Not so long ago, the movie cliché was the twinkly-eyed Irish priest, one who had a way of communicating with young people.
These days, it's ... Cheech Marin?
"Yeah, I'm the go-to guy for Mexican priests," Marin, 63, says. "I'm the new Barry Fitzgerald, except with a Mexican accent. Hey, I was raised in the church. I was an altar boy and a choir member. I almost became a priest - until common sense grabbed hold of me."
Marin, half of the 1970s stoner-comedy team, Cheech and Chong, plays Padre Esteban in The Perfect Game, a family comedy-drama that opens in limited release Friday (4/16/10). The film, based on the true story of the first Mexican team to make it to the finals of the Little League World Series, is actually the second priest Marin has played in the past year (he was Father Arturo in a Hallmark Channel film, Expecting a Miracle).
In The Perfect Game, Padre Estaban is an encouraging figure who helps convince both a team of poor kids and their reluctant coach (Clifton Collins Jr.) that they can compete against the bigger, wealthier American opponents they face. Marin plays him with more than a hint of mischief, but also an abundance of warmth.
"This character was drawn from my own observations of the Mexican priests I knew growing up," he says. "The Mexican priests were more sympathetic and nurturing than their American counterparts - who were a bunch of dicks."
The film, set in the mid-1950s, follows the team as it competes in Texas and other American states, at a time when segregation was still the law of the land, including for brown-skinned visitors from Mexico.
"These kids (in the cast) didn't realize there was that kind of discrimination," Marin says. "They were young, innocent kids. There's a scene where they're denied the use of a gas-station bathroom. That was a big discovery for them. I think they knew it happened to black people, but not to Mexicans. They couldn't believe that was the reality."
The film is just another step in Marin's long-running career, one that began as a young improvisational comedian, working in Vancouver after fleeing the Vietnam-era draft.