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Billy Bob Thornton

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Vince Flores/Celebrity Photo

When he signed on to a remake of 1976’s The Bad News Bears, Billy Bob Thornton knew he was messing with a classic. But the onetime aspiring pro baseball player is putting his own spin on Coach Buttermaker, the cranky leader of a ragtag team of Little Leaguers. Thornton, 49, spoke to PEOPLE about getting back to the baseball diamond, being a dad (he has three kids from previous marriages and a 10-month-old daughter, Bella, with girlfriend Connie Angland) and ex-wife Angelina Jolie’s new addition to her family.

Was it daunting to play a role Walter Matthau made famous?
Any time that you’re playing a part that someone has made iconic, that makes you a bit nervous. But I was a big fan of Walter Matthau and of the original movie. I would never even pretend that I would be as good or as funny as he is. So I didn’t even try. I kind of just did my thing.

Do you have fond memories of being in Little League?
Well, I loved Little League, so all the memories are pretty fond. But I did break my thumb, which wasn’t a lot of fun. The first game that I pitched in Little League I struck out 10 batters. I had a curveball a little early. You’re not supposed to have one when you’re 12, but I did.

You once wanted to play baseball professionally.
When I was growing up I had no idea that I would ever be an actor. I really wanted to pitch for the St. Louis Cardinals. That’s all I wanted to do. I played all the way through high school and did pretty well. I actually had a tryout with the Kansas City Royals and had my collarbone broken in their camp. I was a junk pitcher (a pitcher who throws trick pitches), and a pretty good one.

There’s a lot of cursing and yelling at the kids in Bad News Bears. Were you ever concerned about that?
Well, after (2003’s) Bad Santa I’m really not afraid of too much around kids. I mean, this one is pretty tame compared to a lot of things. The kids get an opportunity to curse in the movie and that’s like magic to them. I acted kind of like a father to them in a way. I wouldn’t let them curse when we weren’t shooting.

What kind of father are you to your own kids?
I’m like the least strict dad in the world. I just let them have whatever they want – anything that they want to do within reason. My little girl is only 10 months old, so she’s not able to do a whole lot yet. I’m the dad that, when my boys are with me, it’s like, “Oh, we’re going over to the rock ‘n’ roll house.”

And how do you feel about your ex, Angelina Jolie, adopting another child?
Oh, I think that’s great. She’s wanted to for quite a while. I’m really, really happy for her about that. I left her a message a couple of days ago about it. Gosh, I mean, she’s been so amazing in these last few years and I’m so proud of her and just happy for her because I know how happy it makes her to have this baby. And she loves Maddox more than life.