Truth, they say, is stranger than fiction. And sometimes it’s more inspiring as well. Vince Papale was a regular 30-year old Philadelphia bartender and Eagles fan who answered his desperate team’s open try-outs in 1976. No one thought that Papale would ever make the team, but he stuck with it and did, becoming the oldest rookie in NFL history. Vince played for the Eagles for three years, being voted “Man of the Year” by the team in 1978, before a shoulder injury ended his career in 1979.
Invincible, starring Mark Wahlberg, follows Vince from his days as a bartender to his first season with the Eagles, and it was recently released on DVD. Usually you have to wait until you’re dead to have a movie made about you, so when the opportunity to interview Vince and find out how his take on the inherent differences between life and dramatic film, I jumped at it. Vince is a funny and personable guy who seems to be really enjoying his second turn in the spotlight.
Invincible is available on DVD now. Click here to buy it from CHUD and imagine that even you could play in the Super Bowl next month.
It’s got to be pretty weird having a movie made about you. How involved were you in the process? Were you on set?
I was on set all the time. I was on set and I think it was driving the producers crazy! Sometimes I wouldn’t go on set because I was afraid I was driving the director nuts. Every once in a while my kid would get in the shot. Mark Wahlberg always wanted my son to be by his hip. Like for example that one scene where Mark is on the phone to Elizabeth, right next to him, right out of camera range, was my son. He was like his good luck piece, and every once in a while Vinny would get in the shot. I would always feel that I was getting Ericson Core’s way. But then on the days I didn’t show up, trying to stay out of people’s ways, I got calls from the producers: ‘How come you’re not here? We need you on the set, we need your energy!’ Which I thought was really cool.
So I was always there, and I had a lot of say in things that went on in the movie from the script element to where the movie was being shot to all the football action, which I helped choreograph.
This is your story, but there was another movie that seems like it was inspired by your story, a Tony Danza movie.
You know, I’ve heard about that. I haven’t seen that movie, so I guess I have to check it out. But actually there was a kicker in Philadelphia who worked for Smokey Joe’s, and I think they were probably more inspired by his life. He went on and had a pretty good career with the Atlanta Falcons. But yeah, I heard that Tony Danza thing paralleled my life, and if it does, I’m honored.
Invincible does take some liberties with the actual events. How important was it for you that certain things be correct, and how willing were you to let certain things be changed for drama?
That’s a great question. It was very important to me that the essence of the story and the journey I went through were captured. We understood right from the beginning that this wasn’t going to be a documentary, and it wasn’t going to be a biopic. We had to change the names of some of the characters. And once I understood that and once I understood the correct formula for a successful screenplay in Hollywood would be, then I understood it.
There were certain things I wouldn’t accept within the movie. Number one I wouldn’t accept the fact that the original script – which was purchased by Disney, by the way – did not contain my father. My father was such an integral part of everything I had done. And I took the director, when they were scouting, and said, there’s one place you didn’t scout. You didn’t scout Max’s [the bar where he worked]. You’ve seen pictures of it, and you’ve never seen where I grew up. I never saw the project where I grew up, and if you see the project, you’ll get the essence of me. So I took the director – just he and I – down to the project where I grew up, and I showed him where my dad and I would shoot rats from our back window and where we played as kids. Then I took him to Max’s, and everybody said, ‘Hey, Vin’s in the house!’ I didn’t tell my friends that Ericson was the director of the movie, and they started telling stories about my dad. Next thing you know, he hired Mike Rich and he finished up the script and wrote my dad into it.
That was the only one thing I objected to about the script and we finally got my dad in and I was happy. They wrote him in beautifully, exactly as he should have been. There was some conflict with he and I early on because my mom was so sick and he wasn’t very communicative, which you see in that movie. But in the end he was right with me the whole time.
So I assume you’re happy with how Philly gets portrayed. I think Philly is a city that gets a bum rap a lot.
Sure. I think Philly is portrayed beautifully. The fans here, yeah they’ll boo, and yeah they’ll get on a Giants fan walking through the stands, but I think they captured the essence of the fans. And oh my God, the cinematography by Ericson Core, and the way the movie was shot, and the way the city was shot. It was so cool to walk into neighborhoods and see the neighborhoods all lit up.
Here’s how cool the people of Philadelphia are – yesterday I was in the heart of South Philly, signing autographs for our DVD, and all these people, everybody came up saying, ‘They shot the movie down by us.’ Everybody came out from the neighborhoods where we shot scenes and everybody talked about how excited and proud they were to see their street. To me that’s the ultimate, to get it from the people who live on the streets.
And Philadelphia’s got such magnificent architecture. There are things that just can’t be duplicated, and for us to try and take it up to New York and make that movie it would never have worked. But it worked there, and it had the Philadelphia flavor behind it.
When you watch the movie and you see Mark Wahlberg’s performance, do you see that he’s playing you or is he playing a character that isn’t you?
That’s a great question too. I see him playing a composite of both, because there’s a lot of Mark Wahlberg in me and there’s a lot of me in Mark Wahlberg. Mark spent a lot of time with me. He knows me, he knows how sensitive I am, he knows how caring and giving I am, and he knows what a family man I am. I think that perception of me, by process of osmosis, got into him. But he didn’t have to act anything, because that’s how he is – he’s sensitive, he’s caring, he’s a great athlete. I was a great athlete – I’m not going to say I was a good athlete, I was a great athlete. My God, I qualified at the Olympic trials for the decathlon. That was not written into the script. But he was all that, and we’re so much alike that I don’t think he had to do much acting – he had to be himself with a bit of a Philadelphia accent.
Has this experience turned you on to the movie world? Is there the possibility that you might want to head out West and do more movies?
[laughs] My wife wants to take my kids out there for six months and let them be discovered! As for me, I’m content with what I’m doing. I love living out here in suburban New Jersey. I’m very content with my life, working for Sallie Mae and talking to kids about education. I travel all over the country now, and soon all over the world, as a motivational speakers. I have no illusions about starting a new career.
But what a sequel! At thirty you were the oldest rookie in the NFL and at 60 you’re the oldest newcomer in Hollywood!
[laughs] I don’t think there’s going to be an Invincible 2, although the movie’s set up for one. Who knows, maybe the demand will be so intense that they’ll do another one and take it to the next year, where I was validated and made captain of the team by the guys who were trying to take my head off in training camp.