Starr quality: Former child actor Jeff Starr now lives and works in Anna, Ill.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013
Jeff Starr sits in the office of his Anna, Ill., car dealership Wednesday. Starr played Mike Engelbert in “The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training” and “The Bad News Bears Go To Japan” in the late 1970s. (Adam Vogler)

ANNA, Ill. -- Child stars are a curious bunch. Some, such as Jodie Foster or Kurt Russell, have been able to parlay their early successes into long-lasting careers. But others who had a youthful day in the sun aren't quite able to reattain the status they once had, and various magazines and tabloids frequently report on former child stars involved in some kind of trouble.

Jeff Starr never became a household name or ended up in the tabloids once his days as a child actor ended. Now a car salesman in his native Anna, Starr was in his early teens when he portrayed Mike Engelbert in "The Bad News Bears In Breaking Training" and "The Bad News Bears Go To Japan" in the late 1970s. He has no regrets about leaving Hollywood behind, particularly when his role in the "Bad News Bears" franchise lives on in the hearts of movie buffs and baseball fans alike.

"It sure was something different for a kid to be doing, especially one from Anna," said Starr, 49. "But I wouldn't change a thing. My family is more important to me than anything else."

In all probability, Starr would never have been involved with "The Bad News Bears" if not for the success of the original "Bears" movie. A big hit in the summer of 1976, it starred Walter Matthau as the boozy and irascible Coach Buttermaker in charge of a suburban Los Angeles Little League team full of no-talents and ne'er-do-wells. The movie also put Little League into a different light when it exhibited foul-mouthed players who challenged the authority of adults. Despite that -- or perhaps because of it -- a sequel was quickly put into the works.

Starr said that at the time, he had played some Little League and had even seen the first "Bad News Bears" movie. But, as just another child from Anna, he had no idea he would become part of the second "Bears" movie.

Jeff Starr shows a tattoo he got to cover up another tattoo of a Tasmanian devil Wednesday, Aug. 14, in the office of his Anna, Ill., car dealership. Starr played Mike Engelbert in "The Bad News Bears In Breaking Training" and "The Bad News Bears Go To Japan" in the late 1970s. (Adam Vogler)

"It was a man named Zeke Davidson who got things started," he said. "Zeke was from Anna and had acted in some Hollywood productions. He met a casting director named Shari Rhodes who told him that she was looking for a child to play a role in a 'Bad News Bears' sequel. Zeke told her to come to Anna and have a look around."

Rhodes did just that and set up auditions at the old Kentucky Fried Chicken in Anna in November 1976. But before auditions were held, she attended a Veterans Day parade and spotted Starr, then 13 and in seventh grade at Anna Junior High School.

"Shari told Zeke's wife Myra that I was who she was looking for," Starr said. "Myra told me to be sure to come to the audition."

It didn't take long for the extra-husky Starr to understand why he was more than just a face in the crowd to Rhodes. According to a casting ad, the production was seeking a boy "who hadn't seen his feet in a while."

"That's what it said, no kidding," Starr said. "I don't think they would use a description like that today, but I guess that's why I was what they were looking for."

The audition included more than 200 boys from as far away as Chicago. Starr said he did well, but for good measure Myra Davidson took him to the television department at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale to make an audition tape. The tape was eventually seen by the movie's director, Michael Pressman.

"The whole thing was a lucky break for me because the kid who played Engelbert in the original wasn't coming back," Starr said. "But Pressman offered me a contract to be the new Engelbert, and it was something that I really wanted to do. My mom and dad knew I wanted to do it, too, and before long I was leaving school and my mom took leave from her job. We were off to California."

The sequel was "The Bad News Bears In Breaking Training," which centered on the Bears traveling on their own from Los Angeles to Houston to play a game in the Astrodome. Most of the original cast would reprise their roles from the first movie, and Starr said whatever trepidation he had about being the "new kid" vanished once he met his co-stars.

A promotional image from Jeff Starr’s first movie appearance, “The Bad News Bears In Breaking Training.”

"The guys were great," he said. "They accepted me from the start, but I was teased a little about the accent I brought with me from Anna. I sure didn't sound like I was from California."

