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Ringside Seats : 'Screenworks' on TNT dissects the heart and soiled soul of boxing


Sports have always played an important part in writer Art Washington's life.

"I played football in college," says the Pennsylvania native. "Boxing was a way of kind of keeping in shape when I came to L.A. I actually have done some boxing promoting myself."

One of his trainers was a man named Percy, whom Washington describes as "one of your classic fight-manager persons." Percy, who recently died, was the inspiration for Washington's drama "Percy and Thunder," premiering Tuesday as part of TNT's "Screenworks" showcase.

James Earl Jones stars as Percy Banks, a once-gifted fighter who was exploited by unscrupulous handlers. Percy bucked the system, but paid for it with his career. Now working as a trainer in Pennsylvania, he comes across Wayne Carter (Courtney B. Vance), an amateur middleweight billed as Thunder, who may have what it takes to get to the top. Billy Dee Williams stars as the boxing don who has his sights on Thunder. Ivan Dixon ("Hogan's Heroes") is the director.

For years, Washington had wanted to write about the sport. "I had a rough draft I had done that investigated the whole world of boxing," he says. "It was much like 'Hill Street Blues' in the world of boxing."

Michael Brandman, executive producer of "Screenworks," had worked previously with Washington on an HBO project, and the two had become friends. "I became a real admirer of his work," Brandman says. "He had a wonderful ear and a totally singular way of expressing himself as a writer."

When Brandman started to commission writers for "Screenworks," he wanted Washington to write an original screenplay. Washington had written the PBS shows "Righteous Apples" and "Up & Coming" and was a story editor and director on "MacGyver."

"We knew Art had some roots in the boxing business," Brandman says. "When we were looking to do something together, we thought, 'Why not do a very realistic look at the world of professional boxing?' "

However, "Percy and Thunder" is more than just a glove story. "Boxing is like many other other areas (of life). You have a lot of stuff that is very tough to negotiate," Washington says. "But even in the center of it, the human heart is going to find a way to express itself. People are going to relate to people in wonderful ways."

And that's the gist of the movie. "Percy has been taught a particular way," Washington says. "He's got a hard heart on one hand, but in the center he's still a human being. He cares, in spite of all of the hard knocks he has taken. This kid touches his heart."

It also touched Washington's heart to see his words being brought to life by the likes of Jones, Williams and Vance. "To walk on the set to see James Earl Jones, to sit in the trailer with James Earl Jones, and talk to Billy Dee Williams--we are talking film history," he says.

Jones, who received a Tony Award and Oscar nomination for his powerful turn as boxer Jack Jefferson in "The Great White Hope," turned down another project to do "Percy."

"I'd decided I wanted to work with Ivan," explains Jones in his trailer, parked outside a Culver City sound stage where the production is filming the climactic boxing sequence.

Jones and Dixon have a long history: Jones was Dixon's understudy in the first professional play he did in New York more than 30 years ago. "I've watched Ivan's evolution into directing and always looked for a chance to work with him," Jones says in his booming "Darth Vader" voice.

Jones also was looking for a chance to reunite with Vance. The two played father and son on Broadway and in Los Angeles in August Wilson's "Fences," for which Jones won his second Tony.

Working with Vance, Jones says, made it easier for him, "in terms of developing the characters, because we have some groundwork being father and son. We trust each other. I know that we won't abuse each other as co-stars, which can happen. I know that I want his best performance and I know he wants mine."

"If I could, I would work with him all the time," Vance says warmly. "He is a consummate genius. He's in a league by himself. We work very much the same way. It's really a shorthand work experience. We just cut through a lot of stuff."

Going through his paces in the ring, Vance is impressive. So much so, it's hard to believe he only trained for two weeks. "I'm very athletically inclined," Vance says matter-of-factly. He also has followed boxing most of his life.

"I love boxers," he says. "'I love to watch Sugar Ray Leonard and Muhammad Ali." When Ali visited the set the week before, Vance says, "I was floating. To actually meet this man--he is larger than life. He is more than just a boxer."

Though Jones also is a big Ali fan, he hates the sport. And for good reason. "The last fight I saw before I joined this project was a fight in Spain while we were filming 'Great White Hope' there," he quietly recalls. "I saw a Nigerian fighter get killed right in front of my eyes by a Spanish fighter. The fighter was obviously in medical trouble, but they wouldn't let him sit between rounds. They wouldn't let him drink water. So I avoided going to fights for a while."

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