Rudy - 30th Anniversary Review
Daniel ‘Rudy’ Ruettiger.
The story of how he started in Joliet, Illinois, and gradually demonstrated his willpower through his slaving to make it into the University of Notre Dame and play among the Fighting Irish became a beacon of hope to all those who watched him in action on the Notre Dame Football field in 1975, where he helped the Fighting Irish win against Georgia Tech.
This remarkable odyssey was so stirring that in 1993, writer Angelo Pizzo, director David Anspaugh, and actor Sean Astin took the story and brought it brilliantly to life in this inspirational biopic about Rudy Ruettiger’s rise into fame and the constant struggles he endured to make it into Notre Dame.
To get you up to speed, here’s the story. For all his life, Daniel ‘Rudy’ Ruettiger was laughed at by his friends and family for his desire to go to Notre Dame, not just because of his physical inadequacies but also because he wasn’t necessarily the sharpest student in his class, mainly on account of his dyslexia. He was even denied a chance to join the University of Notre Dame tour because of his generally underwhelming grades. Hard as he tried, he couldn’t have been as up to bat with his abilities as he aspired to be.
The only friend he ever had who believed in him was Pete, his longtime best friend and coworker at the steel mill factory, where Rudy’s father, Daniel Sr., was the head operator. Then, when Pete died in a steel mill accident, Rudy decided to venture into South Bend and see if he had what it took to make it into Notre Dame. He started small at the Holy Cross Community College, where he made plenty of friends, including roommate and tutor D-Bob and even Notre Dame janitor Fortune, whom Rudy approached about having a job at Notre Dame. From there, Rudy continued to push himself to the nth degree, enduring all kinds of hardships and trying his absolute best to be mentally and physically capable of joining the prestigious University of Notre Dame and, ultimately, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
Let me tell you how I became familiar with this movie.
My father went to college at the University of Notre Dame himself from 1968 to 1972, and he proved himself to be a sufficient student while also showing his team spirit for the Fighting Irish by participating in the cheerleading squad. Their contributions to the team morale were nothing short of a success; as the Fighting Irish went on tour, so did they. Along the way, my father ran into several celebrities during his travels with his fellow cheerleading troupe, including Dinah Shore and Bob Hope.
Of course, my father’s team spirit for the Fighting Irish happened just a few years before Rudy Ruettiger went on to join the University of Notre Dame and the Fighting Irish in the early 70s.
I caught on to how much of a Notre Dame connoisseur my father is when I looked at all the Fighting Irish memorabilia around our house. It included his sweatshirt, hats, personalized VHS copy of ‘Rudy,’ and his almost religious watching of the Fighting Irish’s football games, which weren’t too different from Daniel Ruettiger Sr.’s devotion to the team. And it’s not just him. When she was still alive, his mother and my grandmother, whom I called Gram, also had a personalized copy of Rudy on VHS, like she was granted an extension of my father’s affiliations with the Fighting Irish. I did not see the movie from beginning to end until I got older, but the more I investigated the film and who it was about, I started to comprehend, bit by bit, the legacy Rudy Reuttiger left behind upon reaching Notre Dame and how much his persistence and refusal to give up on his dreams deeply resonated with the conscious viewing public. And that’s why, when I finally understood both my father’s time in Notre Dame and the significance behind Rudy Ruettiger’s time there, I gradually felt honored for my father to have such connections with what looks like a pristine, magnificent campus.
I didn’t see the campus until 2010 when my family and I took a tour there and also watched one of the new games the Fighting Irish played in, specifically against the Pittsburgh Panthers, I think. I remember being astounded by the campus as I took in all its wondrous sights, including the famed Golden Dome and the Virgin Mary shrine, while also admiring the Fighting Irish’s sportsmanlike spirit. It only makes my respect for them deepen with this in mind. Whether it was his old dormitory or the one spot in the library where he always sat, I felt spellbound as I watched my father wander where we did when he went to school there, as Rudy did.
However, it wasn’t just the tidbits I caught of Rudy, Notre Dame, or my father’s enrollment there. Another aspect of the movie I was surprisingly familiar with snuck up to me in more places than I expected it to.
I’ll give you a hint. It was featured in the trailers for movies like Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Magic in the Water, and Angels in the Outfield, whose trailer I was accustomed to from my Lion King VHS tape. And it came from this movie in all its glory.
