SALT LAKE CITY — If you thought Sandra Bullock played a fiery southern woman in “The Blind Side,” just know that even she didn’t quite match the fire of the real Leigh Anne Tuohy.
Tuohy inspired the film about a southern family who adopted a young black man they passed on the street — a young man named Michael Oher, who would eventually go on to become an offensive tackle in the NFL.
The film won Bullock an Oscar and earned over $300 million at the box office — far surpassing Hollywood’s expectations, Tuohy said, as she spoke Thursday at RootsTech, a family history conference in Salt Lake City.
When the movie premiered in New York and Los Angeles, the industry calculated how much they thought the movie was going to make based on the turnout in those two areas, Tuohy explained. It was a somewhat low budget film, and it wasn’t expected to make too much more than it cost, she said.
But the movie became a surprise smash hit.
“Do you know why it has perplexed Hollywood and why they continue to scratch their head that it was the most-watched movie on Netflix last year?” Tuohy asked the audience. “Because people look at that movie and they relate to it. They say, ‘That’s me. I want to do that. How can I do that? I want to make a difference.'”
Americans are a group of risk-takers, Tuohy said with passion and an unmistakable southern twang.
“They figured what New York was gonna do, and they figured what L.A. was gonna do. But you know what they didn’t? They didn’t figure what Salt Lake City, Utah, and Malone, Illinois, and Monroe, Louisiana, and Jackson, Mississippi. They never figured out that those people look at that movie and go, ‘That’s who we are. That’s who we want to be,’” she said to cheers from the crowd.
But on that fateful day when Tuohy told her husband to “turn around” as they drove by Oher walking down the street in shorts and a T-shirt on a cold winter morning, the southern mother of two had no intention of “being that person.” She didn’t even like the two children she had, she joked. She wasn't planning on adopting a third — especially a large African American teenager.
But the Tuohy family, to this day, still wears bracelets that say “turn around” to remind them of the life-changing decision of those words.
When the family pulled up alongside the teen, Tuohy spoke to Oher with all the force of a southern mother and told him he had two choices: they could drop him off where he needed to go, or he could come eat breakfast with their family.
But after they dropped him off at a bus station, Tuohy couldn’t stop thinking about Oher. The next day she went in to her son’s school since he recognized Oher as one of his classmates. When she asked the principal what he could tell her about the young man, he told her she didn’t need to get involved because Oher wasn’t “gonna make it” and he wouldn’t accept her help.
Tuohy insisted on seeing him, however, and when Oher walked out of his classroom, she asked if he would like to go shopping and get some warmer clothes. He said he would love it, and she turned around and stuck her tongue out at the principal, she demonstrated to laughs from the crowd.
“I picked him up. I took him shopping, and Monday became Tuesday, and Tuesday became Wednesday, and that became our life. And there was no agenda and no motive, and there was no intent, and I didn’t make a list that said, ‘Drive down street. Find large African American young man. Adopt him and make him a famous football player.’ I wish I was that smart. I’m not,” she said.
And the only reason the family’s story became a movie was because Tuohy’s husband was interviewed at home, one day, by his friend Michael Lewis, author of “Moneyball” and “The Big Short.” When Lewis went to leave, he asked about the large black teen that acted like he lived in their house.
When Tuohy’s husband responded that he did live there, Lewis insisted on hearing the rest of the story. The author would then go on to write an article about the family in the New York Times that gained so much traction he wrote a book, which eventually was bought by Fox to become a movie.
Julia Roberts was originally cast to play Tuohy’s character, but was unable to do it at the last minute, and the movie was dropped.
“Then Warner Brothers picked it up. That’s called — you can’t make this up — a ‘turn around,’” she said.
The movie became a smash hit, though her husband “who makes tacos for a living” negotiated the family’s cut of the proceeds, “and we make nothing on the movie,” Tuohy said, noting that she reminds her husband of that a lot.
But she believes her family gained something much greater.
“Can you imagine if someone as valuable as a Michael Oher almost falls through the cracks? Who gets left behind? That should keep everyone up in this room tonight, because the next best teacher, the next best pilot, the next best salesman, the next best whatever. All they need is a chance,” she said. “They need someone who believes in them, that provides structure, that provides hope, provides love, provides an opportunity. And they could be the next Michael Oher.”