Eric Raskin

Bright “Lights”: A long-shot lead powers FX’s new boxing drama

The tagline for Lights Out, the first major television drama series set in the world of boxing, consists of four simple words: “Everybody loves a comeback.”

That statement is generally true (as long as Brett Favre isn’t involved). But one thing you can say with even more certainty is that everybody loves an underdog.

When Lights Out premieres this Tuesday night at 10 p.m. on FX, viewers will become acquainted with 40-year-old former heavyweight champion Patrick “Lights” Leary. When they learn about all the adversity he’s facing five years after retiring from the ring at his wife’s insistence — financial ruin, early evidence of pugilistic dementia, a brother/manager who creates three problems for every one he solves, run-ins with the law and the mob — they’ll see a man who has gone from having it all to having the odds stacked heavily against him.

But even at his lowest moments, Lights Leary isn’t half the underdog that Holt McCallany was to be the actor who brought the ex-champ to life.

And thank goodness this underdog won, because McCallany is a huge part of why Lights Out works. If the wrong actor had been picked for the lead, Lights Out probably wouldn’t have gotten beyond the filming of a pilot episode. But the brass behind the series found the perfect actor — or perhaps more accurately, he found them.

The 46-year-old McCallany is the definition of a journeyman actor, having worked consistently on both the big and small screens since 1987 without ever landing a major lead role. You’re unlikely to know his name, but you’ve probably seen his face before, perhaps in such movies as Fight Club and Three Kings or on CSI: Miami.

But if there’s one role on his resume that should stand out to fight fans, it’s a character by the name of Teddy Atlas. McCallany played the famous boxing trainer in the 1995 HBO movie Tyson.

“Since long before there was something called Lights Out, boxing was always my favorite sport,” McCallany told RingTV.com. “My brother was a Golden Gloves champion boxer, and I used to box with him from the time I was in my teens. Many years later, when I did Tyson, I formed a close, personal friendship with Teddy Atlas. Teddy essentially opened the door for me into his life, and that has impacted my life and my career ever since.”

McCallany was there, in the gyms, in the arenas, soaking everything in, when Atlas was working with the likes of Michael Moorer and Shannon Briggs in the mid-’90s. Not only an actor but also a writer/producer, McCallany saw great potential in a project — either a feature film or a TV series — about Atlas.

He worked on scripts and pitched the Atlas treatment wherever he could, and in ’98, it seemed close to reality with writer Tom Fontana (St. Elsewhere, Homicide: Life On The Street, Oz) attached and NBC showing interest. But then the president of NBC got fired, and as is usually the case when an executive shuffle like that occurs, the incoming president elected to distance himself from his predecessor’s projects. So the Atlas show vanished.

“I kept trying to get the Teddy Atlas project off the ground, but if you’re not Russell Crowe or something, it’s a real uphill battle,” McCallany explained. “Look, there’s only one reason there’s a movie called The Fighter about Micky Ward: It’s because Mark Wahlberg really admires Micky Ward and Mark wanted to play Micky. That’s why that movie exists. And even so, it almost fell apart several times and it took him seven years to get it done. And Mark Wahlberg is a movie star. This is the obstacle that I was up against. I’m not a movie star.”

But when you believe in something, you don’t give up on it, so between the cracks of all his paying gigs, McCallany kept plugging away on trying to find a home for his Atlas show. About a decade after NBC passed, McCallany was still working on the idea, attracted the interest of respected TV writer/producer Bill Finkelstein (NYPD Blue, Law & Order) and got a meeting with the head of the TV department at Mosaic Media, which is closely linked with HBO. McCallany explained his Atlas project and advertised that he had an experienced show runner in Finkelstein.

Once again, the idea was rejected. And the reason made McCallany do a double take.

“They said, ‘You know, Holt, we like your idea, but it’s too close to something that just got greenlit at FX.’ And I went, ‘There’s a boxing drama that just got greenlit at FX?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, why don’t you try to get into that one?’

“That’s like saying, ‘Why don’t you walk down Sunset Boulevard and hope you get struck by lightning?’ First, you pray for rain, and if it really starts raining, I don’t know, you hold up a big piece of metal.”

Even though he figured it was a thousand-to-one shot, McCallany went to see his agent, Barry McPherson at APA Talent, and asked, “Do you know anything about an FX boxing drama?”

“Yeah, it’s called Lights Out. Here,” McPherson said as he handed McCallany the script, which had been sitting on his desk. McCallany sat down on the couch and, while his agent was fast-talking and making deals into his headset phone a few feet away, started reading.

“I got about five or six pages in,” McCallany recalled, “and I realized that what I was holding in my hands was very, very similar to the thing that I had been wanting to do for all those years. Yes, one is about a former heavyweight champion, the other is about a trainer. But what’s the same is the milieu. It’s a drama set in the world of boxing. And it’s essentially about a protagonist and his relationships with his family and with the other people in the boxing world.

