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Tuesday, November 6, 2012
Kevin Pollak talks 49ers, poker, Tom Cruise

By Sam Alipour
ESPN The Magazine

Kevin Pollak
The longtime character actor calls 49ers great Joe Montana "The Messiah" -- and he's dead serious.
San Francisco native Kevin Pollak is riding high these days, busy as he is eloquently gloating over his team’s World Series triumph.

“YAY!!,” the actor, comedian and impressionist tweeted shortly after the Giants swept the Tigers -- quickly followed by backslaps from well-known friends, like this guy:

“Well, not only can you leave your heart in San Francisco, you can get swept by it, too. Congrats to @kevinpollak and all SF Fans #Giants” tweeted Tigers fan Jeff Daniels of Detroit (and, currently, “The Newsroom”).

Known around Hollywood as a San Francisco sports nut, Pollak will devote the coming months to his other favorite team, the 49ers -- when he isn’t working, anyway.

One of the busiest character actors in the game with “Casino,” “A Few Good Men” and “The Usual Suspects” among his 65 film credits, Pollak now serves as the celebrity ambassador to HollywoodPoker.com, a new social-media game that allows fans to do battle with famous people who know a thing or two about cards -- guys like Pollak, who recently placed 134th out of 6,598 players in the World Series of Poker Main Event.

Pollak is now an author, too, having written “How I Slept My Way to the Middle: Secrets and Stories from Stage, Screen, and Interwebs” (Lyons Press), which goes on sale today. The memoir is chock-full of behind-the-scenes anecdotes from his career in show business.

In this entry in our regular Playbook Q series, Pollak discusses his 49ers, the “lucky” guys in New York, his go-to game and the time Jack Nicholson fielded a hard grounder from Mama Pollak.

What team would make you happiest if it won a championship?

I’d have to say my 49ers, from my hometown of San Francisco. They were instilled in my DNA, going back to the days of John Brodie. I was probably 15 when I saw him quarterbacking a playoff game against Dallas at Kezar Stadium, where we lost to the awful, much-hated Cowboys, 17-10.

After living through the Steve DeBerg and -- thank you very much but no thank you -- Jim Plunkett eras, I was fortunate enough to watch The Messiah, Joe Montana, followed by The Messiah Junior, Steve Young.

Quite the dynasty throughout the ’80s and ’90s. Now, I feel as though we were completely and utterly robbed last year.

How were you robbed, exactly?

Come on! You want me to relive this? [Laughs.] We lost to an inferior but insanely lucky team in the New York Giants. Just an awful franchise that had no business winning the Super Bowl. Are you kidding me?! Eli Manning, while talented, is the luckiest sucker to play the sport. I’d like to see them avenge that.

Which modern athlete do you love to hate?

I think I made it clear how I feel about Eli Manning. I haven’t thought about it in terms of that strong of an emotion, but, yeah, he might be at the apex.

Who was your childhood sports idol?

Well, Joe Montana was outside of my childhood, so it’s probably Muhammad Ali. Besides his talent and ability to dominate a sport that suggested elegance and brains, not just brute force, there was something about Ali’s decision to avoid the fighting in the Vietnam War.

Whether you agreed or not with his actions, that sort of conviction from an athlete is not something we’d witnessed. I didn’t even know what it meant, politically. I just knew that to walk away at the height of your success because of your beliefs and convictions, I don’t know, it really kind of freaked me out. I found myself captivated by the who, how and why a person would do that.

What is your most prized piece of sports memorabilia?

You’d think it’d be the autographed football from the last Super Bowl the 49ers won -- the whole team signed a team ball. I got friendly with some of the players over the years while they were being crowned, and a lot of them were stand-up comedy fans and you get to know them over time.

But the prized piece is an autographed photo of Joe Montana from his college days, because it was early Joe. I feel as though it captures the moment in time when the genius was born, before he hooked up with the architect, Bill Walsh. Together, they created the West Coast offense, which continues to this day.

