Prime 'Contender'

Can a new boxing drama put Baltimore back on TV? Critic David Zurawik takes a ringside seat to find out.

Back In The Ring

Cover Story

March 19, 2000|By David Zurawik

A young white man stands mid-block in a poor black Baltimore neighborhood.

He's nervous -- balancing on one foot, then the other, taking a few steps this way and that, looking repeatedly across the street at an unmarked three-story building wedged between a vacant storefront and the Blood of the Lamb Thrift Shop.

A toothless old woman walks by. "Go on in. Watcha waitin' for?" she says.

Watching all this, two old guys standing by an oil-drum fire smile and shake their heads like people do when they see a natural-born fool.

"You can go in," one of them calls to the young man, "but can you come out?"

That's the opening of "The Contender," the pilot of a possible series for UPN (United Paramount Network) that just finished filming in Baltimore. The pilot, written and directed by Emmy-winning writer-producer Hugh Wilson, tells the story of 19-year-old Guy McCormack Jr., a rich kid from Guilford who passes up Duke University to pursue his dream of professional boxing.

McCormack is the white man in the opening scene. The building he's about to enter is the gym where his training and journey through the fight world will begin. It is also where he'll meet his main adversary, Quinzell Neal, a young black boxer from the projects.

It is a crucial scene. Not only does it set McCormack's Hero Quest in motion, but it also establishes the overriding look and feel for everything that follows.

"And you cannot get that look in California or Canada," says co-creator and executive producer Tim Reid.

"That's one of the main reasons we're here in Baltimore: to get that authentic look -- like 'Homicide' did. The look is so much the city. We're not making 'Beach Blanket Boxing' here. We want a sense of reality in this show, and that's why we're here."

Comparisons between "The Contender" and "Homicide: Life on the Street" -- the NBC series from Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana that filmed here for seven years -- are unavoidable.

First, the two productions are linked by timing. "Homicide" breathed its last with a made-for-TV movie that aired Feb. 13. The very next day, filming started on "The Contender." Many local crew members moved from one project to the next, making the first winter without "Homicide" a lot easier to take.

Then there's the gritty look of that opening scene. If "The Contender" becomes a series, that's the primary face of Baltimore that millions will be seeing each week -- just as they did with "Homicide." And "The Contender" is one of the few series on any network drawing board that promises the kind of quality drama, concern about race and exploration of urban America that "Homicide" specialized in.

The idea for setting "The Contender" in the world of boxing comes from Reid's fascination with the sport and friendship with Butch Lewis, a fight promoter and manager whose boxers included former heavyweight champ Michael Spinks.

"I've been going to fights for the past five or six years. But, because I was with Butch, I was able to see part of the fight game very few people see, the weigh-ins, the dressing rooms, Butch's suite before the fight, all the stuff that goes on around what actually happens in the ring. And I was amazed at all the drama behind the boxing. And I wanted to bring that to the screen," he says.

Two years ago, Reid came up with a proposal for a series centering on Neal, the African-American boxer.

"That was certainly what I knew, so that's what I wrote. But, after talking to Hugh and then us meeting with the network, I thought, 'Yeah, how interesting it would be as drama to have the sort of 'Rich Man, Poor Man' miniseries feel with the addition of this other character -- this rich, white kid that Hugh was talking about,' " Reid explains.

"Rich Man, Poor Man," a 1976 ABC production based on the Irwin Shaw best-seller, tells the story of two immigrant brothers. One uses education and entrepreneurial derring-do to become the rich man. His brother takes up boxing and dies the poor man. It is TV's second highest-rated miniseries, behind "Roots."

"Once Hugh started putting pen to paper, I just fell in love with it," Reid says. "Everything since has gone so well. But once the pilot's done, all we can do is wait and hope. It's a long road from a good idea to a great series."

A team with credentials

A good way to gauge the potential of a pilot is to look at its producers. That's another "Homicide" link: The similarities between the Wilson-Reid and the Levinson-Fontana teams.

Like Levinson, Wilson now mainly directs feature films, one of which he made in the Baltimore area, "Guarding Tess," with Nicolas Cage and Shirley MacLaine.

Each team also has a partner associated with a classic television series. Fontana came to "Homicide" best known for his work on "St. Elsewhere"; Reid is probably best known for his work as an actor and producer on the CBS dramedy "Frank's Place," a quality show about African-American life that was torpedoed by network mishandling during its 1987-1988 run.

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