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From Ali to Xena: 43
Posted By Alex Belth On October 17, 2011 @ 1:19 pm In 1: Featured,Arts and Culture,Bronx Banter,From Ali to Xena,John Schulian,Sportswriting,Television,Writers | Comments Disabled
Wish for a Boxer, Get a Warrior Princess
By John Schulian
By the time I got to “Hercules,” I’d all but given up on the best idea I ever had for a TV series. There was a boxer at the heart of it, naturally, but there was more to his life than left hooks and roadwork. He was part of a family that embodied the yearnings and diminished dreams of blue-collar America. His old man worked in a tannery in Chicago and had a gambling problem. His mother was ready to walk out after holding things together for as long as she could. His sister was trying to distance herself from the quagmire at home after becoming the only member of the family to graduate from college. His kid brother was in and out of trouble with the law. And the fighter would come to know every up and down in the brutal sport that might or might not be his salvation. His name was Nick Pafko and I called his story “The Ring.” If there was anything I did in Hollywood that touched my soul, that made me feel the way I did when I wrote about Muhammad Ali or Josh Gibson or Pete Maravich, this was it.
I can even tell you where I was when inspiration struck in 1989: on Mulholland Drive, heading toward another day at “Wiseguy.” I called my agent of the moment, Elliot Webb, as soon as I got to my office in that pre-cellphone era. “This is your million-dollar idea,” he said. Unfortunately, nobody I tried to sell it to for the next five years agreed with him. The networks, infatuated by glitz and glamour, wanted no part of a drama about people with broken noses and callused hands. So I put it in a drawer and concentrated on a world as unreal as “The Ring” was real.
Toward the end of our initial 13-episode order for “Hercules,” just as I prepared to introduce a warrior princess named Xena to the show, I got a call from the latest in my procession of agents, Nancy Jones. She said the Fox Network was curious. I told her curious wasn’t enough, not when I spent every waking moment writing scripts with one hand and fending off Rob Tapert’s serial treachery with the other. Nancy turned on her best stern-mommy voice and said, “John, go pitch it.” So I did, and when Fox said no, I thought “The Ring” was done for good. But the network had a new president, a bookish gent named John Matoian, and something about it caught his attention when he sifted through the discard pile. The next thing I knew, I had a deal to write a pilot script for “The Ring.”
Ah, but I still had “Hercules” and the warrior princess to deal with, didn’t I? I told Tapert and my would-be staff that I was all theirs from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. After that, my door would be closed and I would be working on a long-shot script that might save me from cleaning out the Augean Stables they created daily. High-handed? You bet. But I knew “The Ring” might be my last best chance to do a serious drama, and I’d be damned if I would waste it for the sake a show I’d never imagined doing when I came to Hollywood. Besides, I had already worked out the story that would introduce Xena, and I had promised to write it as soon as I finished my pilot. Tapert, in a rare moment of grace, acquiesced.
I’m not sure I ever had a better time writing anything than I did “The Ring.” I was dealing with characters I could practically hear breathing, in a sport that clamped its gnarled hands around my heart the first time I walked into a gym full of broken dreams. And the amazing thing – the truly once-in-my-lifetime thing – was that Fox loved the script. I’m not talking about a version of it that had been tinkered with by well-meaning young know-nothings from the studio and network. I’m talking about the script as I delivered it on the Monday after Thanksgiving 1994. Somehow it had bypassed the usual gauntlet of prying eyes and half-baked ideas and landed on the desk of the head of the network himself. And John Matoian called it “impeccable” with me sitting there in his office. He said it was one of his two favorite scripts in that development season. He embraced it as much as someone in his position could, but not so much that he didn’t have two problems with it. He thought it was too bleak and – you guessed it – too blue collar.
So much for my euphoria. I didn’t know how to address either of his concerns. “The Ring” by its very nature had to be blue-collar–rich kids don’t take up prizefighting. As for being bleak, I didn’t understand that at all. “The Ring” was about a working-class kid chasing his dream, which seemed to me the polar opposite of bleak. I was optimistic enough to think the show might even send a message to kids like my fighter that it was all right to seek a better tomorrow.
But there was too much at stake for me not to try to bend the script to Matoian’s liking. I’d given the fighter a rich girlfriend in my original script, so I added a party scene where he met her mother, who disapproved of him instantly. I moved the location of a fight from the dowdy old Aragon Ballroom to the sparkling new United Center, too. I must have made other changes, too, but they are lost to time, just like “The Ring.”
It died before it could ever go in front of a camera, at the same time I was part of the team bringing Xena into the world and unknowingly establishing the only cash cow I’ve ever had. Some might call that a better than fair trade. If “The Ring” had been like most TV series, it might not have lasted six episodes. “Xena: Warrior Princess” ran for six seasons and spawned a cultural icon. But when I tote up my own scorecard, I find myself thinking I would rather have seen “The Ring” die of bad ratings than have had a moment’s success with Xena. No, I’m not giving back the money the old girl made me. I’m just saying it would have been nice to see if I really could have spent my last years in Hollywood doing work I was proud of instead of work that usually made me want to change the subject.
But I still have my memories of “The Ring” to console me, and sometimes someone else tells me they remember it, too. When I was making my last stand in TV on a show called “Tremors,” I ran into a guy who’d been a young executive at 20th Century Fox TV when “The Ring” had its moment in the sun. He pulled me aside after a meeting and said he’d been talking with the man who’d been his boss then, and that “The Ring” had come up. “We agreed it was the best pilot we never did,” he said. I suppose I could have gotten angry. Instead, I damn near wept.
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