"The New Jersey Turnpikes," the ABA Mockumentary Universal Studios Buried Forever
How did a major studio basketball comedy starring Kelsey Grammer and a young Jason Segel disappear completely? Studio politics is some of it. The rest is just weird.
Illustration by J.O. Applegate
"I've often wondered, what the hell happened to that film. I mean, in this day and age everything gets released. Everything. I've never worked on a film in all of my years that has not been released. Universal spent a chunk of dough and to just walk away from it and not even put it out on DVD or, whatever, seems strange. I guess it just became a bit of a sacrificial lamb. It just amazes me that you can't access the film. At all." — Alan Goluboff, First Assistant Director on New Jersey Turnpikes
Maybe you've heard of a movie called New Jersey Turnpikes. Probably you haven't. Whatever the case, you definitely haven't seen it. A mockumentary in the vein of This is Spinal Tap set in the ABA, New Jersey Turnpikes has been rotting in the vaults of Universal Studios for nearly twenty years. The question is why. Why doesn't a major studio film starring the likes of Kelsey Grammer, Orlando Jones, and a young Jason Segel exist in any media format?
Of course there are rumors. Go on IMDb and you'll find a user claiming that New Jersey Turnpikes wasn't released because, "Grammar (sic) didn't like the movie after it was completed and bought the rights to it and destroyed it." This didn't happen, as it turns out, but as with everything else about this film, the truth is hard to know. Not many of the film's participants were willing to talk about it; the receptionist at Hungry Man Productions, the production company founded by Turnpikes director Bryan Buckley, revealed, with some hesitation, that "[Buckley] won't talk about that."
As it turns out, the truth about New Jersey Turnpikes isn't much stranger than the story about Grammer destroying the negative while mumbling about tossed salad and scrambled eggs. It does, however, reaffirm Orlando Jones' observation that, "Hollywood is an interesting eco-system."
Published way back in 1990, Terry Pluto's Loose Balls would be delightfully gonzo satire if it wasn't true. An oral history on the brief rise and long fall of the ABA, Pluto's book was overstuffed with ridiculous moments. From a halftime show revolving around cow-milking to player Marvin "Bad News" Barnes showing up to games five minutes before tip-off in a floor length mink coat with a sack full of hamburgers, Loose Balls had the feel of Slap Shot crossed with the casual absurdity of Zucker, Abrahams, Zucker in their prime. In short, Loose Balls was ideal fodder for a hit film comedy. If things had gone a little more smoothly for director Bryan Buckley, it might even have been one.
Freely adapted from Pluto's book by screenwriters Hank Perlman and Michael Berg, New Jersey Turnpikes was about the dying days of the ABA and how the league's collapse affected the losingest team in the association's short-lived history. Knowing that the New Jersey Turnpikes won't be merged into the NBA on the basis of athletic merit, the team's owner—played by the veteran character actor Mike Starr, who describes his character as a "cross between P.T. Barnum and a struggling Al Davis"—cuts a deal with the ABA commissioner. As part of that deal, one of the four ABA teams absorbed into the NBA will be taken on the basis of their attendance. This leads to Starr goosing turnout at Turnpikes games by devising several ridiculous promotional stunts.
Sound familiar? It should. Especially if you've seen the Will Ferrell comedy Semi-Pro.
"They took New Jersey Turnpikes and cast Will Ferrell in a role that was a cross between my character and Mike Starr's," said Orlando Jones, who played Kool Williams, the film's analog to Marvin Barnes. Jones wasn't the only cast member to notice the uncanny resemblance between the two films. "I saw Semi-Pro and I was like, man, this is exactly like The New Jersey Turnpikes," remembers cast member Marcus Brown. "I felt bad for Bryan, Hank and Hal because it was their idea."
"I wouldn't trash Will Ferrell, I think he's brilliant," Starr said. "But this was a lot like that Will Ferrell movie." He's not wrong. In addition to their eerily similar plots, New Jersey Turnpikes and Semi-Pro share nearly identical gags, a back-handed affinity for the 1970s, and even a pivotal moment in which the team owner has a comic meltdown during a board meeting. Weirder still, both comedies feature former Mad TV cast member Pat Kilbane in small supporting roles (Semi-Pro screenwriter Scott Armstrong could not be reached for comment).
To be fair, Semi-Pro does not have a scene where the team mascot, a giant rat, is tied down, exorcised by a priest, and eventually decapitated as a part of a specially themed Exorcist Night. At no point, does Ferrell's character initiate a campaign to turn the Statue of Liberty around so that New Jersey residents no longer have to "look at her big green ass." Woody Harrelson isn't beaten to a pulp by Lee Majors as he auditions to play a pimp named Big Red Rooster for an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man. New Jersey Turnpikes features all of those scenes. There are simply some weird, scummy elements that Semi-Pro either couldn't or wouldn't capture.
