It was a modest made-for-TV movie, broadcast on CBS the evening of Saturday, December 3, 1983. A ratings underdog boosted by its lead-in from an annual rerun of children’s classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the movie won its 9 p.m. time slot against ABC’s heavily favored The Love Boat.
Based on the real-life story of Tami Maida, who in 1981 played junior-varsity quarterback at tiny Philomath High School west of Corvallis and went on to wear the homecoming tiara as well, Quarterback Princess bested The Love Boat‘s Pacific Princess thanks in part to a cast that included two future Academy Award winners: Helen Hunt, in the lead role, and Tim Robbins, who played the hapless third-string quarterback, Blalock.
Which is to say nothing of the movie’s first-billed lead, Don Murray, who played Maida’s father and was a past Academy Award nominee (for 1956’s Bus Stop, alongside Marilyn Monroe), and as recently as 2017 had a prominent role in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks reboot. Or Barbara Babcock, who played Maida’s mom after winning a 1981 Emmy Award for Hill Street Blues. (Helen Hunt actually got fourth billing in her own movie!) Then there are two more actors in supporting Quarterback Princess roles who went on to prominent TV and movie classics soon afterward: John Stockwell (Top Gun) and Daphne Zuniga (Melrose Place).
Quarterback Princess was filmed in my hometown of McMinnville, when I was an 11-year-old sixth grader. Not only did my parents and I serve as extras (as well as numerous friends and teachers, some of whom made the final cut), but the house where the Maidas lived in the movie belonged in real life to my grandmother’s best friend, and my dad’s restaurant once hosted the entire crew for lunch. Last weekend, a 40th anniversary screening was held at McMinnville High School, my alma mater.
Even so, this is not a Quarterback Princess diary. Instead, I talked to two people a lot closer to the action back in ’83: Brad Robins, a senior tight end for the McMinnville Grizzlies football team that season who appeared in several scenes (Hunt literally rides in celebration atop his shoulders after the movie’s final gridiron triumph), and John Stockwell, who plays Tami Maida’s boyfriend in the movie. (Key line: “I’m sorry, I’ve never dated a quarterback before.”)
Greetings From Minnville
As Quarterback Princess begins, the Maida family, freshly arrived from Canada in their station wagon and driving through their new town for the first time, gawk at the bounty of Izzy’s Pizza and Dairy Queen cuisine now within reach. Like a more earnest version of the Griswold clan in National Lampoon’s Vacation (their cars even resemble each other), they’re blissfully unaware of the chaos sweeping into town with them.
In the next scene, at a school board meeting to determine whether Tami should be allowed to play on the heretofore all-male varsity football team (with several of my real former teachers as extras), her family withstands a wave of patronizing dismissals: “Why don’t we let her be a cheerleader?” “Give her a doll to play with!”
When Title IX equal-opportunity law allows her to play, she quickly shows adept passing skills, prompting a teammate to ask, “Hey little girl, where’d you learn to throw a ball like that?” “My mom,” Maida quickly answers.
Directed by Noel Black, whose credits also included TV shows like Quincy M.E., Kojak, and Hawaii Five-O, Quarterback Princess mines drama from typical small-town conservative-chauvinistic opposition to Maida’s football dreams amongst townspersons. A town elder, played by Dana Elcar (The Sting, Columbo, MacGyver), famously screams in a later scene, “That girl cannot play football!” Yet the team’s ensuing victories with Maida under center begin to win them over, like a kind of Reagan-era Jackie Robinson.
McMinnville made a good location for CBS: larger than Philomath, with a typical small-town conservatism leavened by the presence of Linfield College and its proximity to Portland as a bedroom community just beyond the Portland metro area.
However, McMinnville didn’t exactly play itself in the movie. For some kind of legal or perhaps financial reason that no one seems to understand, Quarterback Princess takes place in the fictional town of Minnville.
And Brad Robins has the sign to prove it: a wood-carved prop denoting the fictional Minnville High School, as used in an establishing shot. “A few years ago, a friend of mine who was the dean of students at Mac High calls me and goes, ‘Meet me at the shop,’” Robins recalls (using the town’s shortened nickname). “When I get there, he brings out that sign.” Today it hangs on a wall in Robins’ family’s hunting camp in rural Central Oregon, above a taxidermy deer head. Which is actually appropriate, because in the movie, the Maidas enter Minnville with a moose head strapped to their trunk.
Trenches and Tamis
In 1983, Robins was an incoming senior tight end on a McMinnville Grizzlies team ranked ninth in The Oregonian’s preseason poll. Coach Perry Stubblefield had sent letters that summer to all varsity players explaining that football practices would begin two weeks early, to accommodate a Hollywood movie being filmed. After the production trucks rolled onto campus, a different kind of two-a-day practice commenced on the fields adjacent to Wortman Stadium: first a real one, then a Minnville Grizzlies version for the cameras. After dark, a series of game scenes filmed in the stadium.
