NEW YORK — Ving Rhames, fresh from his Golden Globe-winning portrayal of the big-haired boxing promoter in HBO’s “Don King: Only in America,” will next play former heavyweight Sonny Liston in a Paramount biopic that William Friedkin will direct from a script by Shane Salerno.
Liston, a glowering, towering precursor to such hard punchers as Mike Tyson, rose from prison fatigues to become boxing’s heavyweight champion by demolishing Floyd Patterson. He lost the title in a shocking upset to Muhammad Ali, who beat Liston in a controversial rematch that ended with Liston on the canvas, hit by a phantom punch that left many crying “fix.”
Liston, long a troubled figure and a bitter man who served a prison stretch for robbery, ultimately died of a heroin overdose surround by circumstances considered to be suspicious.
To Rhames, who is also producing the film and has completed three months of ring training under the tutelage of former champ Sugar Ray Leonard, Liston’s much more than a thug who fueled Ali’s path to legend status. Like many boxers throughout history, Liston grew up poor and without a constructive father figure. He was ultimately done in by demons from that childhood, which left him ill-equipped to handle life outside the ring.
“Here was a guy who was illiterate, who was one of 25 children born to a father who felt that if the kids are old enough to walk, they’re old enough to work,” said Rhames. In addition to watching Liston’s fights to emulate his style, Rhames said he’s done extensive research with fighters and trainers who knew him, with legendary boxing trainer Emmanuel Steward serving as his tour guide. Rhames has also gotten input from sources on the other side of the law with direct knowledge of Liston’s association with the mob, and his suspicious death.
“I almost want to say it’s a look at what it’s like to be a slave in the 1960s, because (Liston) was basically owned and controlled by the mob his whole career, after serving as a strong-arm for them,” Rhames said.
Rhames said Liston was an easy target for racism. He was once forced to move after being taunted daily by cops who’d pull over his car just to hassle him. Liston eventually beat up a cop, and took his gun and badge to stop the torment.
“I’ve been stopped driving my Lexus in Beverly Hills because I’m big, black and had tinted windows,” said Rhames. “Imagine what it must have been like for (Liston) in the ’60s, this dark-skinned black man who was openly called a gorilla or the king of beasts by the press.”
With Rhames and Friedkin in the ring, the Par project squares off against another Liston pic at Warner Bros., ironically tapped as a directing vehicle for John Herzfeld, who put Rhames through his paces in the King biopic. Rhames said that Salerno, whose recent script work includes stints on “Shaft,” “Armageddon” and “Zodiac,” is far along on his script. Friedkin, coming off “12 Angry Men” for Showtime, hopes to make the Liston project his next film.
And while Rhames is expected to rejoin Tom Cruise in the Paramount sequel to “Mission: Impossible,” Par sources said the Liston pic’s expected to be in production this year. That’s welcome news to Rhames: “It will be done soon, it has to. I just can’t take too many more shots from Sugar Ray Leonard. Sometimes I think because of my bald head that he has flashbacks that I’m Marvin Hagler. He’s killing my ribs.”
Rhames is repped by William Morris’ Lee Stollman and Jeff Hunter.
WB AFTER PIECE OF THE ROCK: While Warner Bros. is haggling over bucks with Kevin Spacey to square off against Nicolas Cage in the Tim Burton-directed “Superman Reborn,” Dish hears the studio wants Chris Rock for the role of cub reporter Jimmy Olson. Rock has the offer, after the studio saw his work in the still-shooting fourth installment of “Lethal Weapon.” In that pic, Rock plays the cop son-in-law of Danny Glover and, through his improvisation, the role has grown from its original scripted incarnation.
The comic might be between a rock and a hard place with scheduling. Already splitting time between “Lethal” and a starring role alongside Matt Damon and Ben Affleck in Kevin Smith’s “Dogma,” he’s also due to return to his HBO show.
MARY’S “MUMFORD” MOVE: Elizabeth Perkins has fallen out of the Lawrence Kasdan-directed “Mumford” at Touchstone, and Kasdan has tapped Mary McDonnell to replace her. It’s a reunion between the director and the two-time Oscar-nominated actress, and also brings McDonnell back to work with Alfre Woodard, after the actresses co-starred in Kasdan’s “Grand Canyon” and “Passion Fish.” McDonnell, who got her Oscar noms for “Passion Fish” and “Dances With Wolves,” is repped by William Morris’ Michelle Stern. She’s coming off toplining the CBS telepic “Replacing Dad.” “Mumford” stars Loren Dean, Martin Short, Jason Lee, Ted Danson and David Paymer.
LEARY ON THE LOOSE: Interscope is hoping some studio will tune in and turn on to its biopic of Timothy Leary, as the feature about the LSD-espousing counterculture figure has become unattached to Polygram, where Interscope initially took it.
The pic, which was set up by Panacea Entertainment’s Eric Gardner after he bought life rights from Leary before he died, has Penelope Spheeris attached to direct. The script, originated by Bima Stagg with a rewrite from J. Randal Johnson, who wrote “The Doors” with Oliver Stone, is a project with a ticking clock. The option is up in a few months, and Interscope is hot to get it set up with a financier and an actor, and not necessarily in that order.