ORLANDO, Fla. – Arnold Palmer watched a sneak preview of a movie that almost made him cry.
It was about his own life.
Golf Channel has spent more than a year producing what might be the most important project in its 20-year history – a three-part documentary on golf’s most endearing figure. “Arnie” will be shown on three consecutive nights beginning April 13, the night after the final round of the Masters.
Emmy Award-winning producer Israel DeHerrera was still putting the finishing touch on the documentary this week, an exhausting process after spending a year traveling with Palmer and collecting so many stories and interviews that even three hours were not enough to squeeze them all in.
Palmer already has seen excerpts, some of which were shown during the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
“I’ve been watching a little of it recently, and of course, I have some very emotional thoughts about it,” Palmer said Thursday during a conference call. “I had to get the Kleenex out when I was watching it. It brought me back of my world of so many years ago. I really can’t even think about it. It made me think and get pretty emotional.”
The people more than the trophies are what stirred the emotions, which was only fitting. That’s what got his project started.
A few days after Mike McCarley was appointed president of Golf Channel, he received a handwritten letter from Palmer, with that famous signature at the bottom. He did some research before meeting The King for lunch a few weeks later and was struck by how many lives Palmer has touched.
“There’s this wonderful history of him writing letters to PGA Tour players who may win an event or fans who ask for something,” McCarley said. “There’s just a very genuine ‘treat people the way you would like to be treated’ aspect to the way he’s lived his entire life. And that’s really where it started.”
The documentary is split into three section.
The first part, to be shown on Sunday night after the final round of the Masters, is called, “Arnie and his Army.” The second part is “Arnie and his Majors.” The third part is “Arnie and his Legacy,” which shows his influence on pop culture. The last part includes clips that show the charm and allure. One shows him posing at age 17 with Hollywood starlet Esther Williams. Another shows Palmer last year with supermodel Kate Upton when he was 83.
“What we set out to do was really tell the definitive story on the life and legacy of Mr. Palmer,” McCarley said.
Golf Channel sat down with Palmer for eight days of hour-long interviews, beginning last March. It spent a year traveling with Palmer to collect stories and interviews with more than 100 people. And it sifted through hundreds of hours of footage, including home video of Palmer that has never been seen.
DeHerrera suggested the three-part documentary – he had never worked on a project so large – and figured it could be reduced to two hours if necessary. Instead, he didn’t have room for all the stories.
“It was like being in a supermarket, grabbing all this stuff off the shelves and not having any more room in the cart,” DeHerrera said.
He knows his golf and still read all the books on Palmer in doing research before DeHerrera set out to work on the project. He said he had an understanding of Palmer’s influence, but was no less amazed to see it come to life.
“The coolest thing has been to see that it’s all real,” DeHerrera said. “We had all these people that said all these things, and then we got to experience that what they said about him was all true. We got to see him interact and light people’s faces up. All these things we had heard about for eight months, and then we got to see them happen.”
It will be shown at 10 p.m. EDT on April 13-15. Will the King be able to stay up that late to watch?
“That’s probably the biggest question,” Palmer said. “So far I’ve done pretty well with what shorts I’ve seen, and I’m going to try like heck to watch the whole thing. Because it brought back some really fond memories for me, and friends that have been long gone are really important to me.”