ESPN pic in the ring

Cabler in corner for Johnson biopic

ESPN has signed telepic producer Gerald Abrams to develop an original movie about the life of Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion of the world.

Paris Qualles, who wrote “The Tuskegee Airmen” and “Blood Brothers,” has been inked to write ESPN’s Johnson biopic. Abrams’ Cypress Point Prods. will produce.

“I’ve wanted to make a movie about Jack Johnson for a number of years, but I was always scared off by the reputation of ‘The Great White Hope’ movie,” ESPN exec VP of programming and production Mark Shapiro said. “But when I saw ‘Great White Hope’ recently, I realized how dated it is, and how much it needs to be contemporized and given more dramatic flair.”

“Hope,” produced by 20th Century Fox in 1970, stars James Earl Jones as Jack Johnson.

In January, PBS will air Ken Burns’ latest docu, “Unforgivably Black: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson.”

ESPN has scheduled four previous original movies, the last of which, “3,” a biopic about racecar driver Dale Earnhardt, harvested the biggest audiences ever for an ESPN made-for, pulling in a 5.0 rating, good for 4.44 million households.

The first movie, “A Season on the Brink,” a biopic about the college-basketball coach Bobby Knight, chalked up 2.964 million homes in May 2002. The second, “The Junction Boys,” in December 2002, a biopic about the college football coach Bear Bryant, scored 3.014 million homes.

The only disappointing performer was the third original, “Hustle,” about Pete Rose’s gambling addiction, which delivered 1.24 million homes, a number that at least placed the movie above ESPN’s primetime average, according to Shapiro.

The next ESPN movie to go into production will be a biopic about Roger Bannister, the English runner who was the first person to break the four-minute mile.

Also in development at ESPN is a made-for adaptation of “When Pride Still Mattered,” David Maraniss’s book about Vince Lombardi.

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