“Lights Leary wasn’t just a role on a TV show. This was one of those special characters that could be a tour de force. And I knew instantly it could be the breakout part that I’ve been waiting to find for 25 years.”

Unfortunately for McCallany, FX and the creative team behind the show were looking at several high-profile actors for the lead role. But nothing had been decided yet, and McPherson got him in the door for an audition. Still, it was like an unknown pitcher getting a walk-on tryout for the Yankees the day before the season starts; even if you can hit 99 on the radar gun, you can’t realistically expect them to drop everything and put you on the roster.

McCallany went in to read, and he could tell right away that they liked him.

“I’d spent a lot of time around the boxing world, I felt like I understood something about the psychology of fighters,” McCallany said. “I had learned a lot from my friend Teddy Atlas, and I had spent a lot of time in a lot of gyms with a lot of fighters because that’s what I love. Not every guy brings that in the room with them. And it felt to me like they saw that.”

Indeed they did, and McCallany got a callback. So he went in again and read some more, and the show’s creators spent time working with him. At this juncture, it became clear to McCallany that he was being given real consideration. He flew to Miami to play a guest role on an episode of another TV show, and when he was about to get on the plane to fly back to Los Angeles, he got a call from McPherson.

“When you land in Los Angeles,” his agent told him, “the writer and the director of Lights Out would like to take you to dinner as soon as you get off the plane. They want to talk to you about going in and testing for the network … because you’re their first choice.”

After hearing those words, for the first time in the process McCallany allowed himself to believe that this dream role might actually become his.

“I’ve been in this business a long time,” he noted. “When they’re telling you that the moment you step off the plane is when they want to meet you, that’s a high level of enthusiasm that you’re not going to see all the time.”

McCallany went to dinner with the writer and director and they told him he was indeed the guy they wanted, but now he had to convince the network and the studio in a screen test.

So the following day, McCallany walked into a room filled with about 30 executives and started reading. He finished, and they asked him to wait outside. The 25 longest minutes of McCallany’s life ticked by as he sat in the waiting room, pretending to read a book he’d brought along as a prop just to mask what a jittery mess he was, while on the other side of the wall, a powerful collection of strangers decided his destiny.

Finally the casting director stepped out and asked McCallany to come back into the room. He was caught off-guard. Almost every time, the way it works is you do your screen test, they send you out of the room, then they tell you to go home and they call your agent later that day or the following morning to give you the news, good or bad.

Instead, a nerve-wracked McCallany walked back into the room and the writer of the show said to him, “Holt, we need you to do the second scene again.” “All right,” McCallany responded as he began to steel his mind for one more make-or-break performance. Then he heard the words he’d been waiting his whole life to hear.

“Nah, I’m just f—ing with you. You got the job.”

“It’s literally a moment that I’ll never forget,” McCallany told RingTV.com. “This wasn’t my first time at the dance, and I knew immediately that my life was changed forever. My life is changed forever now. Whatever happens with Lights Out — I hope it will be a success, but whatever happens, my career and the way that I’m perceived within the industry have been substantially improved in very tangible ways.”

Even after McCallany had the job, though, the battle was far from over. They shot an expensive pilot, and the FX executives weren’t thrilled with it. So they replaced the writer, the director, the director of photography, the stunt coordinator, the costume designer and nearly all of the actors. In essence, all that remained were McCallany and the concept for the show, then they brought in writer/director/producer Warren Leight (In Treatment, Law & Order: Criminal Intent), who re-tooled everything.

The show had undergone a major metamorphosis, at great expense to the network, and about the only thing that survived was the no-name star who never even would have known about the role if not for a fateful meeting where his decade-long passion project got rejected.

And it’s a good thing the network stuck with McCallany, because the show probably wouldn’t have worked with an actor that the public already knew and had preconceived notions about. You can’t watch Mark Wahlberg in The Fighter and completely forget that you’re watching Mark Wahlberg. In Ali, Will Smith never becomes Muhammad Ali; he’s always Will Smith pretending to be Ali. That’s not a criticism of either man’s acting chops. It’s a simple statement of how much harder it is for an established actor to make the audience forget they’re watching that established actor.

“Conventional wisdom in the movie and television business is that an actor will always be most closely identified with that character that represents his breakthrough performance,” McCallany said. “Patrick Leary is an honorable guy. He’s a likable guy. He’s a guy who loves his family more than anything in the world. He’s a guy who’s capable of brutality, but isn’t brutish. If it’s true that your breakthrough character is the one you’re identified with for the rest of their career, and if Lights Leary is my breakthrough role — and I think it’s safe to say he is — then that’s fine with me.”

THE RASKIN REVIEW

It’s almost unheard for a network to send an entire season of a show to critics in advance, but that’s what FX did with Lights Out. Doing so suggests a high level of confidence that the response will be positive. Having seen all 13 episodes, I understand where FX’s confidence comes from.