That would be the music by Jerry Goldsmith.
I was already accustomed to his music from Mulan, but when I heard Goldsmith’s music in Rudy, particularly the pieces I recognized before seeing this movie, I was at a loss for words. What Goldsmith displayed throughout the film not only tied into Rudy’s journey perfectly but also felt like it was in a class by itself. Whenever Rudy lived his day-to-day life in Joliet or South Bend, the music reflected the sense of homeliness and mellowness in an empathetic manner. When Rudy prepared to undertake some major events in his life, whether it required studying or training in the field, the music expressed the inner drive and confidence that Rudy felt as he prepared to take on any challenge that would come his way. As Rudy partook in the more rigorous training exercises or went out to prove his worth, the music blazed forth in all its mighty optimism and triumphant beats as history was on the verge of being made or as new paths were on their way to being paved. The music shared the same inner passion, burning urges, humility, and triumphant tendencies that Rudy himself felt. In short, Jerry Goldsmith’s musical score made me feel awestruck by Rudy’s own sportsmanlike spirit and more than willing to root for Rudy every step of the way, like it is making a cheerleader out of me.
Of course, as accustomed as I am to the music, watching the movie again, I noticed a few more nuggets of gold that made Rudy the sports classic that it is.
One aspect of the movie that helped lend it its footing was the performances. The actors were the real reason the film pulsated with the same amount of heart and soul as Rudy had put into his dreams.
The actors’ simplicity in their performances as they played the real-life figures involved in Rudy’s life journey helped make each character feel alive and believable. In so doing, they helped give the movie a more natural, homely essence that heightened the emotional journeys the characters went through and also the severity of whatever situations arose throughout them. They didn’t play their characters with an exaggerated account of their personalities; they played their characters as if they were them and displayed it in all their refreshing humbleness.
Of course, some actors truly stood out to me. One was the actor Charles S. Dutton, who played the janitor, Fortune. With his more low-key disposition, professionalism, and frank sensibilities, plus his occasional sense of humor, he started as a common-sensical guy who only grew to become someone you’d find yourself in irresistibly pleasant company with. I should know because I had a friend like that when I went to college at Santa Fe University of Art and Design. So, in a way, I got the same feelings out of Dutton’s performance.
The other is Scott Benjaminson as Frank. Even before I saw the movie from beginning to end, I remembered the actor portraying Frank with a slight cockiness that made him look like a slight bully to someone like Rudy. His soft tenors, mocking mannerisms, and contemptible demeanor were conveyed with Frank in thin veils, which only went hand in hand with the character once you dig deeper and assess his background, which I’ll get into very soon.
Christopher Reed conveyed Pete with utmost complacency, curtailing Pete’s conscience and consideration for Rudy and his dreams. He played Pete like he was Rudy’s brother from another mother, which only became more meaningful when you look at how low Rudy fell because of his dreams, as unlikely as his peers thought it to be. Even Robert J. Steinmiller Jr., who played the younger version of Pete, reflected those tendencies when Pete and Rudy were kids.
Another one of the actors who left a big impression on me as a kid was Ned Beatty as Rudy’s father, Daniel Ruettiger, Sr. His rough voice and gravitas helped emphasize the level of tenderness and expertise he expressed. Whenever he sounded cheerful, he sounded like a pleasant guy to get along with, especially when he watched the latest Notre Dame football game playing on live TV. Of course, whenever he spoke professionally, I could feel his background as a hard-working steel mill worker, which only boosted my respect for him and his repertoire. Whenever he spoke as a father, I could feel his prowess and tenderness as he attempted to confide in Rudy about his dreams and the futility he feared Rudy would’ve experienced should he move to Notre Dame. Once he conversed, I could feel his pride and consideration as he wanted nothing but the best for all his children, even if he struggled with those concerning Rudy.
If you can believe it, the actor playing Rudy’s roommate, Dennis “D-Bob” McGowan, is none other than Jon Favreau in one of his first film roles, and man, did he nail it in this movie! D-Bob worked as both a tutor at the Holy Cross Community College and also a student in the school, and Favreau expressed his fumbling attitude when it came to wooing the girls or reassuring Rudy of his dreams and why he wanted to make it to South Bend in the first place. Sometimes, he had an inner sense of snark, but his general personality was modest but no-nonsense, which only complimented the level of determination Rudy expressed in his journey.
