EXCLUSIVE: Oscar winning actress Shirley MacLaine is negotiating to star in Men Of Granite. The project, based on the book of the same name, is the true story of how a group of poor, immigrant high school boys rose above bigotry in a small town in Illinois by proving themselves on the basketball court to become the 1940 state champions.
MacLaine would play the role of Sophia Prather, a schoolteacher who watches over her “boys of Lincoln Place” (the name of the poor area) with a steely eye, takes no guff and prods the boys into getting out of their broken-down neighborhood gymnasium and onto the high school court. By mentoring, encouraging and helping to pave the way for these downtrodden boys, she firmly believes that she is doing God’s work. Prather stands up for the boys against the bigotry of the time as most of them were Slavic and Eastern European. She was a true champion in making these kids rise above their circumstances.
In fact, in a town that was economically and racially divided, these boys had had to suffer the indignity of being called “dirty” because of the complexion of their skin and their obvious poverty. The Armenian boys were even dubbed “The Terrible Turks” before Sophia Prather set the coach and the media straight. (The Turks, as everyone knows but some fail to recognize, committed genocide against the Armenian people).
There is now a school named after Prather in Granite City, IL where the story is set. (Incidentally, Granite City is where I was born and raised.) The story of these kids who became basketball champions — one went onto play for the Boston Celtics — is well-known to the area.
William Hurt has also expressed interest in playing the high school coach suffering a string of losses and resigned that his team will never win a game … until this band of Armenian-speaking kids take to the court. Only then does his passion for the game reignites. There is no deal with Hurt and both his involvement and MacLaine’s is contingent upon financing. The project and its financing is currently being culled together by casting agent-turned-producer Valerie McCaffrey. Dwayne Johnson-Cochran is attached to direct. The screenwriter is Armand Kachigian, who is from Granite City.
Granite City, a steel town in Southern Illinois, is right across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. The surnames of the boys portrayed in the film — Markarian, Hagopian, Parsaghian, Eftimoff — are well-known names in the city. The story of the 1940s state champion basketball team began with a bunch of immigrant kids who played in socks, some so poor they didn’t own tennis shoes — all from hardworking families from Eastern Europe and Slavic countries who moved to the U.S. in hopes of a better life.
One of the basketball boys — a Hungarian kid born Andras Fulop — ended up playing 11 years in the NBA as Andy Phillip (most notably for the Boston Celtics). The other boys were Armenian, Yugoslavian and Macedonian. Not only did they elevate the game of basketball in the state, but they earned respect and changed the bigoted attitudes in the city.
Both MacLaine and Hurt are Oscar winners. MacLaine, whose body of work is very well known, won for her turn as the unforgettable Aurora Greenway in Terms Of Endearment and Hurt won for his portrayal in The Kiss Of The Spider Woman. They won their awards only one year apart.
The book on which the script was based was written by Dan Manoyan, a retired sportswriter from the Milwaukee Sentinel. The project was formerly known under the title The Boys Of Lincoln Place. MacLaine is repped by ICM Partners.