When Sean Astin was in 7th grade, his babysitter would pick him up from St. Paul the Apostle School in West Los Angeles and drop him at drum lessons near Pico and Westwood boulevards. He wasn’t very good at playing the drums, though he wishes he had been. After every lesson, he’d cross the street to KFC and happily eat it in traffic on the way home.
A decade later, the Santa Monica native would go on to land one of the most extraordinary roles of his career in the 1993 film “Rudy,” a true story about underdog Dan “Rudy” Ruettiger, who, with all odds against him, fulfills his lifelong dream of playing college football for Notre Dame. Now, nearly 30 years after the film’s release, “Rudy” is getting a sequel that, likely, preteen Sean Astin would approve of: He’s KFC’s new Colonel Sanders.
In a series of hilarious ads dubbed “Rudy II,” Astin picks up right where he left off: on the shoulders of his teammates after one of the best days of his life — but Rudy has a new dream now. He wants to be Colonel Sanders. The 60-second spot parodies several iconic scenes from the original film with added Easter eggs for viewers to look for. Instead of a Notre Dame jacket, he receives a fried chicken jacket. Instead of bearing #45 on his jersey, he flaunts #11 to symbolize the chain's famous (and top secret) 11 herbs and spices.
The “craziest, absolute most ridiculous, funny, crazy, cool” moment for Astin through this whole experience was getting to film with Dan Ruettiger — the real-life Rudy. Together, they recreate the father-son bus stop scene, where Rudy has just decided, after the death of his friend, that he’s not going to conform to what society expects of him anymore.
“I tell him that, after college, I want to become Colonel Sanders and he says, ‘You can’t be Colonel Sanders. You’re Rudy,’” Astin recalled to The Daily Meal on a recent phone call. “The fact that Rudy is saying that? It took several takes where we could say it without cracking up because it was just so meta.”
Ruettiger's cameo, commercial set magic and the reprisal of one of Astin's most honorable roles transported the 48-year-old back in time to 1992 when he was a 21-year-old kid filming a little-known story. It was a cold November day and Notre Dame was dominating Boston College on the football field in South Bend, Indiana, and there were 58,000 screaming Irish fans in the stadium. The cast and crew were waiting to take the field so they could act out a kickoff and three or four plays. Everything had to be done within a 15-minute time frame, and there were no second takes.
Prior to the shoot, attendees were handed flyers to let them know they’d be filming the movie. A microphone was set up to help direct the crowd’s cheers, but the speaker system broke, so the actors just did their routine and the fans reacted.
“When the 1992 real-time teams came off the field and the 1974-era uniforms of Georgia Tech and Notre Dame came running on, no one left,” Astin said. “The place was literally on its feet.”
“They didn’t know the movie, unless maybe they read a couple of the South Bend Tribune articles that came out over the last month, but a lot of people come in from all over the world to see these games,” he continued.
After the team ran through multiple plays, they set up for the final down. Astin lined up for the play and kicked the turf to get a grip on his cleat because, well, that’s exactly what the real Rudy did. After the snap, he broke a tackle and made his way to sack the quarterback.
“The roar of the crowd was exactly what it would’ve been if you were sacking the quarterback in the middle of a game,” Astin said. “The place went bananas. I mean, it was just incredible. The guys picked me up on their shoulders and we marched out and it was just so… it was real. As far as I was concerned, it actually happened.”
Nearly three decades later, almost everywhere he goes, people come up to him and say, “Hey, I was at that game.”
“I’ve had so many football players and other people talking about their fathers and how they cry when they’re watching the movie,” Astin said. “There’s just something about rooting for somebody who’s wanted something and worked for it and were told they can’t have it and when they finally get it and you get that incredible music — that score by Jerry Goldsmith — it just makes you cry. How can it not make you cry? You’d be dead inside if you didn’t cry. This commercial somehow brings you right to that moment of emotionality and then it’s like, ‘But it’s Colonel Sanders!’”
The Colonel costume comes after a big revival for the actor on “Stranger Things.” (Warning: spoilers ahead for fans who may have not gotten to season two yet.)
This is the latest project for Astin in the aftermath of his exit from the 1980s-set sci-fi smash, which premiered its third season on Netflix on July 4. His character, Bob Newby, was supposed to die in Episode 4 of Season 2, but the writers loved him so much that they kept him on until Episode 8.
“I’ve adjusted to it,” Astin said of having to sit this season out. “The one thing I said when I started was, ‘Let me do something heroic.’ It’s unlikely for a guy like Bob to be a hero, so I said, ‘It doesn’t have to be a big thing, but just something to contribute to the overall mission of the kids’ story and Joyce’s story and the Upside Down or whatever.’”
Bob’s ending came after the Demodogs’ invasion left him, his girlfriend Joyce (Winona Ryder), her son Will, chief of police Jim Hopper (David Harbour) and Will's friend Mike trapped in Hawkins Lab during an outage. Since he was the only one who knew how, he volunteered to go to the breaker room and restore the power so the group could escape. After fixing everything and seemingly making it to safety, he was attacked and eaten alive by Demodogs. Astin, as he likes to say, was “Demogorgon kibble.”
“For them to write the episode that they did, where I get to be this like, full-blown, save everybody, alien die-hard, mondo person — I was so grateful that they gave me that. That they gave Bob that,” he said. “The audience obviously dug it, so I can’t be too sad. I miss it. I’m so happy for all of them.”
Bob is one of the most lovable characters in the history of “Stranger Things,” but believe it or not, Astin hadn’t originally auditioned for that role. Instead, he set out to play conspiracy theorist and funnyman Murray Bauman (played by Bill Gelman) but was asked to come back in and have a try at Bob.
“I’m like, ‘Huh. How am I going to compete for the audience’s affection against Hopper?’” he said. “As a fan of the show, I’m rooting for Hopper and Joyce to get together because that’s how it sets itself up and you want it. Well, my mission playing this character is to try and be so good for her that the audience feels conflicted.”
Speaking of Hopper, the Chief of Police played by David Harbour, Astin says he has a strong feeling about the character’s demise but wouldn’t share them.
“I don’t know anything,” he said, “but that guy is the show.”
One of his favorite parts about working on set was existing alongside Winona Ryder. The two grew up together and practically all of Astin’s scenes were filmed with her because, on the show, they were a couple.
“It’s hard to play a character where you’re screaming and your son is lost and there are monsters in your house,” Astin said. “It’s 10 episodes — or whatever it is in that season — of horror. The fact that she was able to play scenes when she was happy and loved and that there was someone trying to care for her and her kids, it was as much of a welcome leap for her as it was for Joyce. It was nice to be able to bring a moment of that to the show.”
If you’re missing Bob as much as the rest of us, there’s good news. Astin is currently working on a new kids show for Netflix called “No Good Nick.” He and Melissa Joan Hart play the parents of a nuclear family, and he says that his character, Ed, is a reincarnation of Bob. The show could get picked up by a larger network and if it does, Astin is hoping he’s on set when one of his KFC commercials airs so the cast and crew can see him as Colonel Sanders, er, Colonel Rudy.
“This campaign is ubiquitous now,” he said. “Everybody knows it and they get it. The second I say I’m the next Colonel, they’re like ‘What? That’s hilarious!’ They want pictures, to know what it looks like, when it comes out, to know what it’s going to be. Rudy II. I always thought Rudy II would be the story of Rudy getting his film made, but it’s actually transcended into something more… otherworldly. He becomes Colonel Sanders.”
To see Rudy II in all its glory, check out this YouTube clip or see it live and in color on TV September 5 through November. And hey, if you have a dream — go get it.