Pop culture and the pastime: talking movies with Billy Sample

For eight seasons, Billy Sample patrolled the outfield for the Rangers, Yankees, and Braves. He was a good role player, capable of hitting in the .270s, stealing bases, hitting an occasional home run, and playing a good left field.

Smart and well-spoken, Sample then pursued a successful career as a broadcaster, first with the Braves and Angels, and then with MLB Radio. Now he is on to career No. 3. Sample has become an actor, director and writer, with two full credits under his belt and a third on the way.

Sample will be featured in the upcoming horror movie, Gravedigger, along with several other former big leaguers-turned-broadcasters. He also is heavily involved in the production of a new baseball film, called Reunion 108, slated for release this spring.

Earlier this week, Billy chatted with me about his burgeoning career in the film industry.

Markusen: First Wade Boggs did a horror movie for the SyFy Channel; now you are starring in your second horror film. Is this the new trend for former players?

Sample: As I understand, horror movies and porn movies are the least expensive to produce, and since no one has called for me to fill in for Ron Jeremy, I have to take what I can get to fill out my IMDB page. I am looking forward to joining the ranks of Jim Bouton and Ron Shelton as former player/filmmakers, in fact, I have a Jim Bouton-Ball Four reference in Reunion 108.

Markusen: Billy, I noticed that the two main writers for Gravedigger are named Pepitone, Joseph and Billy. Are they related to the Joe Pepitone?

Sample: They are Joe’s nephews. (The younger Joe Pepitone wrote the screenplay for the comedy, Stuck in the Middle, and co-wrote the novel, Soul of a Yankee.)

Markusen: You are one of several former major leaguers in the film, along with Jim Leyritz and Brian McRae. All of you used to serve as hosts at MLB Radio. I would imagine this is more than a coincidence.

Sample: Well, the connector to all of us is Keith Collins, the producer and lead actor in The Meat Puppet and Gravediggers. Leyritz and Collins were friends. “B-mac” introduced me to Collins when we were working in Anaheim, though Collins is from Clifton, New Jersey.

Markusen: This is your second role in a horror movie; the first was The Meat Puppet. Tell us what that experience was like.

Sample: I think the biggest challenge for me is to change on the fly, if what I had decided doesn’t work for the director, and he or she is looking for something else, to be able to give the director another look for the scene with only a few seconds between takes. Someone told me that I stole my scene in The Meat Puppet, and I felt good until I realized that after my introduction to the scene, I was the only one in it.

Markusen: Tell us about the role you are playing, Mayor Benjamin Barnes, in this new film. Is your character a hero, a villain, or something in between?

Sample: As with my police captain role in The Meat Puppet, my mayor in Gravedigger is quite annoyed that bodies are showing up dead under my jurisdiction and it doesn’t appear we are making any headway towards bringing an end to the murders.

Markusen: Where are you as an actor right now?

Sample: Somewhere between, “this is fun” and “my goodness, how do they learn all of these lines?”

Markusen: Among established actors, are there any influences you’re looking to in refining your acting skills?

Sample: I watch way too much Turner Classic Movies and am amazed at how talented the actors are from the era of the thirties through the fifties, especially considering that talking film was still in its infancy in the early thirties. My drama teacher in high school, Dorsey Smith, asked me if I wanted to see if he could get me scholarship money to East Tennessee State, his alma mater (I was in two plays my junior year in high school), but I was playing three sports and couldn’t find the energy to be a performer my senior year. I’ve had a long time between roles .

Markusen: In addition to acting, you have written a screenplay, and you are directing a baseball film. Of the three roles (acting, writing, and directing), what would be your preference?

Sample: Too soon to tell.

Markusen: Tell us about the baseball film, Reunion 108, and when we can expect to see that.

Sample: Hopefully Reunion 108 will be out this spring, well, it has to be out by this spring. Late March would be ideal at this point. Reunion 108 is a lot like its screenwriter—edgy, satirical and R-rated. The genesis is of two different generations of ball players returning for a minor league reunion in a fictional Appalachian town, for which both teams won a championship. The players are induced to tell stories about events from their baseball past. Real life former players joining me are Fernando Perez for a large role, John Foster, and Joe Ausanio.

Markusen: Final question, Billy, what’s your next project?

Sample: My next project is about my first grade teacher, Lucy Harmon, who interacted with George Washington Carver and Thurgood Marshall and was instrumental in getting equity in pay among African-American and white teachers in 1930s southwest Virginia. The project after that centers around Sam Carrodo, the coach of a junior college women’s baseball team in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, that won 94 consecutive games, and if Reunion 108 makes money, a sequel will be my fourth project.

My oldest son, Ian, who is an executive producer of Reunion 108, has written three screenplays. Hopefully, Reunion 108 will generate enough revenue that the family will continue to be filmmakers. If not, I may not ever get out of debtor’s prison.

Bruce Markusen has authored seven baseball books, including biographies of Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Ted Williams, and A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, which was awarded SABR's Seymour Medal.
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Jim G.
Jim G.

Nice interview Bruce. I always liked Sample as a player.

@ Dennis – another thing, actors from that era all had their start on the professional stage. They didn’t have the luxury of an edit room and really learned the art of acting.

dennis Bedard
dennis Bedard

Sample is dead on about the acting ability of the thespians from the 30’s to the 50’s.  Without raw sex, violence, special effects, and bad language, they had to rely on their own talent. No femme fatale ever exposed more than her ankle yet they were sexier than any actress who bared it all 30 years later.  Why?  Imagination.  100 men watching Rita Hayworth in Gilda or Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity will be thinking 100 different thoughts undressing them in their minds.  I remember a scene where a woman says that it took her hours to put on her… Read more »