“Knights of the South Bronx,” an A&E movie premiering Dec. 6 (8 p.m. ET), is based on a true-life tale about how a teacher uses chess to inspire inner-city kids.
It’s star, Ted Danson, found himself inspired as well.
His love of the game, long dormant, was rekindled, he says, and his skills definitely enhanced.
“It takes the computer a lot longer to beat me than it did!” exclaims the actor, who had played the board game as a kid, but rarely since.
Even more so, he adds, he was moved greatly by the real tale of the film’s inspiration, chess expert David MacEnulty, who taught the intricate board game to Bronx elementary school children, nurturing them to success in national competitions.
Executive producer Diane Nabatoff approached Danson by sending him a video of a TV news piece about MacEnulty, and the actor recalls that he and his wife, actress Mary Steenburgen, were “in tears” after watching it.
In a recent chat, Danson, sitting in the garden of his Brentwood home, praised MacEnulty as a “true hero ... an amazing man, so passionate, so dedicated.”
Watching a master at workThe A&E movie does take some dramatic license with MacEnulty’s story, but he says he accepts that because what really matters is that the film is true in the way it depicts the lessons the kids learned through the challenges of chess.
“You don’t get ahead by getting it over on people. You get ahead by being better than they are at something, and the only way you are going to do that is if you work harder than the other people. And that’s the message of the movie,” MacEnulty says.
On the film’s Toronto location, Danson watched MacEnulty, who has written several chess books and created software programs for the U.S. Chess Federation, teaching the young actors the basics of the game.
“There were six or so kids from 5- to 10- or 11-years-old who were just nonstop, all over him, all over the chess pieces, squabbling. I was horrified, ‘Oh, my god, is this what I’m going to be doing everyday?’ But what David said to me, and what I saw, was 60, 70 percent of his energy was to capture their attention and the rest was put into the chess teaching.”
Danson went on to apply that technique himself in working with his young co-stars. “As soon as you offer them something that is really interesting and when the communication is, ’You matter, I care about you, you can do this,’ you can keep them focused.”
Delia Fine, vice president of film, drama and music for A&E, says that while watching Danson on the set she realized he was doing double-duty — “wrangling the kids, and mentoring and tutoring them in their jobs,” while giving his own performance.
“He had such a wonderful way of keeping them focused. When things would start to break down, he just seemed able to reel them back in in such a nice way, in a supportive way ... It was very, very impressive.”
Exercise for the brainA&E, in collaboration with Food for Thought Software, has created a “Think Like a King” contest for teachers in hopes of encouraging interest in chess as a tool to enhance learning skills. Winners get free chess-teaching software for their schools.
“Not everyone can play sports,” says Danson. “Sports got me through high school, made me feel like there was a reason for living. Music can do that for some kids, but not everybody is into music or is a jock. Chess is an amazingly cheap way to capture a child’s imagination and expand their brain ... there’s a quiet confidence that comes from a kid learning how to play chess.”
The actor says a couple of lines from the movie struck him as being particularly telling: “Playing chess is like taking your mind to the gym,” and, “If you can win a game of chess, no one can ever call you stupid.”
Most famous as the womanizing bartender Sam Malone on NBC’s 1982-93 Emmy-winning sitcom “Cheers,” Danson, 57, also starred in the sitcom “Becker,” which ended last year after a six-year run on CBS.
He would have liked to continue playing the curmudgeonly doctor because “it was fun” and he enjoys the sitcom format. But, he reasons, “I don’t think you can get involved in why things go off the air. It would make you nuts.”