Going for 'Glory Road'
Published: Friday, January 13, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 12, 2006 at 10:24 p.m.
'I just don't see myself in one of those big Jerry Bruckheimer movies," Josh Lucas said in 2002.
That was a few weeks before the opening of the romantic comedy "Sweet Home Alabama," in which Lucas co-starred with Reese Witherspoon. Back then, Hollywood said this would be the breakout film for Lucas. His laid-back affability, all-American good looks and penetrating blue eyes had already drawn comparisons to the young Paul Newman.
But Lucas was not casting aspersions with his declarations. He was simply using the brand name of Bruckheimer - who regularly breaks the box-office bank with big-budget, high-octane action movies like "Top Gun" and "Armageddon" - to say he was more interested in smaller, more character-driven movies.
Almost four years later, Lucas is back, accompanied by none other than Bruckheimer, to beat the drum for Bruckheimer's "Glory Road," opening today, in which Lucas stars. But before we pronounce Lucas guilty of movie-biz insincerity, let Bruckheimer mount a defense.
"You know, there was a time when that label had some meaning, I suppose, even if it wasn't always used affectionately," says Bruckheimer. "But things change. These days, I do a lot more than that."
"Glory Road" is based on the true story of legendary Texas Western basketball coach Don Haskins, who in 1966 fielded the first all-black starting lineup in NCAA history, leading Western to the NCAA championship game against the all-white powerhouse University of Kentucky.
Lucas plays Haskins as a driven young coach determined to do whatever it takes to make his team a real competitor. Derek Luke, last seen suiting up for football in "Friday Night Lights," plays Bobby Joe Hill, the streetwise small guard Haskins built the team around.
Not to worry, fireball fans: Bruckheimer says he still has a passion for big-budget, star-driven spectacles. When we spoke, he was just back from a quick jaunt to the Bahamas, where work is continuing on two sequels to the blockbuster "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl." But Bruckheimer is now one of the most successful producers in television with hits ranging from the "CSI" franchise to "The Amazing Race," and he's succeeding with smaller, character-driven movies, like "Remember the Titans" and the similarly styled "Glory Road."
Bruckheimer had been told about Haskins from his friend, Miami Heat coach Pat Riley, who played on the University of Kentucky Wildcats team that faced Texas Western in the final game.
ESPN had long planned to make a TV film about Haskins, but since ESPN is owned by Disney, where Bruckheimer makes most of his films, it gave Bruckheimer the rights.
Ben Affleck, who rose to stardom in the Bruckheimer films "Armageddon" and "Pearl Harbor," was set to play Haskins, but he dropped out shortly before production was to begin.f-z
"Everybody we talked to about Haskins used the same words to describe him, and one of them was 'gentlemanly,' " says Bruckheimer. "There's a lot of good leading men out there, but how many would you really describe like that? I knew Josh's work, and I thought this was a guy who could look tough enough on the court and be a convincing family man with his wife and kids, and convey that sense of conviction and fairness that everyone says Don has.
"We weren't making a documentary here, but it was important that people who really knew Don - like Tim Floyd who was Don's assistant coach - thought he was portrayed correctly. And after Tim saw Josh, he was satisfied, and that was good enough for me."
Lucas took the role seriously. "This is the movie I've most loved being a part of, hands down," he says. "That said, it was the one I felt the most pressure making. Not only did I have the real Don Haskins looking at me, I had also Tim Floyd (currently coaching the USC Spartans) and Pat Riley - three extraordinary world-class coaches."
The game is so legendary that it and the games running up to it are recalled constantly on cable sports shows. Sporting News ranks it as the fifth most historic sporting event of all time, and a book, "And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: Kentucky, Texas Western and the Game That Changed College Sports" by Frank Fitzpatrick, is devoted to it.
Lucas, like a real coach, spent a lot of time in his trailer watching game film.
"We tried to replicate the game, the actual plays, as closely as we could, while building them into the story.
"There are moments you have to veer away from what actually happened, in order to be get closer to the dramatic truth. For example, we have the players complaining about Haskins' training methods, when no one, no one was ever allowed to even speak on Don Haskins' practice court, much less talk back."
Of course, "Glory Road" is about more than basketball; it's about the deep racial divide in the United States. The film makes you ask how much things have really changed since 1966.
"We filmed a lot of this in El Paso, Texas, where it all took place, but we also shot some early scenes in New Orleans," Lucas says. "So, the night before we started filming, I went out drinking with Derek Luke, Mehcad Brooks and the other actors playing the guys on the team. Bizarrely enough, some drunk white guy started talking loudly about one of the (black) actors being with this hot, young, beautiful white woman, and it got very aggressive, very quickly.
"Then there was this stunning moment when these people who didn't really know each other were just bonded, immediately. It was like, yes, we're telling this story that happened 40 years ago, but the underlying currents, amazingly, disgustingly, are still right here. I think the same thing that happened to the original team happened to us. Everybody got very, very close."
Since the last time Lucas was in Detroit, he has become more comfortable with high-profile roles in Hollywood films.
Before "Glory Road," Lucas starred in "Stealth," an action film that owed more than a little to Bruckheimer's "Top Gun," and he'll next appears in "Poseidon," director Wolfgang Petersen's remake of "The Poseidon Adventure."
"Though it may sound like a cliché, my attraction to projects is the quality of the script and the people who I would be working with. Wolfgang Petersen makes big hit movies, but look at them - 'Air Force One,' 'The Perfect Storm,' 'In the Line of Fire' - they're all intelligent, character-driven movies."
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Lucas signed on to "Poseidon" not because it was a remake - but because it wasn't.
"Wolfgang has taken the basic premise, about a luxury liner that gets hit by this enormous tidal wave, and used that as a starting point for an entirely new story. Wolfgang made it really clear that what he wanted to do was examine the way people deal, in this case literally, with pressure, in a confined, claustrophobic space.
"This, after all, is the guy who made 'Das Boot,' which is one of the best confined-space thrillers ever."
Petersen's devotion to realism had its down side, as Lucas discovered during filming.
"I was on the side of a wall trying to get to the next level of the ship, and I got hit by a water cannon," he said. The wall shifted, and he fell off, landing on his thumb. "I basically tore my thumb off. I had two pins put in to reattach it, and I have another exploratory surgery to see what happens next. I'm calling it the $6-million thumb. I can't do any acting until I see what's going to happen."
The upside is that he was available to accompany Bruckheimer to promote "Glory Road."
"I'm doing this because this is one of those films that doesn't get a $50-million promotional budget, and I really want people to see it. But the only review I really care about is Don's. If he says I did OK, that's good enough for me."
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