Although New Jersey Turnpikes would face a number of insurmountable problems during post-production, many cast and crew members described the actual filming as "fun" or "mind-blowing." A crucial exception to this sentiment was Grammer. Alan Goluboff, the film's first assistant director, described Grammer as "going through some personal stuff at the time."
"He was a fun guy," Goluboff said. "But a lot of people that come up here [Canada] to do these pictures sometimes feel like they're being sent to the minors. Kelsey, I think, was faltering at the time but since then, it has changed dramatically. But back then, I don't think he was happy being here." (Grammer's production company didn't respond to a request for comment.)
Cast members described filming as an atmosphere more akin to a fantasy camp, albeit one in which the participants were paid to attend. Most of the cast spent five weeks in Toronto during pre-production to learn how to play basketball from a former Olympic coach. "We lowered the hoops a bit so they could get their dunk on," said producer Hal Lieberman.
Even the audition process managed to carry a sense of low-stakes playfulness, "The producers [Lieberman and Paul Neesan] decided that, because they were such big basketball enthusiasts, I had to meet them down at the Y in Hollywood because they needed to see me play basketball before I had the role" Jones said. "I think I got the role because I shot a 360 bank shot off the break and one of the producers goes, 'Yeah, we're good! He's fine!'"
Once shooting began, Turnpikes cast and crew often spent their nights having drinks or going out to dinner with such visiting sports luminaries as Dr. J, Dick Schaap, Jerry Tarkanian and—a few years before he saw his life go off the rails—then-New Jersey Nets star Jayson Williams. All make cameo appearances in the movie, as does Roy Jones Jr., who appears briefly as a basketball player. "There's a scene where he ends up getting into a fight," said Jones. "The dude was supposed to hit him but Roy goes, 'look, I'm a boxer. This isn't possible. I knock him out, he don't knock me out.'"
New Jersey Turnpikes wasn't just a string of retired sports figures winking as hard as they could at the camera, although there is plenty of that. Further down in the cast is a name that, at the time, was still basically unknown. The same year Judd Apatow cast him in Freaks and Geeks, Jason Segel played a small co-starring role in New Jersey Turnpikes. His fellow cast members remember that Segel seemed destined for bigger things. "[Segel's] character was a Mormon who had never been around black people," Brown said. "He improvised this bit about whenever he looks at a bottle of Aunt Jemima, he thinks about what we went through as a people. It took everything we had not to laugh. It was funny."
While the cast and crew of Turnpikes were having the time of their lives in Canada, things turned upside down at the studio. A regime change at Universal Studios in the middle of 1998, right around the time that Turnpikes was wrapping principal photography, signaled the beginning of the end for the film. The studio executives that greenlit the project were fired and replaced by a new regime that set out to make their own mark in what seems a remarkably petty, ill-considered way, even by prevailing Hollywood standards.
Lieberman, the former head of production at Universal Studios, produced New Jersey Turnpikes as a part of a production deal he had with the previous studio heads. It was his first film as a producer, and he sensed that it might also be his last. Suspecting that his new bosses wouldn't be doing him any favors, Lieberman attempted to sell the comedy off to one of two interested distributors: MGM and Tri-Star.
Unfortunately, shortly before this, Universal had basically given away one of the most talked about movies of 1998. "The new regime sold Shakespeare in Love to Miramax because they thought it was a dog," recalls Jones. "Miramax believed that if marketed properly, it could be an Oscar film." As it turns out, Miramax was right. After spending at least $5 million dollars on an elaborate Oscar campaign, Shakespeare in Love was nominated for 13 Academy Awards and won seven, including Best Picture. After that, Universal refused to sell the rights to New Jersey Turnpikes to any distributor because as Jones says, "nobody wants to be embarrassed if it turned out to be a success."
But even though Universal executives weren't exactly in love with New Jersey Turnpikes, they were still, at that time, willing to release the movie. A mock-up of a one-sheet depicting Jones in his oversized Kool Williams afro exists online. Test screenings were held, although they weren't entirely successful. As Lieberman said, "We screened the movie for an audience and it did extremely poorly. It scored an 11. In fairness, mockumentaries really don't score that well, but they usually don't score an 11. Our director did some really great work on it, but it just didn't congeal. The studio looked at it and said they wanted a small reshoot. Bryan did not participate on the reshoot. When we reshot some of the film, added in some new pieces and re-edited it again, unfortunately without Bryan, we scored a 73. Our backs were against the wall. We wanted Bryan but he didn't want to come back. He sort-of said bye-bye to the movie."
