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How a Tom Brady-loving grandma inspired the making of ‘80 for Brady’

Max Gross and his grandmother, Betty Pensavalle. (Courtesy of Max Gross)
6 min

If you watched the NFL playoffs over the past month, you couldn’t have missed the trailer for “80 for Brady,” the new comedy starring Sally Field, Jane Fonda, Rita Moreno and Lily Tomlin about a group of friends who travel to Super Bowl LI in Houston to see their hero, then-New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. In one locker room scene from the gag-filled trailer, Fonda’s character tells former Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski he’s “so big,” which might have left you wondering: How the Gronk did this movie get made?

It’s a charming story, really, and it wouldn’t have been possible without 94-year-old Betty Pensavalle, who began gathering with a tightknit group of friends in their Massachusetts neighborhood south of Boston to faithfully watch Brady and the Patriots on TV every Sunday almost two decades ago.

In October 2018, Pensavalle’s grandson Max Gross, a talent agent at WME, made a weekend trip with his family to Attleboro, Mass., to celebrate Pensavalle’s 90th birthday. As Gross prepared to leave for the airport Sunday afternoon, his only surviving grandparent emerged wearing a custom “Over 80 for Brady” T-shirt designed by one of her other grandsons. “Everyone to the den to watch the game,” she declared.

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“I just started laughing,” Gross, 34, said in a telephone interview this week. “Here’s this 90-year-old woman, it’s her birthday, and all she wants to do is watch Tom. I said to my mom, ‘This has got to be a movie.’ ”

On the flight home to Los Angeles, Gross thought more about what such a movie might look like, initially imagining a road-trip comedy with, as he described it, “Book Club” meets “Get Him to the Greek” vibes. Only two years into his career at WME, Gross was still an agent trainee and coordinator at the time, but he said the company fostered curiosity among all of its employees, and he felt empowered to pursue his crazy idea.

A colleague connected Gross with Christopher Slager at Endeavor Content, who was enthusiastic about the premise. Gross’s rough pitch, still no more than a paragraph, eventually made its way to Tomlin, who is repped by WME and gave her approval. Donna Gigliotti, whose past credits include “Hidden Figures” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” signed on to produce. In early 2020, the project received buy-in from Brady himself, with the quarterback, also a WME client, agreeing to star in and co-produce the movie with Fifth Season through his recently launched company 199 Productions.

“That really got the ball rolling,” Gross said of Brady’s commitment after he pitched the idea to Brady’s agent, Jason Hodes.

Gross hadn’t mentioned his efforts to his grandmother, so as not to get her hopes up if nothing came of it. Once the movie got the green light, he arranged for Brady to record a video message with the news, which Gross shared with Pensavalle on Easter Sunday in 2020.

“I want to make a movie based on your ‘Over 80 for Brady’ crew,” Brady told Pensavalle in the recording, which was featured on a recent episode of “CBS Sunday Morning.”

“Oh, my God, Max!” a stunned Pensavalle replied. “How did you do that? Is that really him or an imitation?”

“We really wanted him to tell her that it was happening,” Gross said. “It made it that much more special, and it was something that she would have for the rest of her life. He was fantastic about doing it, and it worked out really well.”

Gross got his grandmother’s blessing to see the project through. After Paramount Pictures acquired the rights last February, the almost entirely fictional movie, directed by Kyle Marvin, was shot over the summer. Brady recruited former Patriots teammates Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola to appear in the film, along with Gronkowski.

Pensavalle is no stranger to attention from New England sports royalty, though it has been several decades. As a 21-year-old in 1950, she was named “Miss Boston Jubilee” and was tasked with promoting a five-day festival sponsored by the Boston Chamber of Commerce. One of the events Pensavalle attended was batting practice at Fenway Park, where she posed for a photo with Red Sox star Ted Williams.

“When I had that picture taken, he said something to me,” Pensavalle told the Sun Chronicle in 2002. “I looked back at him, and he was so handsome, I almost fainted. I was engaged at the time, and he was a perfect gentleman. I remember my husband, Conrad, wasn’t too happy at the time, but he came to really enjoy [the photo] in later years.”

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Conrad “Connie” Pensavalle, a legend in North Attleboro who helped establish the town’s youth football program, died in 2005. Shortly thereafter, Betty Pensavalle and four friends, some of whom also were widows, began rotating among each other’s houses on Sundays to watch Brady and the Patriots. When Brady signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2020, they set up two televisions to watch both their favorite quarterback and their favorite team.

With two friends already in assisted-living facilities, the group dwindled to two after Clare Boardman died in September. Pensavalle and Elaine St. Martin, who have been friends for more than 70 years and still talk on the phone every day, continued the tradition this season, which would turn out to be Brady’s last.

In December, Paramount Pictures arranged a private screening of “80 for Brady” for the friends and families of Pensavalle, St. Martin and the other three women who inspired the movie, which opens nationwide Friday. Gross and his mother flew out for the event at the theater adjacent to Gillette Stadium.

“I did it for them” said Gross, who was promoted to agent at WME in 2019. “If my grandma had said, ‘No, don’t do this,’ I wouldn’t have done it, but she was happy with it and she loved the movie. Their families are all so happy and so excited. It’s a moment that they can have later in life that’s really special for them.”

At Tuesday’s red-carpet premiere in Los Angeles, Gross shared a moment with Brady. He said he had no idea the seven-time Super Bowl champion would announce he was retiring from football — “for good” — the next morning.

“Tom actually asked me, ‘Can you believe that we’re here?’ ” Gross said. “I was like, ‘Not really, but I’m happy about it.’ It’s a pretty cool thing, and I hope people like it.”