“On the football field, they actually dug a trench so they could have a camera looking up at our helmets as we’re lining up on the ball,” Robins remembers. “They’d have us run a play, run it again, they’d move the camera and we go on to another play. If I switched spots, the continuity lady who was sitting in a big chair by the boom would be going, ‘Nope, nope, you need to be back over here.’ I’d look over to the side, and there would be Tim Robbins [no relation], smoking a cigarette.”
The Quarterback Princess poster (or rather the cover of its VHS and DVD versions, since the movie never played in theaters) features Hunt’s Maida character, still in her Minnville Grizzlies jersey and pads following a big win, being hoisted into the air by four players, one of whom was Robins. Brad Robins’ two onscreen interactions with Hunt wound up being cut from the aired version: a kiss on the cheek after Maida is named homecoming princess, and a moment leading Maida and just a few teammates towards the stadium before gametime.
While filming game scenes, Robins also met the real Tami Maida, an advisor to the production. “Pretty much every football scene, Tami was there next to her [Hunt] just off-camera,” he recalls. “And in some of the action shots, it was Tami doing it herself: not Helen Hunt but the actual Tami Maida.”
By the time 20-year-old Helen Hunt was cast in 1983’s Quarterback Princess, she was already a veteran actor. The daughter of an acting coach and a photographer, her career had begun as a child in the early 1970s, including a main role on the short-lived adventure series Swiss Family Robinson as well as episodes of TV classics The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bionic Woman, The Facts of Life and, perhaps crucially from a casting standpoint, with Murray in the CBS drama Knots Landing. The same year as Quarterback Princess, she’d done another TV movie, Bill: On His Own, co-starring Mickey Rooney and Dennis Quaid.
“She was very, very nice,” Robins remembers. “We had 45 guys in pads surrounding her. She’s not going to sit there and go, ‘Hey, how are you doing, guys?’ But Helen, she was just nice and polite and always very professional, very serious when it came down to action. Every time I watch Helen in a movie, I have utmost respect. When I see Tim Robbins, I just laugh. He’s a great actor, but he was a flipping goofball.”
Robbins, rumored to be ringleader of ongoing parties after hours (attracting the ire of some local parents and religious leaders) when he wasn’t inhabiting the inept third-string quarterback’s persona, went on to star in classics including The Shawshank Redemption, The Player, and Bull Durham, as well as in Mystic River, which brought his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor exactly 20 years after Quarterback Princess. Which is to say nothing of his decade-plus relationship with another Oscar winner, actress Susan Sarandon.
Robins, the Grizzlies tight end with a similar last name, is now recently retired from a multi-decade teaching career at middle schools in McMinnville and Sheridan. “For a lot of the filming, it was kind of, ‘Hurry up and wait,’ he says. “But looking back, it’s fantastic. How many people can say ‘I was in a Hollywood movie’?”
Studio 54 to the Safari Motel
The path that actor John Stockwell took to a role in Quarterback Princess could not have been more different from Robins’.
Stockwell, born John Samuels IV, began his career as a model in the late seventies, during which time he met Andy Warhol at Studio 54. He appears in 26 entries in The Andy Warhol Diaries, first described by Warhol as “really handsome, like a young Robert Wagner.” Later, Warhol writes of being at a party where two different people talk to him about Samuels at the same time: one in each ear.
A few months later, Samuels and his new girlfriend, Bianca Jagger, are meeting the iconic Pop artist at the Russian Tea Room; she tells Warhol of wanting to make her famous ex, Mick Jagger, jealous. Still another entry has Warhol telling a young Jodie Foster, if she chooses to attend Harvard as planned, “about John Samuels and how cute he is, but I don’t know what type she’d like because she dresses really like a boy—all in Brooks Brothers.”
Indeed, Stockwell was attending Harvard while simultaneously building an acting career in New York, beginning with a role on the soap opera The Guiding Light, and while filming Quarterback Princess. “I was a fine arts major, but I didn’t spend a lot of time in classes because Harvard is hard to get into but really hard to get kicked out of,” he remembers today. “So I was able to do the movie during an active semester.”
Stockwell trained for the role of Scott Massey, Maida’s boyfriend, who in the film participates in a lumberjack-skills competition. “I went up there early to train with some local loggers and learn the fundamentals: to do a log-roll and climb trees. At the time I was really into authenticity and I wanted to do everything myself. And I didn’t want any doubles.”
The actor, since the early 2000s a director (including 2001’s Crazy/Beautiful and several episodes of Showtime’s The L Word from 2007-09), recalls having fun with Robbins and other cast members late-nights at the Safari Motel during the Quarterback Princess production, which attracted under-age visitors whose parents then began complaining to city council, causing a stir. “We all got a real serious dressing-down, and at some point, no outsiders were allowed in the rooms,” he remembers.
Yet Stockwell clarifies that Hunt was always back in her room each night, away from the party. “She was much more serious than the rest of us,” he says. “We were looking at it as kind of some fun away from home, someone giving us $45 a day in living expenses. And she just looked at it all differently. She looked at it as a stepping stone to something else.”
