In the summer of 2011, just after Rob Gronkowski finished his rookie season with the Patriots, Mark Wahlberg invited him to a charity golf event. It was one of the first times Gronkowski had a chance to mingle with Hollywood elite. The attendees included a few actors from The Sopranos, the screen actor Bill Paxton, and Christopher McDonald of Shooter McGavin fame.
But of all people, Gronkowski hit it off with Henry Penzi, a longtime friend and associate of Wahlberg’s. Shortly after that, Gronkowski invited Penzi over to his house. As the two were hanging out, Penzi noticed that, like thousands of twentysomething bros everywhere, Gronk had an Entourage poster on his bedroom wall. Penzi told him he was one of the original entourage members on whom the TV show was based.
Gronkowski asked if he could be on the show, and Penzi told him no, the show was done, but they were in the process of making an Entourage movie—maybe they could get him a cameo in that. Penzi started thinking bigger, though. He saw that Gronkowski had a certain charisma, a certain energy. Penzi envisioned Gronkowski having a second career in movies and TV. “He goes, ‘Do you think I can do it?’” Penzi recalls. “And I said, ‘Yes! You’ve got personality!’ And he said, ‘Let’s give it a shot.’ That’s how it all started.”
A few years later, during the 2014 NFL offseason, Penzi arranged for Gronkowski to appear in the Entourage movie. There’s a scene of him chugging a beer bong at a Hollywood party, and another of him dancing in a swarm of girls. After that he was hooked. “He just got a little taste of it,” Penzi says, “and he goes, ‘This is fun! Let’s make this happen!’ ”
From there, Penzi started working his Hollywood contacts, looking for more parts. “It was just a lot of relationships that I had,” Penzi says. “I would pitch people: ‘Hey, look, Rob will be in town. Do you guys have something?’ ” Gronkowski’s schedule was already busy enough; he only really had the NFL offseason to work with, about six months from February to July. But as it turned out, several directors and producers were happy to accommodate the Patriots’ famous tight end. Almost always, one of their first questions to Penzi was: Can he even act?
One of those calls Penzi made was to a producer who was making a low-budget feature called You Can’t Have it. It was a murder mystery set inside a bar, starring Armand Assante, who’s perhaps best known for playing mobsters, and the model Joanna Krupa. On the movie poster, the tagline would read: “Drinks. Sex. Murder. All before last call.”
Andre Gordon, the movie’s director, was thrilled when he heard Gronkowski was coming on board, if only because Gronkowski’s presence would drive more publicity to the film. “I thought it’d be fun,” Gordon says. “Not only because of all the eyes that are on his social media and on his journey, but the sports world suddenly became interested in the film.”
Before they started shooting, though, some adjustments needed to be made. Gronkowski would be playing a cop, and Gordon says they had to rewrite the script to take his part and “beef it up a little bit, just to make sure that it’s worth the time for him.” The producers also cast Rob’s brother Dan and his friend Robert Goon in smaller roles, and it appears they made Henry Penzi a co-producer of the movie, according to IMDB.
They shot the movie in the Los Angeles area in the spring of 2015, a few months after Gronkowski won his first Super Bowl. Gordon remembers Gronk only being on set for a handful of days, if that, but they quickly developed a good rapport. After filming one of his first scenes, Gronkowski asked Gordon excitedly, How was that?
“Terrible,” Gordon deadpanned. Then a beat later: Just kidding!
“Just to see how he would react,” Gordon says, chuckling. “ The energy was good [on set]. We joked around a lot.” But seriously, how was Gronk as an actor? “He did fine,” Gordon says. “I think acting is something that definitely looks easier than it really is. Once you told him what to do and answered all of his questions, he did a good job. I thought he was solid.”
Not everyone felt the same. Just before the film premiered, TMZ tracked down Joanna Krupa and asked whether Gronkowski would receive Oscar buzz for his role. “Well, I mean, considering he was probably the only person that we had to tape re-take after re-take for his one line, so I don’t know,” Krupa said. “I think he was too busy focusing on the hot girls on set.” Krupa also felt Gronkowski hadn’t done enough to promote the film, which, again, was one of the selling points of having him in the movie. “To me, he’s not a big team player,” she added.
Gordon argues that Gronkowski did promote the film, just in maybe a nontraditional way. For example, ESPN sent a reporter to shadow him for a day on set. Plus, now that Gronkowski and the Patriots are back in the Super Bowl, Gordon says, there’s been another wave of interest in the movie. “Listen, I’ve worked with Gronk, Joanna, Morgan Freeman, you know, James Caan—everyone does their own promotion differently,” Gordon says. “Not everyone pushes the film the way that necessarily I envision it, but they do it their own way.”
Filming a bit part in a movie was one thing, but then, during the 2016 NFL offseason, Penzi helped Gronkowski secure his own TV show. At the time, Rob Dyrdek, the skateboarder turned MTV mogul, and his production team were trying to replicate what they’d done with Ridiculousness, the clip show where Dyrdek and a few other panelists provided raunchy commentary on viral videos. The idea was, they’d have Gronkowski host the kid-friendly, sports version of that show on Nickelodeon. Gronk and two other co-hosts would offer commentary on viral sports videos and bloopers. Crashletes, they called it.
This time around the production schedule was a little more demanding. Brandon Broady, one of the co-hosts on the show, says they started filming Season 1 sometime around March 2016, and that they shot two or three episodes a day over about 10 days. Then they shot Season 2 a few months later, around July 2016, over the course of about two weeks.
