Monday, June 6, 2011

Archie should've Been a Star....

"The world is a stage, and I will always be one of the principle actors."

-  Archie Moore, 1966

When looking back on Archie Moore's extraordinary boxing career, we tend to think of him as a kind of traveling one-man circus. He was the ringmaster, clown, magician, and the fellow who would challenge any member of the audience to a brawl. Hands down, he was the most colorful, most interesting, and most loquacious fighter of his generation, a sportswriter's dream. But what is sometimes forgotten is that for a few months in 1960, it seemed like Moore was going to dump the whole boxing gig, light heavyweight championship and all, to become a movie star. That’s what many were thinking when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer cast Moore in a big budget, Cinemascope and Technicolor version of Mark Twain's most celebrated novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Of course, Moore didn’t stop boxing. He had several more fights after his acting debut, including a disastrous loss to a young Cassius Marcellus Clay, but if ever there was a fighter who could have left the Byzantine world of boxing for movies, it was Archie Moore. He had the goods.

Fighters since the days of John L. Sullivan had gravitated towards show business, but few had ever matched the buzz created by Moore's try-out at MGM. Some called Moore’s test-loop "one of the best in studio history." The 46-year-old Moore was at the height of his fame in those days, appearing on TV shows like What’s My Line? and You Bet Your Life. Producer Norman Lloyd thought Moore would be perfect for the role of Jim, the runaway slave who befriends Huck Finn. Script pages were sent; an audition was arranged. Director Michael Curtiz, who'd directed such classics as Casablanca and Yankee Doodle Dandy, called Moore's screen test "remarkable." The camera crew reportedly broke into spontaneous applause when Moore finished. "It made me feel good, but I suppose they do that for everybody," Moore said.

Unlike most fighters, Moore wasn’t stiff and self-conscious. He was articulate. He could emote. His voice was soft, but with a small amount of grit in it, bred by years of shotgun shacks and hard travel. Could he do the Mississippi dialect? Hell, he was born there. Moore's physical appearance was also unique. If casting agents didn't have a category for aging gunslinger-Buddhas, they created one the day they saw Moore. Then there were the eyebrows, once described by A.J. Liebling as "rising like storm clouds over the Sea of Azov." Punctuating the entire look was Moore's eyes, tiny dark buttons hinting at mischief, wisdom, delight, and danger.

The Finn project, which had been lingering around MGM for nearly a decade, would kick off once and for all with the signing of Moore. "I must have some natural talent," Moore said. "Otherwise these people wouldn't be bothering me." After a pit stop in Montreal to dispose of Yvon Durelle for the second time, Moore began teasing sportswriters about his future.

“My career is like a river," Moore told the Associated Press. "I would like to have it end by fulfillment, by flowing into the mighty ocean. I don't want it to dry up and die before it reaches there. I would like to quit while the river of my career is still flowing strongly. The only way I can do that is to have something else to turn to." Acting, he said, wasn't a "big strain. But with a lot of work and study, perhaps I'd develop into a good actor." Moore also said he might pursue acting and boxing simultaneously. After all, he said, "They are both show business."

There was something about acting that inspired Moore. To the boxing press he was "Ancient Archie," but in Hollywood he was a hot new prospect. The freshness of the challenge ignited his famously nimble mind. He was like a mechanic popping the hood of this character to examine the engine inside. "I am giving it everything that I can from my heart and soul,” he told the press. “I really feel this character."

Moore was aware that some African-Americans didn't care for Twain's book, so he tried to avoid stereotypes, even asking Curtiz to change some lines. Moore read books on slavery, and voraciously read Twain's novel. "I never read it when I was a boy," Moore said. "I was too busy earning a living."

After months of filming in Stockton and along the Sacramento River, the film was released in the early summer of 1960. The event was part of a major Twain revival, coinciding with the 75th anniversary of the novel's publication and the 50th anniversary of Twain's death. But despite considerable fanfare, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was not a moneymaker. The year belonged to films like Psycho, Exodus, The Swiss Family Robinson, and G.I. Blues. Still, Moore's performance made an impression.

Variety credited Moore with bringing "the story its only moments of real warmth and tenderness," and praised "his poetic parting with Huck." Hollywood columnist Army Archerd called Moore, "an acting find." The Chicago Tribune described Moore as, "a pleasant surprise." The Boston Globe labeled Moore, "probably the most convincing character in the picture." Veteran actor John Carradine also praised Moore. "What a sweet, expressive face," Carradine said. "No one would ever guess that man is a professional fighter." Even though the cast included such pros as Carradine, Buster Keaton and Tony Randall, one critic claimed Moore, "virtually walks away with the acting honors."

