Mandalay Sports Media and Campbell Grobman Films will begin production this month in New York on The Bleeder, with Ray Donovan‘s Liev Schreiber to play heavyweight boxer Chuck Wepner, and Naomi Watts to play his wife Linda. Philippe Falardeau, the Canadian helmer of The Good Lie and the Oscar-nominated Monsieur Lazhar, is set to direct a script written by Jeff Feuerzeig & Jerry Stahl and Michael Cristofer.
Schreiber, coming off his third season as the title character in the Showtime hit series, is realizing a dream in playing Wepner, the New Jersey liquor salesman and boxer who at age 35 got a shot to fight Muhammad Ali right after Ali had shocked the world by regaining his title against a seemingly invincible George Foreman in Zaire. The 40-1 underdog Wepner, paid enough to train full time for the first time in an otherwise undistinguished ring career, made the most of a puncher’s chance and surprised everybody when he became only the third man to knock Ali to the canvas (though Ali claimed his fall was due to the fact Wepner stepped on his foot when he hit him). Even though Ali got up pissed and pummeled Wepner unmercifully, and even though the fight was stopped with 19 seconds remaining in the 15th and final round after Ali sent Wepner to the canvas and broke his nose, Wepner became a bonafide folk hero and the purported inspiration for Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky script. The movie is as much about Wepner trying to deal with that sudden fame as the ultimate underdog–and a hard partying lifestyle that led him to serve time for cocaine possession–as it is about that electric night 40 years ago when a journeyman brawler shocked the world.
Schreiber has wanted to play this role for at least five years, and I can see why he’d feel an affinity for Wepner. He has long been an underrated actor turning in strong performances in an array of movies. Ray Donovan has helped give him the currency to do this, and that role certainly shows he has the requisite physicality pull it off. And gets to star alongside Watts, his wife. Schreiber, currently starring as Russian chess master Boris Spassky opposite Tobey Maguire in the Ed Zwick-directed Pawn Sacrifice, next stars as Boston Globe editor Marty Baron in Spotlight, the Tom McCarthy-directed drama about the Boston Globe reporters who uncovered a shameful scandal in which the Catholic Church in Boston covered up the molestation of children by pedophile priests who were shuffled to different parishes to commit more crimes. Open Road releases the film in Oscar season on November 6.
Schreiber is producing The Bleeder with Mike Tollin, Carl Hampe, Christa Campbell and Lati Grobman, with Jeff Rice exec producing. Tollin and Feuerzeig purchased Wepner’s life rights a decade ago, and they teamed on the ESPN 30/30 docu The Real Rocky, which chronicled Wepner’s story. Feuerzeig directed that docu.
As a fighter, Wepner wasn’t known for a big punch as much as a big heart and the ability to absorb punishment and keep coming back for more. He was once battered so badly by Sonny Liston that he suffered a broken nose and cheekbone, and it took 120 stitches to put him back together. That beating left him mulling retirement, but Wepner got back in the ring. After racking up an impressive string of eight wins, Wepner got his big chance against Ali. The aftermath of that fight led to Wepner hustling to cash in on his moment of fame, and that included squaring off against wrestler Andre The Giant, who summarily tossed Wepner out of the ring at Shea Stadium. It also led to Wepner’s legal trouble, but ultimately to sobriety and redemption as his wife stood by to catch him as he was falling. Even though Stallone had long maintained that Wepner wasn’t the inspiration for his career-making role , Stallone and Wepner came to a confidential settlement after Wepner sued.
Schreiber is represented by UTA, Untitled Entertainment and attorney Robert Offer; Watts is CAA, Untitled Entertainment and attorney Steve Warren. Falardeau is repped by UTA.
The indie becomes the latest in a flurry of boxing films that included the Antoine Fuqua-directed Jake Gyllenhaal-starrer Southpaw, and two upcoming pics based on real life ring legends. The Jonathan Jakubowicz-directed Hands Of Stone stars Edgar Ramirez as Roberto Duran and Robert De Niro his trainer/mentor Ray Arcel. Bleed For This stars Miles Teller as Vinny Pazienza in his fight back from a broken neck to climb back in the ring and regain his title.