When DeVaughn Nixon and Norm Nixon Jr. both showed up in the casting offices of HBO’s “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” on the same day — at the same time — it could have been awkward. And at first, it was.
“They both lovingly shit talked each other,” says exec producer Max Borenstein. “They were competitive, because they’re brothers, but it was a kind of a ‘may the best man win.’”
The Nixon brothers were there to audition for the role of their father, early 1980s Los Angeles Lakers point guard Norm Nixon. Both are established actors, so perhaps it was only natural that they’d be the frontrunners for the gig. It’s an important role early in the series, as new owner Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) recruits rookie Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah) to inject some life into the stagnant team. But Johnson was a point guard — a position already filled by Norm Nixon.
“We needed somebody who could really pull off that complex mix of ego, arrogance, talent, feeling threatened, being incredibly charming, but also carrying with him a chip on his shoulder. All of that stuff that embodies Norm in that moment,” executive producer Max Borenstein tells Variety. ”We got so lucky that the person who happened to the best for the part was also his son, and honestly the second best guy we saw was his brother.”
It was DeVaughn, whose resume includes “Snowfall,” “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” and “Runaways,” who won the gig. He admits it was a little surreal to be auditioning opposite his brother, “but I wouldn’t want anybody else playing my dad except for one of us.”
Nailing his dad’s mannerisms, voice and cadence was easy. But DeVaughn says the physical aspect of it was a challenge: “I had to drop 30 pounds and had to get shredded,” he says. “I had to really fine tune my basketball skills as well and become a baller again, because I hadn’t touched the ball since high school.”
To research, DeVaughn said he spend more time with his father (whose wife, Debbie Allen, is DeVaughn’s stepmother and is also portrayed in the series). “It actually brought us a lot closer,” he said. “My major thing in taking this role was to bring his legacy to the forefront, to show the world that he was a beast on the court. I definitely turned it up a notch. My dad’s a little bit more low-key. So I definitely added a little bit of sauce to it.”
“Winning Time” takes plenty of dramatic license when it comes to the story of the Showtime Lakers, and DeVaughn says he had to walk a fine line between honoring his father and playing him the way he was written in the script. “That was a challenge,” he says. “I didn’t want to piss him off, and I didn’t want to piss my bosses off at the same time.”
DeVaughn gets to experience some of the flashier moments in the early episodes of “Winning Time,” with the wardrobe to boot. “I will say, he did dress fly, so that’s no lie,” the actor says of his father. “He always had awesome gear and great clothes. He was a well-dressed man because he played in Italy at some point. So we always had tailored suits. Once I stepped into the clothes that our great costume designer provided for all of us, I think I had the best stuff. So it was really easy to get into character.”
Norm eventually visited the set and offered up a few notes to his pal Rodney Barnes, a writer on the series. But he gave his son leeway in his portrayal, with a few exceptions — for example, he objected to a scene in the pilot where DeVaughn, as Norm, showboats against Magic on the court while wearing a fur coat. “He was like, ‘I didn’t even own a fur coat,’” DeVaughn says. “And I was like, OK, Google yourself. Here’s a picture right here!”
DeVaughn waited until launch to screen the series for his father. He knows the Showtime Lakers are leery of the series, in particular Magic Johnson. “I mean, I saw how Magic said that he wasn’t gonna watch it,” DeVaughn says. “But I mean, come on, man. You have to be curious, a little bit. We’re doing everybody justice. It’s an origin story of every character. We dive deep into characters and we have great writers and they’re huge fans. It’s a love letter to the Lakers and how much we appreciate them. So my dad didn’t really have too much concern. I think he talked to a couple of his boys. They were watching, I’ve no doubt in my mind.”