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Cheech Marin

Back in the Game

Cheech Marin, who spent much of the 1970s and 80s swathed in a cloud of fragrant smoke as America’s lady-loving stoner in chief, never claimed to be an angel. But that doesn’t mean he can’t play a man of the cloth, as he does in his latest movie, The Perfect Game. In fact, he’s used to it.

“You know, I’m on a run of playing priests,” says the Mexican-American comedian, 63, born Richard Anthony Marin in Los Angeles. “This is my second or third. People must see something in me, something holy. But I was raised Catholic, so I know that riff. Frankly, it’s more comforting to me than ironic.”

In Perfect Game, Marin plays counselor to a group of young ballplayers from Monterrey, Mexico, who in 1957 would become the first non-U.S. team to win the Little League World Series. That surely predates much of the movie’s target audience — it’s as much aimed at children as sports nuts — but Marin, a lifelong baseball fan, remembers the story vividly.

“I was in Little League at the same age as these kids, at the time this was happening,” he says. “If you look at pictures of me at that age, I looked just like them — the same big hats, the same flannels. I was the only brown face on a white team in Granada Hills. That’s why I did this movie, because this story was hugely personal for me. It was my youth.”

Marin still follows the sport, taking in games at Dodger Stadium when the opportunity presents itself. But he admits, somewhat sheepishly, that he’s grown into the one thing he never expected to be: a golf fan. As a boy, he thought the game was “like watching paint dry.” Now, he appreciates its deliberate pace, and the skill of golfing’s elite.

“When you’re young, you want to watch ball with your dad, not golf,” he says with a laugh. “It’s different now. Kids play the game. They have amazing skills, and they know you can make money playing golf — the 83rd guy on the list makes millions of dollars each year! It’s amazing. There are a zillion really talented golfers out there these days, and it’s fun to watch.”

As much as he remains nostalgic for his own baseball days, he makes no bones about his preference when it comes to playing opposite children in movies and TV shows, including the now-defunct “Nash Bridges” (set in San Francisco) and “Judging Amy.” He’d rather not.

“I try to avoid it,” he says. “Sometimes kids can be a pain in the ass, and sometimes they can be good. In Perfect Game, they were both. There were nine of them, and some of them had no acting experience. Some of them could play baseball, some couldn’t.

“It was difficult trying to find a combination of the two. As it happened, the ones who could play baseball also happened to be the best actors. But one of the stars — a big star in Mexico who shall go nameless ’cause I don’t remember his name — he couldn’t throw. He was supposed to be the big slugger, and he could only play soccer.”

Any discussion of Marin would be incomplete without reference to his former comedy partner, Tommy Chong, whom Marin met in Vancouver during the late 60s, after leaving the U.S. to avoid the Vietnam War draft. Since bitterly parting ways in the late 80s — Marin wanted to pursue a solo career less dependent on the duo’s famously drug-inspired humor — they have since reunited for a series of live shows, albums and, soon, new movies.

“It’s been great, something I missed a lot,” he says, pausing to find the right words. “It was like having a child I couldn’t see because you’re pissed off at the mother. We had a great legacy, but I couldn’t access it without him. And he couldn’t access it without me. We tried to get together many times, but something always got in the way. I was working, or he was doing standup, or we just weren’t getting along. And then he went to jail. [Chong, 71, was sent to prison for nine months, fined $20,000 and forced to forfeit $120,000 in assets for selling mail-order drug paraphernalia.]

“Eventually, we found the one thing we could argue the least about — a live show. We knew the fans wanted to see it. The only thing we didn’t know was that our audience now seems to be between 30 and 40, and those guys weren’t around the last time we were on stage. We had to figure out a way to translate the movies into a live act, but we started out live [originally]. So it was interesting, and it’s been really great. We’re enjoying each other’s company again, and creating. There’s definitely more to come.”

The Perfect Game arrives at San Francisco theaters on Friday.