In FX’s new series LIGHTS OUT, created by Justin Zackham and which debuts tonight, Holt McCallany plays boxer Patrick “Lights” Leary, who is preparing for a comeback after five years away from the ring.
TV veteran and noted playwright (Tony Award winner for SIDE MAN) Warren Leight, LIGHTS OUT’s show runner and one of its executive producers, talks to us about putting the sweet science on the small screen.
ASSIGNMENT X: Is it true there was a pilot made for the show in 2009 that was almost completely rewritten and recast?
WARREN LEIGHT: The original pilot was shot spring of 2009. I came in over the summer and worked briefly with Justin, the original creator of the show. What worked in the original pilot was Holt [McCallany as Patrick Leary]. Absolutely, the character was nicely drawn, but I would say that the network chose to double-down. I was impressed by that decision. They knew they had something, but it wasn’t there yet, so we reworked a good deal of the story. It [now] begins with a flashback to the fight five years ago. That was new information. My sense was, we were entering the story five years after [Leary] retired, and I thought it would help an audience to know what he’d been and what he’d given up. There were a lot of other changes made to the story, to the cast. Basically, the whole family was recast. All the adults were recast, except for Holt. The children we kept and they’re terrific, the three daughters.
AX: So Stacy Keach, who plays Holt’s father, was not in the original pilot?
LEIGHT: No. Stacy Keach was the greatest actor to work with. “So who are your favorite directors?” “Zeffirelli was good. John Huston was good.” [laughs] He’s worked with them all. And [he’s] a beautiful actor. And if he’s not complaining, no one else is.
AX: What are some of the other differences between the original pilot and the series as it exists now?
LEIGHT: In the original pilot, [Leary’s] manager was not his brother. I would say they were good actors [in the original pilot]. The kind of writing I like to do is family drama and so by making a manager a brother, I now had a family in this Bayonne family, a tight family unit, and then the family in the fancy house in New Jersey. I have a [professional] family and a nuclear family at odds over the central character, and there’s more dynamics that way to me. There was a rewrite of the pilot, I wrote a second episode and then they greenlit the series and we reshot seven days of the pilot and Norberto Barba came in as the director on the reshoots of the pilot. We got the series, so it worked out.
AX: How did you come up with the subplot about dementia?
LEIGHT: The idea belongs to Ross Fineman, who’s one of the executive producers. He had read articles about the Quarry brothers and a variety of boxers who have in their later years developed pugilistic dementia. I would have read the same article and not realized there was a series in it. Ross read that article and thought, “This is an interesting dynamic, an interesting world to enter.”
AX: What kind of research did you do for this show?
LEIGHT: I read every boxing writer since time began. Bud Schulberg was writing beautifully about boxing fifty years ago and if you can, you pick up one book and then another and then another. There’s a guy named Thomas Hauser who has several books on boxing, there’s David Meninger of the New Yorker. So I read everything that was ever written about boxing, and we watched I’d say fifty boxing movies. I don’t think there are boxing TV series. I talked to a lot of boxers. We brought in sports reporters, we brought boxers into the room – they were fascinating. They were the sweetest guys, they have the softest handshakes, very soft-spoken, very articulate about the sport. When you talk to them, if you sense some slowness or some damage, when they start talking about a fight – it might have been thirty years ago, they come back to life.
We brought in a guy who boxed in the Fifties, Jimmy Archer, and he managed his brother who was a boxer, the last guy to fight Sugar Ray Robinson. And this guy is seventy – he still wears sneakers, in case he has to go. And we were talking about a fight from 1959 – he has it kinesthetically in his body. He would start to move with it. He goes, “And he comes at me this way, and I duck back. Two years earlier, I would have been able to come. I saw the opening, I couldn’t make the move. That’s when I knew it was time to retire – you have the impulse, but your reflexes aren’t there.” And these guys were so articulate about what it’s like to be in the ring, I brought one in every week to the writers room. Teddy Atlas was an advisor to the show and we brought in a lot of guys. You bring in [people who’ve been there]. Don’t assume you know more than people who’ve been doing this their whole lives.
AX: Were you into boxing before becoming involved with LIGHTS OUT?
LEIGHT: When I was a high school kid, Muhammad Ali was the greatest man in the world, so I liked boxing then. I had dropped out of boxing somewhere around the time Tyson bit Holyfield’s ear, which I thought was a moment a lot of people switched allegiance [laughs], and so I’ve been out of it. Honestly, I was the guy who got beaten up in high school, not the guy who boxed. So I was a little anxious entering the world, but I found it quite comfortable, to my surprise. Gleason’s Gym on a Sunday afternoon, in ninety-five-degree heat, when a fight breaks out in the ring, was kind of interesting. There were like six guys holding back one guy and six guys holding back another and somebody did something wrong in the ring and one of the guys wants to kill the other. And Holt was nowhere to be seen – he was getting ready for his fight and it was just like, “Guys, guys?” One of the guys threw a weight at someone. That’s called “flicking the dime.”
