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Boxer's tale lands back in the ring

August 20, 2007|Susan King

In May 1997, the Los Angeles Times published J.R. Moehringer's heartfelt story "Resurrecting the Champ," chronicling the sad life of a professional boxer who was homeless and living on the streets. More than just a tale about the downfall of a sports figure, the article also dealt with Moehringer's relationship with "The Champ," as well as the writer coming to terms with his own father's abandonment of the family when he was a baby.

Although movie rights were purchased soon after the story was published, it has taken a decade for "Resurrecting the Champ" to make it to the big screen. Along the way, actors, writers and studios have come and gone.

Directed by Rod Lurie, the film, opening Friday, stars Samuel L. Jackson as the Champ and Josh Hartnett as Erik, a sportswriter struggling with the ghost of his famous father while trying to be a solid dad to his young son.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Moehringer, who left The Times this year, says he had asked to write the screenplay but was rejected.

"I wanted to take a crack at it," he says. "It was very close to me and a personal story. I thought I would like to keep it going. I found a kind of prejudice against reporters writing screenplays."

Lurie was also a journalist a decade ago when he asked producer Mike Medavoy and Morgan Freeman, who was then attached to play the Champ, if he could take a stab at the screenplay.

"I met with them four times and auditioned to write the screenplay," says Lurie. "They wouldn't hire me."

Over the ensuing years, three screenplays were commissioned: one by Michael Bortman, another by Allison Burnett and a third by Chris Gerolmo. None went forward.

"In 2003," Lurie says, "when the project wasn't going anywhere, my agent at the time told them I was still interested, and then they gave me a crack at it." Lurie, by that time, had written and directed the critical hit "The Contender."

"I took elements from all the screenplays, but quite a bit of my own stuff is what you see on screen," says Lurie, who shifted the emphasis of Erik's relationship with his father to his little boy. "I would have filmed all the screenplays I read; they were all good. This is just a different story." (The screenplay credit went to Bortman and Burnett after a Writers Guild arbitration.)

Freeman, says Lurie, had scheduling conflicts that prevented him from making the movie -- one of them being "Million Dollar Baby," for which he won an Oscar.

"Eventually we simply had to say, 'Look, we need to make the film,' " Lurie says. So on a Friday night, a call was placed to Jackson's agent. Three days later, the actor accepted.

-- Susan King

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