Bell's story doesn't ring quite true

April 02, 1991|By Dennis McDougal | Dennis McDougal,Los Angeles Times

HOLLYWOOD Tears will flow, hearts will rend and noses will sniffle all over America tonight as CBS airs the made-for-TV movie "Triumph of the Heart: The Ricky Bell Story."

The title notwithstanding, it will only be a small, somewhat fictive slice of the real Ricky Bell story. (It will be on Channel 11-WBAL at 9 p.m.)

"We weren't doing the complete Ricky Bell story," said screenwriter Jeff Andrus, who spent a month last year researching the former USC football hero's life and tragic early death. "We were doing a narrow focus on his life."

When it comes to TV docudrama, documentary aspects of a story are often sacrificed to enhance the dramatic ones. In the case of "Triumph of the Heart," based on the life of the NFL tailback who died of incurable muscle disease at 29, the movie was shaped to appeal to a particular audience.

"We look for things that have all-family appeal and, very frankly, appeal to women, because they are very much our customers," explained Jack Wishard, vice president of Procter & Gamble Productions, which co-produced "Triumph of the Heart" with Alan Landsburg Productions and which is sponsoring the broadcast. "We get pretty hands-on involved."

Too hands-on involved to suit Les Roth, Bell's former business partner and the executor of the football star's estate following his death in 1984.

"It just isn't the real story," Roth said in a phone interview from his Florida home. "I spent five hours with Jeff Andrus, telling him about Ricky, only to see Procter & Gamble make too many changes."

"Triumph of the Heart," which stars Mario Van Peebles as Bell, centers on the relationship between the football star and a handicapped boy, Ryan Blankenship (played by Lane Davis), who adored Bell.

In the course of telling the two-hour saga of Bell's declining lTC health and Blankenship's rise beyond his disability, the story leaves the impression that the Bell-Blankenship relationship was much more significant than it really was. It also leaves out such details as his mother, brothers, friends and Roth.

"The Ryan Blankenship story is only one in a series of stories about handicapped or dying children in which Ricky participated," Roth said. As a result of the narrow focus, "Triumph of the Heart" is an incomplete, romanticized and somewhat artificial version of Bell's biography, Roth maintained.

Roth, a New Jersey businessman who owned a couple of Popeye's Fried Chicken franchises, first met Bell in the fall of 1979 at the Tampa Bay Buccaneer practice field, which Roth was visiting with his 10-year-old son. Bell had been a 1977 first-round draft pick out of USC. Within a few weeks, Roth and Bell were business partners: Roth cut Bell in on his fried chicken franchises and began acting as his accountant.

To promote their chicken, Roth would dress up in a Popeye costume and he and Bell would visit children's hospitals throughout northwest Florida, combining commerce with kindness. Popeye's Fried Chicken flourished and they both grew wealthy.

But something else happened too, according to Roth.

Through the grand American tradition of hard work and hype, both men discovered the everyday tragedy of dying, broken children. It was during one of the fried chicken missions of mercy that Roth linked up Bell with Blankenship and the two began spending several hours a week together, Bell helping the boy with his speech impediment and his dysfunctional arm and leg muscles.

It was this relationship that the producers decided to emphasize.

"We just couldn't do Ricky Bell's entire life story," said screenwriter Andrus. "That would have been just too ambitious. We had to focus on some essence of it."

Procter & Gamble did influence Andrus' writing with the edict that the program should appeal to the company's target audience: women between the ages of 18 and 34. Hence, pivotal roles went to Blankenship's mother (Susan Ruttan) and grandmother (Polly Holliday) when, in reality, their influence on the relationship between Bell and the boy was minimal.

"There was lots of humor in Ricky's life, especially with his wife and family back in his USC days, but we decided to go for a tear-jerker," Andrus said.

"I know that the script was shown to Ricky Bell's widow and I'm told that she not only approved it but that she was brought to tears by it," said Procter & Gamble's Wishard.

"She and Ricky's mother, I think, were all very supportive and apparently bought in to what we've done wholeheartedly."

Andrus affirmed Wishard: Both Bell's mother and widow gave their approval to the final script, he said. Still, the sentimentalizing bothers Roth.

"Triumph of the Heart"

Story of Rickey Bell, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back who inspired a handicapped boy who in return inspires him.

CAST: Mario Van Peebles, Lane Davis, Susan Ruttan

TIME: 9 o'clock tonight

CHANNEL: WMAR-Channel 11

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