HOLLYWOOD — Like many great films, Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby” nearly wasn’t born.
Over the years, it lurched between existing and nothingness and several times nearly wound up as something else altogether: An Anjelica Huston indie. An HBO miniseries. A Robert Benton picture toplining Sandra Bullock.
Instead, “Baby” grew up to be strong and sinewy, clinching best supporting actor for Morgan Freeman, best actress for Hilary Swank, best director for Clint Eastwood and best picture of the year.
Forgotten by many is that Warner Bros. initially didn’t want to take a risk on the script (too dark), especially with its $30 million budget (too high).
“I was stunned when they said they wanted to do it,” said screenwriter Paul Haggis, nominated for best adapted screenplay, adding “I mean look at what it’s about.”
Moreover, Jerry Boyd — the author of the short story on which “Baby” is based — felt so alienated by past negotiations for “Baby” that he’d resolved to have nothing more to do with bringing it to the big screen.
“He was one of those guys who, if you changed one word of a contract after he thought you had a deal, he’d flip out,” said “Baby” producer Al Ruddy. He came to the project at the behest of Huston, who’d wanted to direct it.
So what revived the underdog?
A lucky coincidence and a lot of perseverance.
It turns out “Baby” owes a great debt to a small character in “The Godfather.” In fact, had Ruddy not produced “The Godfather,” he probably never could have made the boxing movie.
When Ruddy gave late veteran character actor Al Lettieri his break as Virgil “The Turk” Sollozo in 1972’s “The Godfather,” Ruddy created an interlocking circle between his life and that of Boyd — albeit one neither would realize until 28 years later.
An ex-bouncer, bullfighter and ringside cutman, Boyd counted Lettieri as a friend. When he casually mentioned his friendship with Lettieri to Ruddy in their first conversation, the two strangers with a dead pal in common agreed to meet.
“I said, ‘Let’s have a drink at the Havana Room,’ ” recalls Ruddy, “And he says, ‘I can’t. I’m in AA.’ So I said, ‘So you’ll have a Coke and I’ll have a drink. Needless to say, we both drank, until 5 in the morning.”
Ruddy now had his “Baby” in hand, but Huston had decamped to work on a Julia Roberts script. So Haggis, who had created CBS skein “Walker, Texas Ranger” with Ruddy, asked to try his hand at a “Baby” script, with the caveat that he could direct.
When Haggis showed “Baby” as a writing sample to Lakeshore Entertainment principals Tom Rosenberg and Gary Lucchesi, they were ready to back the film outright.
In short order, Hilary Swank joined Morgan Freeman. Then, in December 2003, Ruddy showed the script to his old friend Clint Eastwood.
Eastwood said he was all but retired from acting, but read the piece as a favor to Ruddy. Instead, Eastwood said he loved the script, but had reservations about how it might be directed.
Despite having vowed never to direct and star simultaneously ever again, he asked Ruddy if he could direct instead of Haggis.
“It was a tough 10 minutes for me,” said Haggis, “But in the 11th hour, I decided, ‘Of course I should let him direct it!’ How often do you get to work with Clint Eastwood?”
But Warner Bros., where Eastwood hangs his shingle, was still unconvinced. Ruddy said when Warner offered Team “Million” the opportunity to take it elsewhere, they met similarly cool reactions at other studios.
“Nice cast, great script, but they were all nervous that it was too dark,” said one Eastwood rep.
Finally, with Lakeshore aboard to handle foreign distribution and Warners’ exposure limited to $15 million, the deal finally clicked.
Even to the very end of the Oscarcast, the stubborn perseverance of the “Million Dollar Baby” was on display: Speaking to his fellow producer Tom Rosenberg over a swell of “wrap it up” music, Eastwood muttered in his gravelly voice, “Don’t let ’em run you off.”