New Jersey Turnpikes was Buckley's first feature film as a director. A well-known and respected figure within the world of advertising, Buckley, along with Turnpikes' co-screenwriter Perlman, created the iconic, verite-inspired This is SportsCenter promos for ESPN. Those goofily deadpan promos were a dry run for what would become New Jersey Turnpikes, and certainly seemed to suggest a good fit between director and subject. It didn't work out. Accustomed to advertising's creative freedom, Buckley chafed against the constraints of the studio system.
Annoyed that Universal had reshot and, in his eyes, butchered his film, Buckley gathered together his closest friends to screen his cut of New Jersey Turnpikes at the Tribeca Film Center in New York City. It was a screening that many in the cast and crew knew nothing about. This proved to be a terrible decision. "They had one cut, Buckley had another cut," Jones said. "Buckley wasn't about to have them fuck with his cut. Buckley screened it, Keith Olbermann saw it—I think Buckley and Olbermann knew each other from ESPN."
According to Variety, "Olbermann of MSNBC reported seeing the film and essentially gave it a review. While his comments were positive, it came as a surprise to the studio brass ... A studio spokesman said such things sometimes happen and that it didn't seem a big deal ... but having a film reviewed before it even has a release date was considered a problem of some merit." It should be noted that Olbermann wasn't the only person from the Tribeca screening to publicly review Buckley's cut of Turnpikes. A pseudonymous author known as Trent Walker wrote about the film, in grating Swingers-speak, for Ain't it Cool News way back in late October of 1998.
It was Olbermann's review that mattered, though, and which set fire to the tenuous bridge between the troubled project and the studio. "Olbermann wrote a review of what he thought of the film but Universal hadn't approved the cut yet," Jones said. "So that ended that relationship because now everybody was at war with everybody. They already weren't particularly keen on dumping 25 to 30 million dollars in marketing on the film. You've got a director who tells the new regime he's not going to take their notes and you let the press see a cut? The official response from the studio was 'aaaand, goodbye. You won't be working for this studio again any time soon.' And I don't think he did."
The public attention was New Jersey Turnpikes' downfall. As Jones said, "It couldn't be sold to another studio because of the Shakespeare in Love debacle and it couldn't be released under the new regime because it wasn't their movie and they didn't care about it. And from their perspective, y'know, who the fuck cares about the people in this movie? Kelsey Grammer has never been a box office movie star and at the time he was the biggest name in the film and they basically said, 'eh, write it off.' And that was the end of The New Jersey Turnpikes."
What happened to the film after that is hazy. Buckley's filmmaking career was far from over. The Bronze, a pitch black sports comedy starring Melissa Rauch as a washed-up but still egotistical gymnast, will be released to select theaters in March. But New Jersey Turnpikes appears to have no such release forthcoming.
Goluboff said that Buckley was "litigating against Universal" but not much seems to have come from that; Lieberman told me "I don't think he did anything because he didn't have a leg to stand on. He made a decision not to participate." Logic would dictate that Turnpikes' release was held back by rights issues, but Jones has another theory: "Rights issues? That was so many regimes ago I would argue that the present regime has no fucking clue what New Jersey Turnpikes is. Nobody cares one way or another." This apathy and general ignorance seems to suggest why Universal didn't attempt to capitalize on the moderate success of Semi-Pro back in 2008. Nobody there seemed to realize they had already made a Semi-Pro ten years prior. In fact, that's still the case today. When I asked representatives at Universal Studios regarding the future of New Jersey Turnpikes, I kept getting redirected to the man who worked in the digital archives.
Like everyone else at the studio, he had no idea what I was talking about.
Unlike other unreleased movies such as Jerry Lewis's The Day the Clown Cried or Orson Welles' The Other Side of the Wind, New Jersey Turnpikes isn't being held back because of unclear ownership issues or an uncooperative auteur. It isn't being held back at all, exactly. Everybody just seems to have forgotten it exists. It's a sad fate for a movie that would at least qualify as a bizarre oddity. At the very least, it's the only basketball movie to include a scene in which Starr takes a cube steak out of his pants during an ABA owner's meeting and slams it against the board room table for no particular reason. When I asked Lieberman how it would feel if New Jersey Turnpikes suddenly appeared on Netflix tomorrow he said, "It would be cool." After a pause he added, "And weird."