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Al Ruscio


Beth Ruscio

Poetry Goes to the Fights

On Actors and the Art of Boxing

Beth Ruscio

I come from actors, artists and vaudevillians. I act and write.

So does my Dad, Al. To us, everything is material. Take boxing. Dad, who also teaches acting, has always said, “Boxing is a perfect metaphor for acting.”

Dad fought three bouts in the army to get out of marching drill. “You could sleep in the morning if you volunteered to be a boxer.  “I won the first, lost the second, and got beat so bad the third one I went back to marching drill.”  He aspired to be an actor. By the time I was born he was a working actor, coming home from the studios his face Max Factor orange.  He played heavies and bad guys on black & white TV.  Lots of times we kids were banned from watching his shows—too young for such violence. On a regular basis Dad got slaughtered.  But on Friday nights, “brought to you by Gillette,” we got to watch...

The Fights. I sat mesmerized.  Men in nothing but swimming trunks stood toe-to-toe, bloodied and swollen, and while the crowd roared the boxers punched each other’s lights out. I was hooked. From that day to this Dad and I have sat in the virtual ringside, rapt.  Watching with him became a kind of lesson—about sports, about life, about acting.

Dad studied the fights, especially certain boxers, like Rocky Marciano, Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, the same way other actors studied Marlon Brando or Laurence Olivier.  For moves. For strategies.  From them he learned that a boxer who expends all his energy in the first round, like an actor who blows his emotional wad in the first scene, “gives himself no place to go”.  They've boxed themselves into a corner.

During the Depression Dad could only listen to his first fights—on the radio, with his Dad.  It was like training wheels for his imagination.  Ringside commentary was much more robust. Sports sounded punchier in the Thirties.

“There were some fights on the radio that I later saw on television and the ones I remembered from radio were much more exciting because you had to use your imagination.”  Same with print. In his 1934 boxing short story "Twenty-Five Bucks," James T. Farrell described a punch, “Gloves came at the Kid like locomotives slowly rising from the distance, coming closer and growing larger until they collided with his face.”  This was just the sort of image that Dad could “use” to imbue an action with a specific “as if”: the about-to-be-hit-by-a-train “as if.”

“Without imagination," he says, "you can’t be an actor or a boxer. You've got to believe in a dream." The great English actor Ralph Richardson called acting “a controlled dream” and weighed in with this: “In one part of your consciousness it really and truly is happening…to make it true to the audience the actor must...believe that it really is true.” Or, from Dad's great acting teacher and mentor Sanford Meisner: "Acting is behaving truthfully under imaginary circumstances." 

When Cassius Clay, on the cusp of his “Total Eclipse of the Sonny” title fight, was asked by Jack Paar, “You ever been knocked out?” Clay punched right back, “I never dreamed of being knocked out.”

Dad says, “You need three things as an actor, the same three things you need as a boxer: talent, you’re born with it; determination, which is perspiration; and luck.” There’s other common ground—boxing’s corner men are like stage directors. They give out “adjustments.”  Boxers are directed: stay off the ropes, shorten up punches, be a moving target.  Actors are coached: pick up pace, tone down emotion, don’t anticipate. Though actors don’t (usually) try to knock each other out, they often do play adversaries.  Inside the ring or in a scene it’s two people who have each other’s complete and utter attention.  A good boxer like a good actor misses nothing.  “Boxing is studying another person. Acting is studying another person. Both surmount obstacles.  Both try to effect change.” Dad coins another analogy. “Get the other guy to fight your fight.”

Real or pretend, the body knows no different. The hard stuff, the physical and the mental, costs. And here we’re getting to the guts of Dad’s boxing-as-acting-metaphor: preparation and motivation.

Freud said there were only two motivations: ambition or sex.  Agreeing with Freud, Sanford Meisner elaborated.  He called finding the preparation to use a motivation the problem of "self-stimulation," and he cited this example:

"You're playing the part of a clerk who gets a promotion—gets five dollars more a week.  According to the play, that five bucks is ecstasy.  In order to induce…the transcendent happiness of the little schlemiel who got a five dollar raise….the actor sing(s) to himself the 'Ode to Joy' from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony…it lifts him off his feet.  The more fantastic a way you can charm yourself, the more valid your happiness seems, and the more important the five dollars become."

In both professions it's called “stakes.” For every prize fighter with a million-dollar pay day, there are hundreds getting beat up for chump change, yet the fight over pennies can cost more. Same with actors.

Meisner's principle of loading the deck before playing the scene appears "as if," employed in Thom Jones’ boxing short story "Rocket Man."  In it, the sodden former champ turned bitter boxing manager quotes from The Portable Nietzsche to motivate his prizefighter:

"In every human breast there is a fund of hatred, anger, envy, rancor and malice, accumulated like the venom in a serpent’s tooth, and waiting only for an opportunity of venting itself, and then, to storm and rage like a demon unchained."

If the job of art is to illuminate, the actor must embrace a character in a way that allows that character to live on film or on stage, uncensored. Saintly traits exist in even the vilest characters. Sometimes base petty rages seethe just under the surface of the calmest exteriors. To be able to find the exact trigger—that's the constant challenge of any art.