AX: Do you have theories about why the world of boxing has not been the setting for a TV series much, if at all, before this?
LEIGHT: I have theories and fears. First of all, it’s tough to sustain – the shooting of it is tough. On this schedule, it’s hard. I don’t make this analogy qualitatively, but there had not been many successful mob TV series until SOPRANOS and I think people were afraid of that genre on TV, because how do you sustain the story, how do you keep these characters likable? I suspect that there’s a fear that boxing basically will turn off a certain portion of the audience. I know I did a boxing episode for Dick Wolf at LAW AND ORDER: CRIMINAL INTENT and when he read the script, I got one of those Dick Wolf phone calls about what am I doing to him, don’t I know nobody wants to watch boxing on TV? Dick and I are on good terms now. The nice thing about Dick is, he can have that moment with you, and then the next day be incredibly charming. His fear was women won’t watch boxing. [LIGHTS OUT] is a family drama.
AX: And Joyce Carol Oates will watch.
LEIGHT: Joyce Carol Oates is in for sure. Actually, what was funny was, little by little, the crew started to sneak DVDs to their wives, because that’s what goes on on a series – “Am I on a good show or not?” And I started to hear, “My wife really liked it.”
AX: There seems to be both a sociological pressure to prove yourself and a financial incentive for people who become boxers, but does the show get into why people like to watch boxing?
LEIGHT: We don’t deal so much with the audience for boxing. These guys are in that world, and actually when I talk to boxers, not once did I hear them talk about who comes or why. I would ask them about mob influence and the swells, and that world we do get into pretty strongly, the betting and the pressure to take a dive, the pressure to bribe a ref, fix a fight – that world we get into. But there’s an audience for the sport. I suppose at the moment it’s perceived as a dwindling audience, but it’s composed of the pure blood-lusters and then the really sophisticated who love the strategy and the psychology in the ring and the risks these guys take. There are times when I’m both riveted and appalled when we watch fights on YouTube, which was another big piece of research we did. YouTube has every fight that’s ever taken place. There’s a famous fight, Gerald McClellan and Nigel Benn, where you watch Gerald McClellan get brain damaged for life and we watched that one afternoon and just stopped working.
AX: Your main characters are Irish-American boxers?
LEIGHT: Yeah, there’s a long history there. I’m actually related to Gentleman Jim Corbett and that’s what, a hundred and twenty years ago? Irish boxing – it’s a family tradition in Irish families, passed down from father to son, and it helped. But I do think if the right African-American had walked in [to play the lead in the series], it would have gone that way.
AX: You’ve had an extraordinary success as a playwright with SIDE MAN. It seems like practically every actor who does stage has been in a production at some point …
LEIGHT: Oh, yeah, I know, it’s strange. I keep meeting people who’ve played my mother or me [laughs]. The number of people who say, “I played your mother.” In fact, I saw Garrett Dillahunt [of TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES and RAISING HOPE] last night – he’s a much better-looking version of me, but he played me in Chicago. SIDE MAN had that same family drama that this show has, and I was able to switch gears.
AX: You’ve also previously been a show runner on other series …
LEIGHT: No, I show-ran IN TREATMENT last year. My first show-running gig was two years on CRIMINAL INTENT, and then I did last year IN TREATMENT. This is the first time taking one from scratch, though.
AX: Is taking it from scratch easier or harder than coming in later?
LEIGHT: Both. It’s both easier and harder. I liked it more because I don’t have the weight of, “Last year, we did it this way.” And in the world of LAW AND ORDER, “Oh, no, we already murdered a guy with poison on a stamp.” No matter what you’ve come up with, you learned it had been done. There’s a template and you don’t get to edit an episode really on LAW AND ORDER – it’s edited separately from you. Having the control and the choices, having the ability to cast, edit, as goofy as that sounds, that’s enjoyable, and to discover a template – there was no template for [LIGHTS OUT], and to figure out how to storyboard it was interesting.
AX: Can you describe the template for LIGHTS OUT?
LEIGHT: I chose to think of every episode as a round in a fight for [Leary]. What will this guy do to survive? What will he do to get his financial situation stabilized and who does he come up against on that path? I’m more proud of this show than anything I’ve done since SIDE MAN. Maybe that’s the answer to your question about do you want to do something from scratch. There’s a lot of soul in this show. The guys just gelled, and it just came together. It’s a good, tough ride.