Both Jason Miller and Robert Prosky didn’t have as much significant screentime or contribution as I thought they would’ve had – unless I’m missing something – but they still made the most out of their time in the movie. Prosky, as Father Cavanaugh, just emanated with wisdom and consideration as he attempted to reason with Rudy about his aspirations with Notre Dame, how he should give himself a head start, and where he should do so. And as Coach Ara Parseghian, Miller brought forth the momentum and force necessary to rev up the Fighting Irish into a sportsmanlike frenzy, especially for Rudy. He was not without his sensible moments, of course, whenever he wasn’t on the field, and it helped make him seem like a respectable football coach who was not all just tough talk and encouragements of momentum.
Finally, Rudy’s determination was made possible in the movie with what I consider its central star and centerpiece: Sean Astin as Rudy Ruettiger.
Long after he made the big time as Mikey in The Goonies, and long before doing it again as Samwise in The Lord of the Rings movies, Astin brought forth every possible instinct, childlike urgency, confidence, and showy flair as Rudy worked hard day and night to better himself and shape himself up into becoming a future football champion. Every time you see him expressing his innermost desires, there’s a sense that he’s held onto that dream for as long as he can remember, both as a kid and as he grew up. It’s almost like Astin expressed Rudy with a hint of childlike determination as he did with Mikey in The Goonies, except this time, Astin displayed it in smaller doses as a young adult. He even demonstrated what I never expected him to show of Rudy: spunk. I don’t know if it was his youth around the time this movie came out or his inner urges, but Astin’s inflections as Rudy demonstrated a keen and very confident young man who gradually became more determined than ever to fulfill his dreams no matter what other people said of him and his goals. Sometimes, there’ve been times when his losing control of his actions felt too rough. Still, if anything, they helped make Rudy come across as an athlete-to-be since his inner aggression showed signs of a promising fighter who was ready to tackle anyone who dared approach him on the football field. His general modesty also helped; anyone watching Rudy’s story on screen would easily have empathized with him as he did his best to rise within his ranks and prove his worth to the whole viewing world and himself, just as Ruettiger did in real life.
Well, I have demonstrated why the acting in the movie was fantastic. How about the characters themselves?
I can’t say I’m the right person or in the right place to talk about them since I don’t know the real-life figures on whom these characters were based. But the actors still did an excellent job of making me care about them as characters while grasping some semblance of who they may have been in real life.
However, there are some things I have to say regarding the movie’s characters.
For starters, the character, Pete, while representing some of the best friends Rudy had in his life, was not based on any one person. In real life, Rudy had two good friends who died tragic deaths before Rudy went to Notre Dame, and Pete was simply a mash-up between the two. One of them was a former coworker Rudy knew from the steel mill named Siskel, who was in his mid-sixties and, just like Pete, died trying to fix some machinery. For what the movie demonstrated with Rudy’s companions, Pete still felt like a decent, humble, and considerate best friend who knew him for arguably as long as Rudy was alive and wanted to be on his side and support him in his dreams when others didn’t. While he was no different from his peers in terms of exercising crass methods, he still acted like he was part of the crowd while expressing sympathy for the less fortunate, like Rudy. Despite the two people in Rudy’s life having been condensed to Pete in the movie, it managed to do a decent service to Rudy’s journey and personal tragedies without falling into redundancy.
I always looked at Rudy’s brother, Frank, like he was just some stuck-up jerk who constantly looked down on Rudy and his dreams and scoffed them off as nonsense. However, as I further assessed Frank, I’m admiring him more based on the likelihood that he might’ve been a product of his environment. Whenever I looked at his inflections and reactions to his older brother’s advancements into Notre Dame, it seemed like Frank suffered the same frustrations of his working conditions as Rudy did, except Frank probably must not have known any more than Rudy did about what he did best or why Rudy was so successful in his pursuits. It’s almost like whenever he contemplated Rudy’s advancements, he always asked himself, “What does this guy have that I don’t? How is it that he made it to Notre Dame while I’m stuck here and always working away at the steel mill?” It was not shown to us in full, but I sensed that out of Frank as I watched him throughout the movie, unlike when I was younger. Plus, after Rudy won his first game with Notre Dame, the real-life Frank eventually left the steel mill and became a policeman. So, you can say that Rudy’s perseverance touched Frank a bit, too.