When I asked Dad who was his favorite boxer of all time he said, without hesitation, “Joe Louis. He was like a beautiful actor-dancer in the ring.  He combined great power with grace.  He didn’t waste movements.”  From Joe Louis Dad learned economy, also restraint—the notion that someone who truly has the power doesn’t go around exerting it every two minutes. They don’t have to. Use this when playing kings. And then this variation: to instill fear and awe in an opponent, exude confidence. "Audition like you're desperate for the part," says Dad, "you'll never get the job. Act like they have a problem only you can solve, you're hired." Reminds me of Max Baer's famous tribute to Joe Louis, "Fear is standing across the ring from Joe Louis and knowing he wants to go home early."

As a strategist that actors could learn from, “Ali was almost the perfect fighter,” maintains Dad. “He had brains, talent, and unshakeable determination.”  Ali, who gave us what he himself called the “greatest short poem of all times”: "Me?  Whe-e-e-e-e-e-e!" Ali, the poet/boxer with the dazzling reach. 

Budd Schulberg relates the story of riding with Ali to the first Frazier fight at Madison Square Garden. He describes a situation where Ali is firing off questions to his manager Angelo Dundee, about his strategy, about his odds, revealing second thoughts. Schulberg goes on, "Then Ali turned silent and put his head back.  When they arrived at the Garden Ali went through a night-and-day personality change. “I am the greatest!’ he shouted. ‘The Greatest!’  Whatever back seat doubts he had had in the limo were gone now as he went on shouting, strutting in for his ‘High Noon’ shootout with his most dangerous opponent.”

“You don’t go into the ring to be an unknown,” says Dad.  “The underdog is full of dreams.”

This element of struggle, of proving yourself with nothing but your wits and your bare hands, has always had tremendous appeal for Dad.  He overcame great odds, rising up from poverty (“so poor, we couldn’t afford middle names”) to achieve a long career as a well respected professional actor.  He talked of Harold Clurman and Clifford Odets going "at it" over artistic interpretation, and deduced that this business of art, of acting, of the theatre, was “not for the dainty, not some pansy-ass pursuit, but honest to God work and sweat and aspirations.”

A person is revealed most truly in the tiniest of interactions. “You take one step away from someone,” says Dad, pulling in his chin, getting in the last jab, “it says something.”  A great actor, like a great boxer, misses nothing.

Recently, at the end of a long, trying day, I caught the last three rounds of a fight on HBO. I saw the loser, his eyes swollen shut, bear-hug the new champ, and hoarsely (did I imagine this?), even tenderly, whisper, "Make the most of this." Grace, sportsmanship, yes, but that’s not all. There are grander things about boxing, but why does this get to me? The vanquished are on such intimate terms with the victors.

Poetry notices such things. Great boxers, great actors—in their fashion, poets all.

“Twenty Five Bucks,” a short story by James T. Farrell, 1934.

The Portable Nietzsche,
1954, quoted in “Rocket Man,” a short story by Thom Jones, 1993.
The Ralph Richardson quote came from Acting Power by Robert Cohen, 1978.
Sanford Meisner is quoted in Sanford Meisner on Acting, 1987.
Max Baer is quoted in "Mad Max" by J.R. Moehringer, West Magazine (Los Angeles Times), January 7, 2007.
Cassius Clay spoke on "The Tonight Show with Jack Paar"-- November 29, 1963, (just weeks before he took the title away from Sonny Liston) then he recited his poetry to Liberace’s piano accompaniment.
Budd Schulberg’s book Ringside, A Treasury of Boxing Reportage, 2006, quoted in the review by Gordon Marino in The New York Times Book Review, December 31, 2006.

Al Ruscio's film career began in 1947, playing a French espionage student in 13 Rue Madeleine with James Cagney. He played fight manager Tom Moody in Clifford Odets’ Depression-era boxing drama Golden Boy at the Arena Stage in D.C. the year his daughter, Beth, was born. He’s acted in films from Al Capone with Rod Steiger to Godfather III with Al Pacino, and in television his work stretches all the way from "Playhouse 90," "The Untouchables" and "Bonanza," through "St. Elsewhere," "Life Goes On," and "Seventh Heaven," capping well over 500 television and film appearances, not to mention his recent engagement playing King Lear at UC Santa Barbara’s Main Stage Theatre.

Beth Ruscio's acting career began in theatre, and eventually garnered her awards for excellence from the Drama Critics Circle, as well as LA Weekly and Dramalogue. Her first film: Clint Eastwood’s Heartbreak Ridge, her latest film: Otis E, and in between, many others including her favorite: The Positively True Adventures of Tte Alleged Texas Cheerleader Murdering Mom. At the 2006 Method Fest, she won Best Actress (Short Film) for her brother Michael Ruscio’s film, In Order of Appearance. For her poetry, she won the 2006 Patricia Bibby Scholarship to Summer Poetry Workshop at Idyllwild, and has just been named one of L.A.'s Newer Voices In Poetry and will read later this year at the Central Library as part of their ALOUD series. She’s married to playwright Leon Martell, who also boxes for exercise. (Editor’s note: Beth’s poem, "Strangled Eventually" appears in this issue of Speechless.)

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Speechless Spring 2007
Copyright © 2007 Published by
Tebot Bach