Cleared For Takeoff
Hunt steadily built her career after Quarterback Princess, including prominent roles in the eighties movies Girls Just Want To Have Fun alongside Sarah Jessica Parker, and Peggy Sue Got Married with Kathleen Turner. In the 1990s, however, she became a substantially bigger star. After reuniting with Robbins in his best-known directorial effort, the 1992 political mockumentary Bob Roberts, that same year Hunt began a seven-year run starring in NBC’s sitcom Mad About You with Paul Riser, during which time she also twice hosted Saturday Night Live. In 1996, she co-starred with Bill Paxton in the box-office hit Twister. Then came 1997’s Oscar-winning turn in As Good As It Gets, as a waitress and single mom who falls in love with an older romance novelist with OCD, played by Jack Nicholson, who also won an Oscar for his role.
Andy Warhol famously opined that in the future people would be famous for 15 minutes. Even so, his friend John [Samuels] Stockwell certainly had his moments after Quarterback Princess, too. Later in 1983, he starred in the John Carpenter-directed movie adaptation of Stephen King’s Christine, and two years after that had the lead role in My Science Project. But it was a co-starring role, at the beginning of Top Gun, for which he has remained best known: as Cougar, the fighter pilot whom Maverick (Tom Cruise) saves and, after Cougar quits the Navy, whose place he takes at the movie’s eponymous dogfighting school. By coincidence, Tim Robbins also has a minor role in the film; maybe Top Gun director Tony Scott had been watching their Minnville melodrama before casting.
“The residuals from that movie are just extraordinary,” Stockwell says of Top Gun, “especially for only having 5-10 minutes of screen time. I’m very grateful.” His biggest regret is that director Tony Scott was unable to use footage of Cruise, Stockwell and company that had been filmed aboard the actual F-14 fighter planes; the speedy planes made the cameras shake too much. “When the whole cast watched an early screening of the movie, we thought it was a mess,” he says. “We thought no one would understand Top Gun. It was like a confusing video game. And we were wrong.”
Fire and Ice Cream
John Stockwell remembers McMinnville in 1983 as being “pretty blue collar. It certainly didn’t feel like some rarefied Sonoma or Napa-like wine country town.” Indeed, McMinnville’s population at the time was just over 14,000, less than half of what it is today, and the wine industry that would eventually transform it was still in its infancy.
“Honestly, of all the places I’ve filmed, usually you go someplace because there’s a tax credit: to Georgia, North Carolina. I’ve done some things in London. But in this case, I don’t think there were any such financial incentives. There was just this logging town component to it, at least in the surrounding communities. Maybe some of that has changed now. But McMinnville was really the right place to do this movie.”
Indeed, in the 40 years since Quarterback Princess was filmed, McMinnville has transformed from a modest small town of farmers, loggers, and steel workers to a wine country capitol, a bedroom community for Portland and a popular tourist destination. Today the Maidas could steer their station wagon toward Michelin-starred chefs instead of Full Meal Deals.
In some ways, the real McMinnville has perhaps become more progressive over the past four decades, and is now led by the city’s first openly queer mayor, Remy Drabkin, who also founded a popular local winery, Remy Wines. Yet as recently as 2016, Donald Trump received nine percent more votes than Hillary Clinton. There always has been an uneasy liberal-conservative coexistence here that seems to make McMinnville something close to a political bellwether for the rest of the country, or at least just as inconsistent.
In 2015, the Maida house from Quarterback Princess caught fire, but remained standing and has been repaired. The circa-1956 high school, though occupying the same location today as in 1983, is almost unrecognizable, like an obese plastic-surgery customer, having been expanded and renovated 11 times. Much of the rest of the city’s urban fabric has changed too, so much so that perhaps only Alf’s Ice Cream, the old-school McMinnville fast food drive-in where Hunt’s Maida and her friends visit early in the movie, is the only survivor. And in a world with almost limitless streaming options, 40 years later Quarterback Princess is only available on YouTube, from a bad VHS transfer.
Even so, post-Maida there has been a modest but steady succession of real female tackle football players: mostly kickers, but not all of them. And flag football, including a women’s version, was also announced this month as a future Olympic sport. At the high school level, female flag football is also becoming popular. The movie didn’t start this phenomenon, but undoubtedly encouraged it.
Even so, Quarterback Princess isn’t really about football at all. It’s about a bright young woman’s agency and resolve, no matter who lines up against her, on the field or off. Perhaps a cynic might suggest Tami Maida’s quest is no different a feel-good story than its lead-in that December Saturday night in 1983: plucky Rudolph silencing the cruel doubters to lead Santa’s sleigh. Yet despite the dated quality of the movie itself, Tami in particular is no Rudolf, but neither is Helen. In a world where aggressively inept Blalocks still frequently get all the advantages (and sometimes the votes), we truly need the Tamis and Helens more than ever.