Not surprisingly, Starr said that he found Hollywood to be "a different world." It's not every day a kid from Southern Illinois is transported to Paramount Studios where he can meet Henry Winkler and the gang from "Happy Days" or even the actresses from "Charlie's Angels."

"Those gals were beautiful," Starr said. "But, believe me, Farrah Fawcett was the prettiest of them all."

When he wasn't meeting television stars, Starr was learning his lines and playing the part of Englebert in front of the camera. He also was chaperoned by his mother and was tutored for three hours a day so that he could keep up with his schoolwork. Then it was time for the production to move to the Astrodome for the Bears' big game against the hated Houston Toros.

"When we played in the Astrodome," Starr said, "there were maybe 400 people in the stands. But they moved them around for the cameras so that it looked like a lot of people were there. That's the way it was done before the computers that they have now. A lot of things were filmed after our game, like our names being on the scoreboard and dialogue in the stands. In the movie it looks like everything could have been filmed in the same day, but it wasn't."

After some postproduction work, Starr returned to Anna where he was glad he wasn't put on a pedestal.

"I was looked at differently," he said, "but I didn't lose any friends. I don't think being in the movie went to my head. I hope it didn't."

"The Bad News Bears In Breaking Training" opened in July 1977, and Starr, along with his co-stars, was pressed into promotional duties for the movie's release.

"I threw out the first pitch at a Chicago White Sox game," Starr said. "I went to places like Miami, New York City and Charleston, S.C., to promote the movie. I also signed autographs in Carbondale when 'Breaking Training' opened there. It was a heck of a schedule."

Starr was eventually able to resume his Anna routine and begin the eighth grade. But it wasn't long before he received a phone call about making another "Bears" picture.

"'Breaking Training' did well enough for us to do another movie," he said. "It was going to be 'The Bad News Bears Go To Japan.'"

Starr, with his mother at his side once again, joined most of his co-stars from the previous "Bears" movie for filming in Tokyo. Like Hollywood, Tokyo was a different world for Starr.

"The culture was something different," he said, "and so was the food. I'm the kind that if there's 10 fish bars and a McDonald's, I'm going to McDonald's. I don't eat bait."

Starr said he and the other Bears "had a ball" filming the movie, which entailed them playing a Japanese Little League team in order to defend America's honor. Along the way, the team gang-wrestled Japanese wrestling star Antonio Inoki and also managed to survive a Japanese game show. According to Starr, Tony Curtis, who portrayed Marvin Lazar, the slick promoter and coach of the Bears, was fun to be around.

Once filming wrapped, Starr returned to Anna and his classmates at school. "The Bad News Bears Go To Japan" was released in 1978, and that same year he appeared in an episode of a short-lived TV series, "Grandpa Goes to Washington." But Starr said at that point, he preferred to stay in Anna rather than hustle for the next movie or TV role.

"To continue my career would've meant moving out to Los Angeles, away from my family and friends," he said. "God evidently had a different plan for me."

Starr said he quit school during his junior year at Anna-Jonesboro High School to marry Linda, his wife of 32 years.

"I wasn't worried about Hollywood then," Starr said. "I was worried about making a living. But I did get my GED."

The marriage produced two sons, Brandon and Jacob. Brandon Starr, 31, said he thought his father was funny in his "Bad News Bears" appearances.

"People around town still talk about it," Brandon Starr said. "It's something that I've obviously grown up with."

Starr is also "a heck of a guy and a heck of a father," according to Brandon Starr.

"He's more than just a dad; he's a good friend. Even now I can talk to him about anything."

Starr, who became a car salesman after leaving high school, now owns and operates Star Auto in Anna. He also is proud of becoming a born-again Christian in 2005.

"It was awesome," he said. "My wife Linda and I both did it. I'm also a deacon at Mill Creek Baptist Church."

Starr said he keeps in touch with some of his "Bears" co-stars, such as Erin Blunt, who portrayed Ahmad Abdul-Rahim, and David Stambaugh, who played the role of Toby Whitewood. He also gets the occasional residual check for his work in the movies.

"The last one I got was for $19," Starr said with a smile. "But like my grandma used to say, it was more money than I had when I woke up that morning."

klewis@semissourian.com

388-3635

Pertinent address:

Anna, IL

Map of pertinent addresses

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