United States Ambassador to the country, and share the legend internationally.
“It is such a wonderful story that goes way beyond just Steeler Nation, the hundreds of thousands and thousands that they are; it’s a bigger story than that,” he says with a sigh. “It ain’t just about football, that’s for sure.” — Jessie Cadle
The Chief movie premieres at the Byham Theater October 14, and the DVD will be in stores November 9. For more information, visit thechiefmovie.com.