Broady remembers he first met Gronkowski the day before the Season 1 shoot, which didn’t give the co-hosts a lot of time to rehearse. The show wasn’t overly complicated: they’d play some videos, makes some jokes, and coordinate some skits. But for Gronkowski, it was all new. “He’s very respectful of the craft,” Broady says. “I remember him saying, ‘Whoa, this is actually harder than it looks.’ ” To Gronkowski’s credit, he recognized that Broady and the other co-host, Stevie Nelson, had more experience than he did. Often he’d follow their lead. “It felt like maybe I’m the quarterback,” Broady says. “It was like I was Brady sometimes, directing these comedic moments. Or Stevie was. [Gronk] took the direction really well.”
After taping Season 1, Penzi says Gronkowski worked with an acting coach and showed a noticeable improvement in Season 2. Penzi won’t name the coach, but he notes that Rob works regularly with a coach now, mostly when he’s working on feature films. The coach helps Gronkowski study his scenes, review his lines, and read out loud. “Just because he wants to be over-prepared,” Penzi says. “It’s the same mentality of being a football player: You go train to get onstage and play football. It’s the same in Hollywood: He trains before getting in front of a camera.”
Penzi also gives Gronkowski tips, things he’s learned from years working in the business. He’s perhaps best known for being a good friend of Mark Wahlberg. The two of them met at a L.A. party, Penzi says, back when Wahlberg was a teenager trying to break into showbiz. At the time, Penzi was working as an assistant/manager for various people. He says he once managed Carmen Electra and “the kids on Saved by the Bell.” Then sometime around the late ’90s, Wahlberg hired Penzi to be his assistant. Penzi says he worked alongside Wahlberg for more than 15 years. “If I ever get an Oscar or if I ever get an Emmy, I will always mention him,” Penzi says, “because of the education I got being part of his team.”
By extension, it appears that Wahlberg has become something of mentor to Gronkowski. Penzi says Wahlberg has invited Gronk over his house a number of times—for a screening, or to play basketball, or just say hi to Wahlberg’s kids, who are all Patriots fans. What advice does Wahlberg give Gronk, the thespian? “Just stay focused,” Penzi says. “That’s what he always says to Rob: Just stay focused. Stay strong and stay focused.”
After working with Wahlberg, Penzi views Gronkowski as his next big project. (He also works with Vernon Davis, another tight end with Hollywood aspirations.) Penzi calls himself Gronkowski’s manager, but he may be speaking out of turn. After interviewing Gronkowski in 2017, SportsBusiness Daily reported that Penzi “was not his manager, but a friend who was assisting him with his interest in entering the movie business in the future.”
That future may not be that far off. Last year, around the Super Bowl, reports started circulating that Gronkowski was considering retiring early. His legacy as a football player had already been cemented, and injuries had ravaged his body in recent years. Plus, now he had this budding acting career he could fall back on.
At this year’s Super Bowl, Gronkowski has deflected questions about his potential career in Hollywood, saying he’s focusing on the game.
“I don’t know anything about retirement; that’s not my department,” Penzi says. “I respect the NFL, I respect Rob’s job. I never try to tell him: Hey, let’s just pull the trigger. I would never do that. That’s not me.”
But each offseason, it seems, Gronkowski is expanding his work in TV and movies more and more. In 2016, aside from filming two seasons of Crashletes, he shot minor roles for two more feature films—American Violence, a crime drama starring Bruce Dern and Denise Richards; and The Clapper, a comedy starring Ed Helms and Amanda Seyfried. Gronkowski also started working on a TV show called MVP, which is essentially a sports version of Shark Tank. Not only did Gronkowski star in the show, he was an executive producer, as was Penzi. “Not a lot of people know how movies and TV shows get put together,” Penzi says. “Just him being part of the process, I think it’s important. His work will come out much better.”
Like any up-and-coming actor, Gronkowski is trying out roles, seeing what he likes, what he doesn’t like. Penzi thinks someday Gronkowski could follow in the footsteps of The Rock and John Cena, two athletes who made the transition to movies, into the action-comedy genre, where Gronkowski could utilize both his athleticism and his personality. “My vision was to replace Arnold,” Penzi says. “I mean, they’re getting old—Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. My vision was, they’re older and they’ve passed the baton to The Rock and [Jason] Statham, and then they’d give it to the next generation, which is Rob.” It’s worth noting here that The Expendables 4 is still in development.
Gronkowski has a ways to go before he’s in that conversation, obviously. One of his biggest challenges will be convincing Hollywood that he can shed his public persona—that of the lovable, hard-partying goofball—and play a wider range of characters. “He’s not much of a chameleon. He’s going to be him every single time he’s on camera,” says Chad Ritterbach, a casting director with bokcreative inc. in L.A. “It’s like if you’re casting a Dolly Parton or a Shaquille O’Neal; you can’t really get a role out of them other than them playing themselves. Anybody who has a prominent body and a prominent presence, they’re always going to be them. You can put a comedic spin on it and put somebody in facial hair or age somebody’s face. But other than that … ”
Consider the two roles that Gronkowski played in his two movies being released this year, and the line he is straddling in Hollywood. In Deported, a low-budget comedy, Gronkowski plays someone called “Party Guy Jake,” according to IMDB. Then in Boss Level—a sci-fi action thriller starring Mel Gibson, Naomi Watts, and Ken Jeong—Penzi says that Gronkowski plays a helicopter gunner, a role that appears to echo Schwarzenegger and Stallone.
Last fall, Penzi says Gronkowski was actually offered a role in an action-comedy starring John Cena. The movie is called Playing with Fire; Cena plays the leader of a group of firefighters who attempt to rescue three kids. This seemed to be Gronkowski’s big break, a chance to cross over into Cena’s realm. “It was a big role,” Penzi says. “God, we would’ve loved to be on that movie. Are you kidding me? I wanted to jump [off] a building when he said no.” Gronkowski had to turn them down, Penzi says, due to scheduling conflicts.
Production on the movie starts on February 4. One day after the Super Bowl.
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