A Discussion with Tom Chaffee, Executive Producer of “The Chief”

Looking Back, Nick Calabrese, Pittsburgh Steelers

Editor’s Note: In the tradition of telling football stories, we reached out to Tom Chaffee who was kind enough to speak with us about his time developing the film The Chief – the story about the nationally adored Steeler’s owner, Art Rooney Sr. Tom also talks with us about meeting Steve Sabol and his discovery of Mr. Sabol’s pop artwork. Find out more about The Chief movie by clicking the link at the end of this article.

Tom, thank you for speaking with us here at NFL Films. I watched your film The Chief and thought it was great. What initially attracted you to this film? What was your role as Executive Producer?

Hi Nick, thank you for your interest in our film The Chief, a bio pic about legendary Steelers owner and founder, Art Rooney Sr. It’s also based directly on Pittsburgh Public Theater’s one man stage play of the same name. The stage play is the most successful, highest grossing play in PPT’s history. My attraction to do the film was based on the simple fact that the play was a piece of living history and we needed to capture it forever! My role as Executive Producer was to have total responsibility for raising the funds, pulling together the team to produce and direct it and ultimately getting it done right.

There’s a lot of spirit and life that Tom Atkins brings to that performance. How did he end up getting the role? Do you know what kind of research he did to prepare for his hour and a half performance?

Tom Atkins performance as Art Rooney is without equal. And I mean compared to ALL other one man plays and film adaptations. I believe the writers, Gene Collier and Rob Zellers, already had Tom in mind to play Art Rooney as they wrote and developed the stage play. Tom is the ultimate actor and craftsman and he brings everything to all of his roles. Tom spent countless hours watching footage of The Chief. Both from interviews and historical footage of Art Rooney. He spent hours talking to Rooney family members and friends getting to know more about the man. Tom says he tried to find out something bad about The Chief but in all the stories he heard they were all great.

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When I watched the film, I didn’t feel like I needed to be a sports fan to enjoy it. Was that the original intention? Or did it just happen that way?

Since the stage play came first and our challenge was to make the film version with the same personality and intimacy I would say that it was a little bit of both. The writers spent considerable rewrite time based on input from Pittsburgh Public Theater’s Artistic Director and members of the Rooney family. The goal was to accurately retell the stories while capturing the Chief’s true personality. I think the real surprise was the number of new faces including men and Steelers Nation members that came in droves.

During the film, Rooney explains how he actually came to own the Pittsburgh Steelers. Is that the definitive truth? Everything I have read online tells me he purchased the team for $2,500. But did his cousin actually owe him a debt?

Yes, right from The Chief’s mouth!

NFL Films was mentioned two or three times throughout the film. Do you have any idea of how Art Rooney felt in front of the camera? What he thought of his own public image?

Mr. Rooney was often quoted as telling his son’s and others, “Don’t be a big shot”. Based on the people I’ve met and talked to during this process, who were friends and worked/played for Mr. Rooney, I get the impression that he was true to his words, was humble and modest and did not seek the limelight. With that said I think he was so comfortable around anybody a film/TV camera didn’t faze him.

Art Rooney

Art Rooney Sr.

NFL Historical Imagery

Franco Harris

Franco Harris was an Associate Producer on this film. What was his insight like when it came to Mr. Rooney?

Franco Harris has been invaluable in the process of making and marketing the film. Franco’s counsel and advice are so appreciated. He has a sharp recollection of events and cites the lasting impact Mr. Rooney has had throughout his life.

What was Steve Sabol’s involvement in the film? Can you give the readers an idea of what Mr. Sabol’s contribution to the DVD Special Extras had been during this time?

Boy, do I miss talking to Steve. He was so generous with his time in this project. I’m so thankful that I was fortunate to meet, talk and get to know Steve before he passed.

So I first became involved with Steve Sabol when I reached out to him to talk about a ten minute NFL Films profile piece he produced about Art Rooney and the one man play, The Chief. In fact it’s possible the film may never have been made were it not for me seeing that profile! Since I had never seen the live play, his Rooney profile, with a few scenes from the live play made me more convinced we were doing the right thing.

When I cold-called him I was first greeted by his executive assistant, Colleen Smith-Grubb. Her response when I asked to speak with Steve about Art Rooney Sr. to inform him we were making the film version of the play was beyond my expectations! Before Colleen connected me to Steve she was so enthusiastic that we were going to make a film she told me Steve would be so excited. She was right. So Steve and I connected immediately. He was so congratulatory and supportive. I told him, in addition to filming the play, we planned to interview family, friends and players to capture anecdotal stories about The Chief. Steve immediately and enthusiastically jumped in and said he had some great untold stories and he’d tape them right there at NFL Films and get them to us! The taped interviews arrived in the mail the next week. Boy, those untold stories were special.

You said that you owned a few of Mr. Sabol’s art pieces. How did you come across Steve Sabol’s artwork? What did you like about it?

As I had done some prior research about Steve, I was excited to learn he was an accomplished artist. When we spoke I asked him if he had created anything about the Steelers. And, incredibly, he said he had two pieces called “The Chief” and “Franco’s Army”! I asked if they were for sale and before he could finish saying yes I told him to pack them up and ship them to me. When he said that he hadn’t told me what he was asking I said it didn’t matter as I had already made up my mind.

Since my son was in college in Philadelphia and I was planning to visit him I told Steve I’d come to visit and personally pick them up. The pieces are absolutely amazing. In fact, Franco Harris, who is an associate producer on the film saw the piece called “Franco’s Army” and wanted to buy it. I politely said no, but I would lend it to him! Before Steve became sick I purchased another great piece that he personally picked out for me and we agreed that I would buy one every year. Steve was so gracious and thoughtful of others that although he was sick he invited my wife and three sons to attend the Hall of Fame Enshrinement of his father in Canton, OH.

Tom, we look forward to more film projects from you and we thank you for realizing the importance of filming this stage play and documenting an important story in football history.

Thank you for the opportunity to get the story out there. And I welcome the opportunity to discuss an exhibition on the NFL Network!


Click on the image below to download “The Chief”


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