As for Jon Favreau’s character, D-Bob, he seemed like a generally goofy but serious-minded guy with the slight disadvantage of not being as good with girls as Rudy. But whenever he was slightly agitated or dead set on achieving something, he did so at any opportunity that landed on his feet, whether for himself or Rudy. And I must mention that watching Rudy master his womanizing skills, not for himself but for D-Bob, looks pretty respectable. It’s almost like Rudy did have his best interest at heart and was selfless enough to practice it on his behalf. It makes me wonder how lucky he might’ve been with girls on his own merits after perfecting it out of doing D-Bob a favor.
The Notre Dame janitor Rudy worked with, Fortune, seemed like a general no-nonsense type of guy who set rules and obligations concerning his place in Notre Dame and that of Rudy. Because Rudy couldn’t have paid rent when he wasn’t busy with his studies at the Holy Cross, he allowed him to rest in his locker room. What I found so fascinating about his character is not only his background, where he too had plans to fulfill his dreams only to back out due to alleged racism – keep in mind, this was the 70s, and the country must still have been reeling from the Civil Rights Movement – but also how there’s a hidden soft side in him that he displayed through his actions but never in person. When I see him doing his things, emoting the way he did, or doing his gestures behind the scenes, I can tell that deep down, Rudy’s enthusiasm and persistence touched him and made him willing to bend the rules a bit to give Rudy a sporting chance, if you will, to fulfill his dreams and deepest desires. The closest real-life figure that this character represented was a fellow janitor Rudy knew, also named Rudy. However, rather than racism, he couldn’t have followed his dreams because he lost his leg to diabetes.
While she did not display very much contribution to the story, the girl Rudy saw at Notre Dame, Mary, seemed very respectable, like she was the type who was touched by Rudy’s desires and pursuits, despite him participating in something he was not allowed to do since he went to Holy Cross Community College rather than the University of Notre Dame, as she did. The young man, Jim, who questioned his dreams and commitments, seemed like a conflicted guy who wanted to believe anything was possible but was unsure whether to accept that, even after meeting Rudy. He reminded me a little bit of Neil from Dead Poets Society, with his meek demeanor and the expectations thrust upon him by his father, who happened to have had connections with Notre Dame and expected his son to succeed. Watching him turn over a new leaf as Rudy continued doing his thing felt like a pure demonstration of how infectious Rudy’s spirit and determination turned out to have been in the long run.
And when I saw Rudy Ruettiger do his thing in the field or at any place at any given time…let me tell you, my heart just swelled as I saw him in action.
Admittedly, there have been times throughout this movie where, for all his enthusiasm over what he loved, I was no stranger to questioning whether Rudy had what it took to make it to Notre Dame as he meant to. However, because of his spirit, goals, and methods of making the big time at Notre Dame, he continually proved me wrong as he demonstrated how hard work, persistence, and a hardcore commitment to what you desire to achieve would pay off in the end.
Of course, even when he was out of the field, I still found Rudy easy to like. He had a childlike enthusiasm over what he loved, which was Notre Dame, and always had the burning urge to do anything it took to make it or be recognized among his idols. Sometimes, they seemed faulty and careless, but I could tell that these were stepping stones Rudy stumbled onto in his life because, hey, who says no one could’ve? By the time Rudy finally had a chance to get out onto the field when Notre Dame played off against Georgia Tech, the expectations and anticipations of his outcome as a professional Notre Dame football player gradually mounted until it culminated in a terrific payoff that secured a win for the Fighting Irish. Rudy Ruettiger established himself as an inspiring role model for a reason, and this movie brought the message forth, warts and all, showcasing the virtues and occasional fumbles that came with fulfilling your dreams, no matter the cost.
Do you remember what I said about how part of the music by Jerry Goldsmith perfectly encapsulated the homely feel? Let me tell you what else did just that: the shots and scenery.