That’s not to say the show doesn’t have its flaws. Somewhat like the film Rocky Balboa, Lights Out struggles at times with finding the right balance between gritty realism and Hollywood sensationalism. And of course, there are all of the expected boxing clichés: dirty promoters, fixed fights, the involvement of the mob, pugilistic dementia. But where Lights Out deserves credit is for repeatedly taking these plot devices we’ve seen before in boxing movies and handling them in ways we haven’t seen before. While some of these storylines start out feeling predictable, they rarely end that way.

We have been experiencing over the past decade a golden age of scripted drama on television, with premium cable networks like HBO and Showtime and basic cable channels like FX and AMC able to take risks that the free networks can’t. Those risks include pushing the envelope in terms of sex, violence, gore, etc. But they also include giving a chance to shows that won’t necessarily appeal to a broad audience. Would FOX have greenlit a show set in the world of boxing, especially after its own boxing-based reality show, The Next Great Champ, and NBC’s reality show, The Contender, both came up smaller than expected in the ratings? No. But FOX’s sister station, FX, is in a position to experiment with a show like Lights Out.

Of course, Lights Out is much more than just a show about boxing. As McCallany said, it’s a show about family and relationships. But it’s also a show about desperate people, desperate times and desperate measures. This has been a common theme among the best television shows of the 2000s, from FX’s The Shield to HBO’s The Wire to AMC’s Breaking Bad. In the latter, a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher needs money to support his family and he starts cooking crystal meth. To Patrick Leary’s wife, Theresa, the idea of him returning to the ring at age 40 isn’t any more appealing than the idea of him manufacturing and selling drugs. But it’s the only way Lights knows how to make the kind of money they need to dig out of their hole.

Lights Out is an ambitious show, one that uses its 13 episodes to give layers and texture to an ex-boxer’s life. Other than Rocky Balboa, who came into our lives over the course of six separate two-hour movies, we’ve never had this much time to get to know a fictional boxer, and it’s hard not to care about Lights Leary.

“I have a lot of respect and admiration for boxers because I understand how hard it is to do what they do. I understand the things they have to sacrifice and the risks that they take,” said McCallany, who trained with Atlas for the pilot, with Mark Breland thereafter and in fact competed in (and won) an amateur fight last year. “Most of the fighters that I’ve known are actually pretty good guys. So it was essential to me that I make Patrick a really good guy. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a fighter’s mentality. That doesn’t mean if you challenge him that you’re not going to get that response. He’s a fighter. But at the same time, he has a lot of humanity and compassion. I think ultimately, a lot of fighters are more sensitive than you might imagine. And a lot of them have a kind of humility. That’s what I wanted to give the guy. He knows the experience of being knocked out in front of his friends and family. That’s important.”

Without spoiling any plot developments, I’ll say that the series starts out strong, then gets a little spotty in the middle, starting with the over-the-top conclusion to the fourth episode. But if you start to feel Lights Out is losing its way around that time, I urge you to stick with it. From the moment a character named Ed Romeo is introduced, the show regains its steam and maintains it until the season concludes.

(Some fun things for fight fans to keep an eye out for: an homage to Marvin Hagler’s “WAR” hat; a reference to a fighter drinking his own urine; and cameos by Steve Farhood, Steve Albert, Arthur Mercante Jr., John Duddy, Paulie Malignaggi, Vivian Harris and Peter Manfredo.)

In the end, even though Lights Out doesn’t paint boxing as a world inhabited by saints — if anything, it perpetuates many of the dirty stereotypes — it still respects the sport and pays proper tribute to the athletes that make it great. Lights Out isn’t likely to send thousands of kids running to their local gyms the way Rocky did, but it still rates to create some new fight fans. At the very least, it will provide 13 episodes of entertainment for viewers over the next few months.

And having seen those 13 episodes already, I’m rooting hard for ratings strong enough to guarantee at least 13 more.

RASKIN’S RANTS

• Ruslan Provodnikov is a tough enough assignment even without one of your eyes mutating into a small eggplant. Good for Mauricio Herrera for finding a way to not just endure but actually win in the main of ESPN2’s Friday Night Fights. Through one week of 2011, Herrera is the leader in the clubhouse for Fighter of the Year. (You know, as long as we’re not putting it up to a public vote of Pacquiao fans.)

• This might surprise you, but I really don’t mind the addition of the “MMA Live” segment that debuted this past week on FNF. If they want to take one lousy minute out of our show to promote another show, I’m not going to get bent out of shape over it — especially since I usually watch FNF on Saturday morning and can just fast-forward through the MMA minute. However, I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t worry me just a little that this could be the first step toward FNF becoming an all-MMA show a few years down the road.

• For those who missed last week’s season premiere of Ring Theory, do yourself a favor and at least fast-forward to the 43:53 mark so you can hear the result of my “Quick Picks” humiliation bet with Bill Dettloff. How much do you want to bet Bill has started using my reading of the final line as his new cell phone ring tone? There’s a sound byte that could come back to haunt me if I ever had to re-enter the dating pool.

Eric Raskin can be reached at RaskinBoxing@yahoo.com. You can read his articles each month in THE RING magazine and follow him on Twitter @EricRaskin.

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