Aaron documentary to be celebrated

Aaron documentary to be celebrated

Aaron documentary to be celebrated
Producer, writer and director Michael Tollin has been involved in notable movies like "Radio," "Coach Carter" and "Varsity Blues," and he has served as executive producer to famous shows such as "One Tree Hill," "Smallville" and several of ESPN's recent "30 for 30" documentaries.

But he'll say, honest-to-goodness, that a less-acclaimed Hank Aaron documentary that came out more than 15 years ago is among the two projects of which he's most proud.

The reason is threefold: Tollin is a huge baseball fan -- particularly of his hometown Philadelphia Phillies -- the documentary helped kick-start his career as a filmmaker, and the movie led to a much greater cause.

Released in 1995, "Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream" won a Peabody and Crystal Heart Award, and it was nominated for an Emmy (for Outstanding Informational Special) and Oscar (Best Documentary). Most important to its director and writer, though, it was the inspiration behind a charity Aaron is still involved in -- the Chasing the Dream Foundation -- which is crucial to helping underprivileged kids get an education.

"When you evaluate the success of a project, it's not necessarily the critical response, box office, or ratings that you're worried about," said Tollin, who started Tollin/Robbins Productions along with Brian Robbins. "There's another criteria, in terms of what impact it'll have on the world."

Tollin's piece will be relived as part of the Civil Rights Game festivities in Atlanta this year. On the night of May 12 -- three days before the fifth Civil Rights Game between the Phillies and Braves at Turner Field -- Aaron will be honored with a red-carpet ceremony at Fox Theatre. Then, a screening will be held for the documentary on his life, followed by a post-viewing conversation with Tollin, Aaron and executive producer Debra Martin-Chase.

"I'm thrilled to be doing this event," Tollin said. "I think about this documentary, and all the other things I've done professionally, and this project is definitely No. 1 or No. 2."

Tollin is a former Major League Baseball employee who helped write "The Baseball Bunch," a nationally syndicated show that ran from 1982-85 and was hosted by Johnny Bench.

Tollin got the idea for an Aaron documentary on the 20-year anniversary of the Hall of Famer's record-breaking 715th home run in 1994 -- when he realized very few had captured the essence of the man.

"I thought, 'This is one of the most hallowed records in American sports history, being broken by a guy shrouded in mystery,'" Tollin said. "And I thought that if we could ever tell that story, it would be monumental."

Tollin used his contacts at MLB to set up a meet-and-greet with Aaron and his attorneys. Soon, he and his crew were answering tough questions about the potential project, and what he hoped to accomplish with it.

"That's all a filmmaker can hope for, is the opportunity," he said. "And I think Henry wasn't just interested in doing a film on baseball. He wanted something that would focus on social history, and the Civil Rights Movement, and the role he and his African-American colleagues in baseball played in that process. We were going to take a broader, sociological perspective."

Tollin soon learned the interview process was the least grueling part. Aaron, he recalled, was surprisingly easy to work with. He was approachable, always calm and very eager to help. So were several others.

Any time Tollin mentioned the name Hank Aaron, some of the biggest names fell all over themselves to get involved.

Tollin secured three-dozen interviews during that year's Hall of Fame weekend alone. Reggie Jackson literally stopped a round of golf on the back nine to jump in a golf cart and answer questions. And despite having just returned from a mission trip to Haiti, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter eagerly made time for the crew.

With the film, Tollin wanted to break away from the traditional documentary.

He had Academy Award winner Denzel Washington serve as one of the executive producers, and hired other professional actors to play out key moments in Aaron's life. For the voiceover, Tollin recorded hours and hours of interviews with Aaron, then hired an actor to narrate.

Tollin described his approach as "not playing loose with the truth, just visually enhancing the story." For that, the film caught some flak from critics.

But the most important opinion was a positive one.

"I loved it," Aaron said. "It told basically the truth about what had happened. I know a lot of people say it was fictitious in some ways, you know, in some of the things I had to do [growing up] ... but all that's true. You had to make due with what you had back then."

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and 'The Show', and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.