You have to understand, the nickname “The Messiah” I don’t take lightly. He really was that to 49ers fans, in every way. And I’ll argue to my death that he is the best, most clutch quarterback to ever throw the pigskin. That’s the kind of fanship you’re dealing with.

What is your favorite sports memory as a fan?

It’s the ’81 Super Bowl, when they beat Cincinnati. It was the first of the dynasty and so long in the making. My whole life as a fan built up to that moment, where I’m walking down the streets of San Francisco in the center of a wildly busy downtown intersection, with cars stopped and people slapping fives.

I hadn’t been in a city that won a championship. To see a celebration that impacted the entire community was a first for me.

Kevin Pollak
Pollak's tell-all book goes on sale today.
If your life depended on your performance in a competitive sport, which would you choose?

Can we include poker?

Wow, are you that bad at sports?

Well, I played on our high school's division championship basketball team. Believe it or not, a tiny little Jew like myself was competitive as hell as a point guard. And, I’ll have you know, I led the league in assists and steals. And I played on the golf and tennis team as well.

But if this is a fantasy, I want to add as much reality to it as possible. And I’m sure you enjoyed ESPN’s coverage of this year’s World Series of Poker Main Event, in which I went deeper than any so-called celebrity since it blew up on ESPN. The experience left me with the sense that this was by far one of the most competitive, stressful events of my life. And I was pretty shocked and amazed at how well it went, quite frankly.

Now it’s not as far-fetched for me to consider that I can be competitive in this particular game. I mean, I played competitive sports all throughout high school and I’ve never felt more stress than at this event.

Finally, for our Hollywood gossip-loving sports fans, some bonus questions: What’s your best Tom Cruise story in the book?

There are a few stories in the book. There’s no quick version, but I really did have an amazing time working with him. He’s one of the most dedicated, positive-thinking superstars. I’ve been very fortunate as a character actor to work with a ton of superstars, but there’s a pecking order -- there’s a sense of, “You’re a superstar and I’m not.” What Tom taught me is there can be equal footing.

And it wasn’t an act. It was genuine. I’m not kissing his ass. Believe me, as you see in my book, I take shots at people. If you were an idiot or an ass to me, I lay waste to your nonsense in the book. So it’s not like I’m pulling punches or kissing anybody’s ass. I want to herald a champion while I attack the idiots, you know?

OK, so give us a sneak peek: To whom do you lay waste?

Well, Rip Torn is a lunatic. When I worked with him almost 20 years ago [in “Canadian Bacon”], he was just a horrible person to have on the set in terms of his nonsense. I go into detail about how much of an idiot and a bastard he was.

What I’m doing is relaying true stories, not just my opinion. For example, when Michael Clarke Duncan passed away, my publisher called me and asked if I want to keep the Michael story in the book. But he was a real prick on “The Whole Nine Yards,” and it’s not just my opinion; I have a hilarious story about his strangeness and egomaniacal behavior. So, when he passed away, it was all very sad. But I told my publisher, you don’t get a pass because you die. The guy was a prick in my experience. I’m not after his reputation throughout his life or where his head was at before he unfortunately passed so young. I’m just sharing a funny story about somebody being a prick. I don’t have to apologize just because he unfortunately passed away.

Is it true that your mom hit on Jack Nicholson when you guys were filming the famed courtroom scene in “A Few Good Men”?

One-hundred percent true. What’s funny is the way he reacted. The courtroom scene, when Jack’s on the stand, that happened to be the day my mom was visiting. They cover a scene like that from 30 different angles, and one was over Jack’s shoulder, looking at us, so now my mom is in my eyeline, as I look at Jack. They do a scene, yell "Cut," and my mom starts hitting on Jack. And Jack could see how freaked out I was getting.

And that’s where the story gets fun: He comes over to the table, during a break, and he says, [dead-on impression of Nicholson] “Hey Kev, I was wondering if you could do me a favor -- I was wondering if you could get your mom off my ass? Think you might be able to handle that? What am I supposed to do? Am I supposed to take your mom back to my trailer? Is that what you want?”

It was fantastic.