There’s just something about how it portrayed Rudy’s life, both at home in Joliet, Illinois, and as he trod along the campus in South Bend. Director David Ansparugh and DP Oliver Wood helped convey the emotions and scenery to complement each other as Rudy went through his daily struggles, whether with his family life, work, or studies at South Bend. Conveying the homelier aspects of the movie and Rudy’s life story helped authenticate the experience. It helped make Joliet feel more like home, and when Rudy went off to either the Holy Cross Community College or the University of Notre Dame, the homely feeling apparent with Rudy was brought with him to South Bend, and it helped make wandering around in both campuses feel large. But with the University of Notre Dame, it only made it feel more special and downright glorious. I started feeling a presence on the campus, like I sensed Rudy walking on sacred ground as I watched him wander there. Because the tenderness and modesties were so rampant throughout the movie, it made the more horrifying events feel more devastating and the more triumphant moments feel more jubilant.
On top of that, because David Ansparugh honed the more mellow aspects of Rudy’s character and his home life to a tee, it also magnified the significance of his tryouts and eventual entrance into the Notre Dame Football Field. It conveyed the feeling that his gameplay for the Fighting Irish was potentially bigger than himself, bigger than he could’ve imagined, that he fought his way to make it there, and that Rudy must take precious advantage of what was bestowed upon him for the game he was set to play.
And the final shots of Rudy’s entrance into the game? With his teammates, then the rest of the crowd, chanting Rudy’s name until Rudy went out into the field? And where he tackled one of the opposing team members to score Notre Dame their win, in which case, he was carried on his teammates’ shoulders as they celebrated their victory against Georgia Tech?
That was not made up. It happened in the film exactly as it did in real life.
This climactic scene may be the stuff that underdog stories are made of, but the idea that this still carried roots from real-life situations down to how it all played out added to why this scene was such a memorable event for football history and the film. It was so well done and so well-recreated. Rudy Ruettiger described it as the equivalent of reliving a video; he remembers every vivid second of his time tackling the incoming football player and how that helped score him and the Fighting Irish their victorious win. And to Sean Astin, the recreation of that moment felt like a legendary moment for no other reason than the sheer recognition he felt as he was carried off on the other actors’ shoulders, similar to how Rudy himself was carried off. If you have a scene so powerful that both the real-life and fictional Rudies feel its magnificence, then David Ansparugh did a marvelous job recreating it in service to Rudy’s story.
Also, if you look closely behind Ned Beatty during the big football match, you’ll notice the real-life Rudy Ruettiger sitting behind him. It’s always impressive to watch real-life figures participating in a cinematic retelling of their own life story in some shape or form. It may differ from how one views the movie version of their life story, but watching the real-life figure participate in it nonetheless always feels impressive.
Now, were there some elements in Rudy’s life that might’ve made for equally entertaining chapters in his life to address here in the movie? Well…yeah.
As he mentioned in his autobiography Rudy: My Story, Rudy said how the spark for his philosophical life views on persistence stemmed not from Joliet, not from the Notre Dame football games his father watched on TV; it didn’t even have to do with football. Instead, it started when he was on a school field trip with his teammates as they watched a Chicago White Sox baseball game. On their way home, the coach held a ball thrown his way by one of the players, and whoever reached the ball first after he threw it got to keep it. Then, Rudy lunged forth with all the speed he could’ve mustered and astonishingly secured the ball in his grip before everyone else. Because of this, he felt committed to sticking to his drive since that’s what can get people in life to accomplish anything.
Also, while the movie made it clear that Rudy had studied hard and practiced hard to build up the physical stamina necessary to be accepted into the University of Notre Dame, that wasn’t all he did to qualify for it. Between his job at the local steel mill factory and his eventual acceptance into the University of Notre Dame, he also enlisted in the Navy as a yeoman in 1968 due to the then-ongoing Vietnam War, not to mention since he yearned to travel the world.
Now, had these chapters been added to Rudy’s life as shown in the movie, I can see it adding more texture to it, but as the real-life Rudy eventually learned about showbiz, stories like his must be streamlined a little to work as a full-fledged movie. If Rudy won too many times in a film, like he did with the Navy and Notre Dame in life, it could easily have dampened the movie. Plus, because his main drive was to prove himself as a capable football player of the Fighting Irish, the movie’s main drive stuck to just that, and to Rudy and me, it makes sense.
