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Mad Max

Heavyweight champ Max Baer Sr. was unable to defend himself against 'Cinderella Man.' The job fell to Max Jr., who's going down swinging.

January 07, 2007|J.R. Moehringer | J.R. Moehringer is a senior writer for West. He also is the author of the memoir "The Tender Bar." His 1997 boxing story for the Los Angeles Times Magazine, "Resurrecting the Champ," has been turned into a movie starring Samuel L. Jackson and Josh Hartnett, to be released later this year.

He walks into the coffee shop and heads turn. He's that type--the type who looks as if he must be famous, or else was famous once. No one walks that way, frowns that way, unless he has some inside knowledge of fame.

He wears billowy black sweatpants, a red windbreaker, a sleeveless black muscle shirt and Uggs. Not your typical outfit for Lake Tahoe in late fall--nor for a 69-year-old man anywhere in any season. But he makes few concessions to age. Against age he'll never stop punching. For instance, he's had three hair transplants and doesn't care who knows it. Blow-dried, delicately molded across his head, his hair is also tinted black to match his razor-thin mustache.

On his waist rides his most telling fashion statement, a small black fanny pack in which he usually keeps a loaded 9-millimeter Glock. But not today. Today, thank God, Jethro is unarmed.

He looks mad, which is good. That's how I pictured him. That's why I came up here to Lake Tahoe in the first place, because I'd heard Max Baer Jr.--who played Jethro in the 1960s sitcom "The Beverly Hillbillies"--was mad as hell about Ron Howard's 2005 boxing movie, "Cinderella Man," which Baer Jr. felt desecrated the memory of his late father, Max Baer Sr., the great heavyweight champion of the 1930s.It was a big story, for a few days, because it was such a kitschy contretemps--Jethro vs. Opie. In dozens of TV and radio interviews, Baer Jr. excoriated Howard and vehemently defended Baer Sr. Then the story went away, since there was nothing more Baer Jr. could do. The dead can't claim libel, so their kin can't sue. Baer Jr. was left to deal with his rage, and "Cinderella Man" was free to go into the world as the most widely and readily available depiction of his father.

Even after the story faded from the headlines, however, it retained its hold on me. Baer Jr.'s battle to save his father's reputation reminded me that we are nothing but our stories. After we're gone, our solid, linear identities will dissolve and fragment into loose collections of stories, and it will fall to our loved ones to gather up and keep those stories alive--a task that might require more than just knowing and telling the truth. It might require fighting off strangers bent on tampering with the truth to serve their own stories.

Baer Jr. shakes my hand and slides across from me in the corner booth. "I'll have the usual," he tells the waiter, and he's surprised that the waiter doesn't know "the usual" means Egg Beaters, flapjacks, sausages, potatoes and coffee. Baer Jr. reminds him, then turns to me and abruptly launches into a remarkable stream-of-consciousness tirade. He's all riled up, but not about "Cinderella Man." He's riled up about the state of the world. Mark Foley. Nancy Pelosi. Global warming. He's giving me his take on just about everything, from Iraq to "Rocky"--and the many sequels each seems predestined to spawn.

Like Jethro, the hyperactive man-child he played for nine years, Baer Jr. has no indoor voice. He's permanently loud and his volume is ever-rising, especially when he's mad. Customers who stared when he first walked in are openly gawking.

Now he's yelling. No one's disagreeing with him, and yet he's yelling, as if trying to drown out some chorus of dissent only he can hear. He's stabbing an exclamation point into the end of each sentence. He's working himself into a full-blown rage, and it occurs to me that he might lose all control, punch someone, and I'm the likeliest target since I'm two feet away. I worry that I'm seconds from a Jethro throw-down. More troubling is how far he's drifted from the reason for my visit. I try to steer him in that direction.

Ron Howard? "Cinderella Man?"

It's actually a good movie, he says, calmly forking Egg Beaters into his mouth.

Huh?

"Ronnie Howard did a terrific job. Craig Bierko, who played my father? Did a good job. The way he wipes his gloves on his boxing trunks? That's just how my dad did it."

Gone are the exclamation points. Ellipses now fall like soft rain after each conciliatory phrase. I put down my pen.

Of course, he adds, Howard and his team decided they needed "a villain with no redeeming characteristics," so they made Baer Sr. a figure of pure evil, a caricature, which was not only untrue, it was less interesting than the truth.

I pick up my pen.

But, he adds, as an actor, as a showbiz veteran, he was able to look past all the inaccuracies about his father and appreciate the film for its many fine qualities.

I put down my pen.

Isn't he still even a little mad about the movie?

"I don't think I lost a moment of sleep about it. One thing I know in life is I have zero control over what happened yesterday."

Suddenly Jethro is a Buddhist.

Something strange is going on here.

It's one of the cardinal rules taught to cub reporters and law students: The dead can't be libeled. The dead are fair game. Say whatever you please about the dead, they're powerless to stop you. More importantly, so are their descendants.

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