Poetry Goes to the Fights
On Actors and the Art of Boxing
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
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
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
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
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.)