Regarding films, Rudy also admitted that after helping the Fighting Irish win against Georgia Tech, he had seen two movies that moved him almost to tears: Rocky, with Sylvester Stallone, and the basketball drama Hoosiers. To him, both films, especially Rocky, embodied what he went through as he worked his way up to join Notre Dame and partake among the Fighting Irish. Luckily for him, Hoosiers writer Angelo Pizzo – despite his distaste for Notre Dame – and, of course, Hoosiers director David Ansparugh both expressed interest in the film that Rudy himself wanted to get off the ground and thus, their collaborations together on the project were born. Jerry Goldsmith also composed the music for Hoosiers. In other words, a solid portion of the crew of Hoosiers tagged along to help Rudy out with the cinematic retelling of his story, and that thrilled him.
Another hallmark of this movie that’s worth mentioning is that this is the second major film to have been filmed on the Notre Dame campus. The only other one to have accomplished that was the famous Knute Rockne: All American. For many years, Notre Dame was hesitant to allow any further films to be filmed on campus, thinking that Knute Rockne’s legacy, especially in film, was all the glamorous exposure of the campus they needed in mainstream media. However, that changed when the then-Executive Vice President of the University of Notre Dame, Father William Beauchamp, gave Rudy Ruettiger, Angelo Pizzo, and David Ansparugh permission to film Rudy on campus. He did so mainly because he agreed with the three of them that the campus served as a borderline character in the movie. The whole campus, the space, and the surrounding feelings were the true motivators for Rudy’s dream throughout the film.
Evidently, the legacy of Rudy continues to amaze those who see it, to the point where it inspired some unexpected turnouts. One announcement David Ansparugh made that surprised me is that this November, the 4K rendition of Rudy will come out with a new Director’s Cut, complete with 13 minutes of extra footage. Now that, I’m interested to look into. I’ve only known of Rudy as it came out in theaters back in 1993, and everything it had to tell about Rudy Ruettiger and how he got accepted into Notre Dame and participated with the Fighting Irish continues to amaze me. So, the idea of there being a Director’s Cut and how it could unveil so much more to the movie than I was already accustomed to after all these years is kind of exciting. I don’t know if it’ll uncover more personal details about Rudy, his family, or even his time at Notre Dame. But because of what the extra footage may reveal, I’m excited to see how well this cut will do and tell the story of Rudy Ruettiger. Would the extra scenes make the movie feel too bloated, or would they enrich it altogether? That’s a question I’ll have to hold onto until I see it, but I’m excited to see what more this version of the movie will have in store!
It may be a tad on a somewhat light side, but whatever mediocrities Rudy may have had were utterly overshadowed by the many other aspects that Rudy not only did well but did beyond well. The music is the stuff of dreams, the story does justice to Rudy’s journey, the directing displayed strength in its humbleness, the acting is marvelous, and the real-life origins of the famed Notre Dame athlete add weight to the film’s underdog themes. I’ve known and admired the movie in spades because of my father’s affiliation with Notre Dame. But having seen it, now I have nothing but the utmost respect for Rudy Ruettiger for all that he’s accomplished, especially for Notre Dame for everything it stands for, even if it was just out of my father’s connections with it.
What was potentially said about Rudy, the movie, might be clichéd but nonetheless true: it is an absolute touchdown.
The titular character’s history and the movie now make me wonder: what would’ve happened if my father had stuck around long enough to see Rudy in action? Or if Rudy had witnessed my father partaking in his cheerleading routines while he was still in college? I can only imagine, but the connections to such magnificent events of sports history are just that marvelous. When you have connections like this, never take it for granted. It may be more special than you know.
“The Making of Rudy.” Rudy: Special Notre Dame Collector’s Edition, VHS. May 25, 1994. 3400 Riverside Drive, Burbank, CA 91505-4627. Columbia TriStar Home Video.
Ruettiger, R., & Dagostino, M. (2015). Rudy: My Story. W Publishing Group.
Sun, V. (2000, July 14). “Rudy” still gives inspirational after his days at Notre Dame. Las Vegas Sun. https://lasvegassun.com/news/2000/jul/14/rudy-still-gives-inspirational-after-his-days-at-n/
Vergun, D. (2021, January 12). The Story of Notre Dame’s Legendary “Rudy” Ruettiger Began in Vietnam. Military.com. https://www.military.com/veteran-jobs/story-of-notre-dames-legendary-rudy-ruettiger-began-vietnam.html