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BRIEF ENCOUNTER

A promoter in the flash

Joe Cortese borrowed from the flamboyance of boxing figures to craft his role in 'Against the Ropes.'

March 21, 2004|Carolyn Patricia Scott

He's played a rough cop, a mob boss and every other kind of hard-nosed customer there is, so when Joe Cortese plays a king, it's almost certain to be a variant of Don King. The veteran actor with TV and movie credits from "Monsignor" and "Malevolence" to "The Rat Pack" and his latest film, "Against the Ropes" starring Meg Ryan, loves to "get inside my characters' heads."

Cortese's character in that film -- a flamboyant, chauvinistic boxing promoter named Irv Abel -- is straight from a familiar Cortese milieu -- the gyms where he's long gone to work on the look of the tough guys he portrays.

He'll be stepping back into crime in a new project: His production company has optioned the true story of criminal defense attorney Anthony Brooklier and his father Dominic, a onetime reputed leader of La Cosa Nostra in Los Angeles. Cortese, no surprise, plans to play the father.

Do how did you prepare to play Irv, a shrewd, rough-around-the-edges guy?

I go home. I think about it. I turn on the TV and start watching ESPN Classic, you know, all the old fights and things. And I'm watching Bob Arum, Cus D'Amato, Emanuel Stewart, guys like Don King. I'm thinking: "I'll go in like Don King -- without the hair. Wasn't much of a stretch for me. I'm a huge fight fan. Years ago I was training for a part as a boxer for a play. I'd gone with a friend to train over at Cus D'Amato's gym -- he trained Floyd Patterson, Jose Torres and like that. Well, he's got this young kid there training. And I remember my friend Brian Hamilton saying, "See that guy over there? He's going to be the next heavyweight championship of the world." It was Mike Tyson at about 16 years old. When I grew up, I'd go to Vegas for the fights. And that's basically how I worked on the character.

What struck you about the people you saw on the fight scene?

I see color. I see all of these guys dressed for the fights -- like kind of loud but expensive. And fight promoters were the most interesting guys then. They looked like old-time movie producers. These guys were flashy. They were big shots. Don King -- he's a great promoter. He's a great politician. He's all of that. I went into it remembering everything I picked up at the gym.

Sounds like it's a part of your everyday world.

As far as the boxing game goes -- I've always been in the game. I've got an 80-pound Everlast in the backyard for me and my son to work out on. I work out regularly. For "Malevolence," I lost 40 pounds, for "Ropes" I put weight on. I'm always getting ready. I've got to get tougher-looking for my mob-boss film -- that picture's going to be my "Monster." But before that happens, we start shooting on "The Under Boss" in June. Same thing. I got to stay in shape to keep playing interesting characters and have the energy to maybe produce some pictures of my own on the side.

Did your wardrobe in "Against the Ropes" come with the role or did you have to find a Big and Pugnacious shop?

No, you know, the threads, the clothes were all thanks to wardrobe designer Ruth Carter. When I walked onto the set everybody put their sunglasses on -- my clothes got to the set five minutes before I did. They were like, "Plug Joe's suit in, he's ready!" I had the beautiful custom-made suits, monogrammed shirts, black Kiwi polish on my hair -- it's like show time! Even one of my guys says to me, "Hey, I saw you on TV in that trailer for that movie. You were wearing that ice cream suit -- you were baaaaad!" I said, "Ice cream suit -- what're you talking about?" He says, "You were wearing that powder blue suit, man. Your hair looked like you put some shoe polish on it -- you looked like a Vegas mobster." We had a good laugh.

Now, you knew you were playing a foil for Ryan's character, but were you ready to get a few laughs in the process?

Hey, I enjoyed making it. And if they laugh, all the better, even though my character, I called him "Irv the Scurv," isn't a likable kind of guy. I liked playing him, but I don't like the guy. I don't like the guy in "Raging Bull," but he's fascinating to watch. My character is flawed, but there's some redemption in the end of the picture.

-- Carolyn Patricia Scott

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