There's this little kid, see, and he's crazy about Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. He and his father—his mother is dead—live on this boat in Florida. But they used to live in New York, and so one day in the Little League the kid boasts that he knows Mantle and Maris, and he says that he'll get them to come to the Little League banquet they're about to have. Now he's in the soup, because he's lying, see? He really doesn't know Mantle and Maris at all. So the kid runs away and goes down to the New York Yankees' spring training camp in Fort Lauderdale and he manages to meet Mantle and Maris and he explains what happened and he asks them to get him off the hook. But they tell him, no, they won't come to the banquet because he has told a lie. So then the kid goes back home and bravely admits that he lied, and then Roger and Mickey invite the whole damn Little League down to Lauderdale to watch spring training and everything comes out O.K. Oh, it ought to make a hell of a picture, a real grabber.
Safe at Home!, starring Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, is a Naud-Hamilburg production (their first), a Columbia Pictures Corp. release (their 1,706th), a classic B picture; it was designed for cheap, quick filming, an April release date and a fast buck. It is not quite the same sort of thing as Twist Around the Clock, which is known in the trade as Son of Rock Around the Clock. It is in a grander tradition, in the hereditary line of epics like Babe Ruth in The Babe Comes Home, Lou Gehrig in Rawhide, Jack Dempsey in
Manhattan Madness. True, the plot has a familiar ring: kid gets in trouble, kid runs away, kid is befriended by gruff but kindly hero who solves his problem, kid ends up smiling with happiness as his father holds hands with Johanna. (Johanna? You don't know about Johanna? Why, she's the subplot: handsome widower father vs. pretty girl owner of the boat next door. "That boy needs a mother. What's the matter with Ken Lawton? Why doesn't he marry Johanna?" Law-ton (smiling): "I guess I've sailed with one mate so long I find it hard to get used to the idea of a new one.")
Still, it is different. There are two gruff but kindly heroes instead of one—three, if you count William Frawley, who plays a Yankee coach—and the trouble the boy gets into is in the contemporary, downbeat mode—it's all in his mind.
Essentially, the movie is like all movies starring nonacting celebrities: it's a guest appearance, designed to draw the crowds while the celebrity is still of red-hot interest to the public. Tom Naud, the dark-visaged, good-looking, 35-year-old producer of the film, says the idea came to him last summer. "Every headline you saw said M & M," he said in Fort Lauderdale a few weeks ago during the filming of the picture. "You couldn't buy that kind of publicity for a million dollars." Naud, a television man (in the past an associate producer of the Dave Garroway and Steve Allen shows, among others), had presented NBC's Salute to Baseball in 1957, which may have helped light the Maris-Mantle movie idea in his mind. He called Frank Scott, the ballplayers' agent, and sounded him out about a movie. Even now, Naud smiles in bemused amazement because no one else had suggested the idea to Scott. "It seemed so obvious," he says.
Scott was interested. Naud then talked to Mitch Hamilburg, a burly, bespectacled man who runs a talent agency in Hollywood and who has had considerable experience dealing with people in the movie business. Naud and Hamilburg joined forces—Naud as the idea man, Hamilburg as the business-detail half of the partnership—and Columbia Pictures agreed to finance the film. Naud worked up an outline of the story they proposed. Scott didn't like it. "'It had the boys cast as deaf and dumb brothers," he said indignantly in Fort Lauderdale. "I turned that one down right away. I think the movie people were afraid the boys were too stupid to learn lines. You know—that they'd be safer if they had nothing to say. You've seen them before the cameras here. They're not so bad. They're pretty good. I couldn't afford to have them in something that made them look like dopes." Naud tried again. "This one was better," Scott said, "because the boys played themselves." (Mickey: What's your name, son? Hutch (slowly): Hutch. Roger: Well, Hutch, what are you doing here?) "So we were interested, and then they came up with a finished script and we liked it.
"It wasn't so much a sport story as it was a kid story. Sport movies never do very well, as a rule, but this one was different. Mickey and Roger hadn't been too enthusiastic about doing a movie, but they liked it, too, and the Yankees gave their O.K. That was back in November, and we worked out a deal."
It was quite a deal. Scott, who doesn't let excessive modesty interfere with business, says that while he isn't positive he's pretty sure it's the biggest money deal any ballplayer, and maybe anybody in sport, has ever made. "At first they just wanted to give us a guarantee," he said. "But while I always insist on a guarantee I want a percentage, too, in case a thing goes over big. In clothing tie-ups, anything. We asked a guarantee of $25,000 each, against 25%—or 12�% each—of the net profits. I figured that Naud and Hamilburg would be getting 50% of the net from Columbia, and I thought the boys should get half of that. [ Columbia actually retains only 40% of the net.] I talked to the vice-president of another movie company, a close personal friend of mine, and I told him what I was asking for. I said did he think it was a good deal. He said if you can get it, it's a hell of a deal."
No one knows now what the net profits will be, of course. Tom Naud, watching his two stalwarts acting before the camera in Florida, shook his head, chuckling, and said, "All I know is, these two guys can make a fabulous amount of money out of this. A lot more than they're making from baseball this year." At worst, they will have to bite their lips and fight back their tears and be content with a lousy 25 grand each.
Roger has made so far about $120,000 from last summer's big home-run splurge, Mickey about half that. But if Safe at Home! were to do a $2 million gross the movie alone could bring them each about $125,000—more, indeed, than either is making from baseball this year. Or any other year. "Our next picture is going to be a western," said Mickey, grinning at the ease of it all.
Of course it wasn't that easy. Nobody works harder than movie people, despite the hallowed myth that they lead lives of hedonistic luxury and comfort. Every morning during the 10 days of shooting in Fort Lauderdale the movie troupe was up at 6, out of the motel at 7 and on location well before 8, and so were Mantle and Maris on the days they were needed. Much of the film has an outdoor locale—a boat, a dock, a Little League field, the Yankees' training site—and so shooting went on all day long each day, with a half-hour break for lunch, until sundown. And then, on several occasions, they went on working far into the evening, doing the various night sequences.