William Hurt, who two weeks ago dropped out of the Gregg Allman biopic Midnight Rider after the tragic on-set death of camera assistant Sarah Jones, is circling the basketball drama Men Of Granite written by new scribe Armand Kachigian. The project was adapted from the book of the same name by Dan Manoyan (a former Milwaukee Sentinel sportswriter) and is based on a true story of how a group of poor, immigrant high school boys from the wrong side of the tracks rose above bigotry in 1940s small-town Illinois by proving themselves on the basketball court. There is no deal and his involvement is contingent upon financing.
The role that has Hurt’s interest is that of a high school coach suffering a string of losses and resigned to never winning a game. It’s not until this band of Armenian-speaking kids take the court that his passion for the game reignites. What’s really nice for a basketball movie, is that there is a fully-realized, strong female lead — that of Sophia Prather — a 50 year-old to 60 year-old schoolteacher, who watches over her “boys of Lincoln Place” with a steely eye, takes no guff and prods the boys into getting out of their broken-down neighborhood gymnasium and onto the high school court. By mentoring, encouraging and helping to pave the way for these downtrodden boys, she firmly believes that she is doing God’s work.
The project is set in my hometown of Granite City, a steel town in Southern Illinois across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. These families — Markarian, Hagopian, Parsaghian, Eftimoff — are well-known names in the city. I attended the same school with these hometown heroes’ sons, daughters and grandchildren. The city was a true melting pot both in terms of culture and economic social classes. (It’s also known for its soccer program, which had the highest number of wins in the state, and was started by another local hero, Ruben Mendoza, who played in three consecutive Olympics for the U.S. That, in itself, would make one helluva movie as this young man, who grew up in Durango, introduced the game of soccer to the entire region.)
One of the basketball boys — a Hungarian kid born Andras Fulop — ended up playing 11 years in the NBA as Andy Phillip (most notably for the Boston Celtics). The other boys were Armenian, Yugoslavian and Macedonian. Not only did they elevate the game of basketball in the state, but they earned respect and changed the bigoted attitudes in the city — a town settled by Western Europeans (Germans). The story, which takes place in 1940, is currently in being culled together by casting agent-turned-producer Valerie McCaffrey (she is also Armenian). Dwayne Johnson- Cochran is attached to direct.
Kachigian is also from Granite City. The story of the 1940s state champion basketball team is well known in my hometown — these are kids who played in socks, some so poor they didn’t own tennis shoes — all from hardworking immigrant families who moved to the U.S. in hopes of a better life. These kids were natural athletes in a town of haves and have-nots and in a city with a basic misunderstanding of their history. In fact, these boys had had to suffer the indignity of being called “dirty” because of the complexion of their skin and their obvious poverty. They were even, unbelievably, dubbed “The Terrible Turks” before Prather and others set the coach and the media straight. (The Turks, as everyone knows but some fail to recognize, committed genocide against the Armenian people). A public elementary school now bears Prather’s name.
At one point, Granite City had the largest concentration of Bulgarians in the U.S. and still today has a strong Armenian, Hungarian and Croatian presence. It would be nice, for once, to see a movie about Slavic Americans and families from Eastern Europe. Feel free to correct me but I can’t think of one movie made about this segment of the population.
Hurt wraps The Moon And The Sun opposite Pierce Brosnan in June; it’s currently shooting in Australia. Hurt, who was seen last year in A&E’s Bonnie aAnd Clyde, also gave a helluva performance in 2013′s The Challenger Disaster movie for the BBC/Science Channel. It marked the first foray for the Science Channel into original programming. Quite frankly, I was just very surprised he didn’t receive an award for what was some of the best acting of his career. If you haven’t seen it, you should rent it. He played Richard Feynman, a brilliant physicist known for developing the atom bomb in WWII and had many scientific awards including the Nobel Prize in physics. Feynman, a man of great integrity and a true independent, was on the elite Rogers Commission empaneled by President Reagan to investigate the Challenger disaster — a team that also included Neil Armstrong, Sally Ride, and Chuck Yeager (among others) — and found the O-ring failure that led to the catastrophe that killed seven people. He spoke openly about it and put human lives over public relations and politics to make sure future crew members in the space program would be kept safe. He later wrote a book appropriately called What Do You Care What Other People Think?
If Hurt plays the role of Coach Bozarth in the Men Of Granite movie, he would be portraying yet another man — no where near as brilliant — but one with a heart who also helped change people’s lives for the better. He is repped by ICM Partners.