How an Olympic high jumper became Clemente in indie film
The two Jamie Nietos: clearing the bar during the men's special high jump at the Drake Relays Meet in April and portaying Pirates' Roberto Clemente.
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LONDON --Jamie Nieto was out of the country, doing what he'd been doing for most of the last two decades: Sprinting toward a horizontal bar set about 7 feet in the air, briefly slowing down to a trot and attempting to hurl himself over the pole.
Richard Rossi was in Los Angeles, despondent because he had written a script about his childhood hero, Roberto Clemente, but could not find the right man to put on that black, gold and white Pittsburgh Pirates uniform and play Clemente.
Mr. Rossi had interviewed hundreds of actors, looking for the total package: The man needed to look like Clemente; he needed to have a mix of African and Latino heritage like Clemente; and he had to be an athlete capable of being believable as a baseball great.
"I'd find someone who looked like him and had those aspects, but they wouldn't be a good athlete," said Mr. Rossi, a 49-year-old who grew up in Pittsburgh's North Hills. "I'd play catch with them, have them swing the bat. I didn't think we'd find all of those components."
The year was 2010, and Mr. Nieto and Mr. Rossi did not know each other, how thousands of miles away an answered prayer awaited them.
Mr. Nieto, who finished fourth in the 2004 Athens Olympics in the high jump, had started taking acting classes in 2008 after the disappointment of not qualifying for the Beijing Games. He'd found a couple of roles in feature films, but never a leading one. As he trained to make the London Games, he still was trying to keep an eye on his future, which he hoped would be as an actor.
Mr. Nieto was in Europe when a woman messaged him on Facebook and told him a Clemente movie was being made and he should send in his resume and headshot. Who was Mr. Nieto to argue with the lady?
Mr. Rossi received Mr. Nieto's material and thought he was worth a shot. Mr. Nieto (pronounced Nee-eh-tow) boarded a plane for L.A. and just barely made it during the last day of auditions. He had to prep quickly, scouring the Internet for as much information as he could find on Clemente, who died tragically nearly 40 years ago in a plane crash en route to help earthquake victims in Nicaragua.
"He read the monologue I wrote," Mr. Rossi said, "about how Clemente felt he was more than an athlete, supposed to lay down his life for others, that if you don't make a difference, you've wasted your time on Earth. And Jamie hit it out of the park. We were all misty-eyed. He had the accent. He had the bearing. I said, 'Oh my God, I hope this guy has athleticism.' "
A simple Google search of Mr. Nieto would have revealed that he was a professional high jumper and former national champion. But when Mr. Rossi took Mr. Nieto to play catch and hit a few balls, he still had no idea Mr. Nieto was a world-class athlete.
"I'm so lucky," Mr. Rossi said.
Two years later, Mr. Rossi has an independent feature film called "Baseball's Last Hero: The Roberto Clemente Story" in his hands. As it stands, it is about six hours long and needs to be edited by at least two-thirds.
And Mr. Nieto is back at the Olympics for a second time, ready to compete in Sunday's high jump preliminary round, knowing that he has plenty to look forward to after he makes what will likely be the last jump of his career in the coming days.
In 2004, Mr. Nieto emerged as an unlikely star. Having not started high jumping until his junior year of high school in Sacramento, Calif., he had no Division I scholarship offers. He went to Sacramento City Community College, where he improved enough to earn a scholarship to jump at Eastern Michigan.
At 35, Mr. Nieto is the oldest American high jumper to compete in the Olympics for Team USA. That he qualified for London while filming "Baseball's Last Hero" during most of 2011 adds even more excitement.
Plus, he became pretty confident in the batting cage along the way.
"The first week I went, I was scared to go in the 70 mile-per-hour one," Mr. Nieto said. "Elite athletes, we can pick up things pretty fast. I can probably hit a 90 mile-per-hour fastball right now."
While Mr. Nieto will go for his first Olympic medal here in London, he can feel comforted knowing that he helped Mr. Rossi accomplish his dream.
Mr. Rossi was 9 years old when Clemente died. He remembers crying with his classmates when the news came Dec. 31, 1972.
"I used to watch him and sit in the bleachers there in right field," Mr. Rossi said. "Like all the other boys, I wanted to wear number 21."
As a boy, Mr. Rossi began writing stories about Clemente to keep him alive. Once he became a director, he decided he'd have to make the first Clemente feature film. He had big visions of a studio taking it on, but that hadn't happened when Mr. Rossi had a heart attack a few years ago. After recovering, Mr. Rossi felt he owed it to himself to start work on the film independently.
"I've been literally working on his story for about 40 years," Mr. Rossi said. "It's been a story that I've carried in my heart and mind for a really long time."
He solicited funds using Facebook and some other outlets, receiving about $15,000 in donations. Some people donated their baseball fields and other necessary facilities.
And then came Mr. Nieto into Mr. Rossi's life at just the right time.
"Because Clemente is such a huge historical figure, it was kind of daunting," Mr. Nieto said. "A lot of people have their ideas of what he looked like, how he sounded. I hope that people don't watch the movie and think, 'This is not what happened.' It's not about that. Things don't happen that way in the movies. It's about preserving his legacy."
Mr. Rossi expects the film to debut at film festivals in 2013. He also wants to show it at schools with high Latino enrollment and bring Mr. Nieto to talk about the Olympics. He definitely expects there to be a viewing in Pittsburgh once the film is edited.
Then, he wants people to see what he saw from behind the camera when looking at Mr. Nieto as Clemente.
"He was Roberto," Mr. Rossi said. "There were moments when I was literally overcome with emotion watching him. I felt like I was privileged to go back into a time machine as a little boy and see Roberto again."
First Published August 4, 2012 12:00 am