There were a few dissenters, but the majority of reviewers felt Moore had done something special. Columnist Rube Samuelson asked, "When you see the movie, ask yourself if it is conceivable anyone could play Jim better." Some even suggested Moore deserved an Academy Award.

The buzz continued. There was talk that MGM would next cast Moore in a remake of The Champ, the old Wallace Beery/Jackie Cooper tear-jerker about a washed up fighter and his young son. The film wouldn't be remade until 1979 with Jon Voight and Ricky Schroeder, but Moore was hopeful. "I believe I might do very well in that role," Moore said. (It was rumored that the son would be played by Eddie Hodges, the red-haired sprite who had played Huck, which would've given the movie a controversial for 1960 mixed-race theme.) It was also rumored that his recently published autobiography, The Archie Moore Story, would be made into a feature film, with Moore portraying himself.

"This new career of mine is just about to get me out of the fight business," Moore told the press. "It's not just a passing fancy. I love it. I guess I've always been a ham at heart."

Shortly after the loss to Clay, Moore's acting career resumed in 1963 with an appearance on the very popular Perry Mason TV series. Moore told TV columnist Hal Humphrey that he was born to play roles.

"I have a fabulous memory, for one thing," Moore said. "Then, I have warmth, you know. And a knack for knowing how to get to people." Moore ended 1963 with a nice role in a television adaptation of John O'Hara's story, It's Mental Work, with a screenplay by Rod Serling. "Art comes first with some people, and I'm a true artist," Moore said.

During the next several years Moore appeared on many popular programs including Batman, Shane, and Family Affair. He also found himself in two commercially underwhelming but high profile movies, The Carpetbaggers and The Fortune Cookie. There was also My Sweet Charlie, a 1970 TV movie that won three Emmy Awards, and The Outfit, a 1973 crime movie starring Robert Duvall.

On the surface, it seemed Moore was making it in Hollywood. But the roles were getting smaller. Sometimes he spoke no more than a few words. Prior to an appearance on Wagon Train, Moore told UPI, "I have learned to be a good listener."

There may have been many reasons for Moore being restricted to bit parts. There was much griping around this time from the Screen Actors Guild about the 1960s phenomenon of pro athletes taking acting roles. There were three new sports franchises near Hollywood – the L.A. Dodgers, the L.A. Lakers, and the San Francisco Giants – and TV producers routinely hired local sports stars to give their shows a quick ratings boost. The studios paid the union fees for athletes, which outraged old-time Guild members who relied on acting work to support themselves. Perhaps to avoid upsetting the union, or because the fad of hiring athletes passed, studios gradually abandoned the practice. Moore may have lost a few roles because of this.

Moore may also have been a victim of the times. There simply weren't a lot of roles for African-Americans. Also, the ‘60s hippie-youth market had changed Hollywood, and Moore may have been unfairly viewed as a relic from the Eisenhower era. In addition, Moore was busy elsewhere. He was heavily involved in his work with his beloved youth organizations, and also as a trainer of fighters - he spent two years working with the Nigerian Olympic boxing team, and was also part of George Foreman’s camp.

Perhaps the biggest factor was Moore’s own lack of acting experience. Directors may have felt his performance in Huck Finn was beginner’s luck, and were hesitant to give him another major role. But near the end of his acting days Moore showed he could be effective with nothing more than one line of dialogue and a fight scene. He turned this trick opposite one of the biggest box office draws of the day, Charles Bronson.

In 1975 Moore was cast in Breakheart Pass, a period piece filmed in northern Idaho. Moore played a conniving killer who battled the stone-faced Bronson atop a moving train. There were stunt men standing by, but 62-year-old Moore told them to sit down. Bronson did his own stunts; Moore would, too. The scene, which took place during a snowstorm in the Idaho Rockies and required several hours of filming, was the film’s centerpiece.

"Having Archie Moore go against Bronson in a hand-to-hand, life-or-death struggle atop a snow-covered railroad car whizzing along 200-foot high wooden trestle bridges in those mountains was a stroke of cinematic brilliance," wrote critic Joe Goodavage.

Moore grew so fond of Lewiston, Idaho where some of Breakheart Pass was filmed, that for the remainder of his life he would visit to take part in town events. Meanwhile, Breakheart Pass was well-received by reviewers and audiences. But not even a slashing fight scene with Charles Bronson could help Moore's Hollywood career. Except for a few meaningless cameos, and a stint on the daytime drama Search for Tomorrow, he was finished as an actor.

"I'm afraid there's a limit to the number of roles I can play,” Moore told The Montreal Gazette in 1980. “You have to feel something about the character you're playing, and it was easy for me to identify with Jim."

In some ways Moore was lucky. Most actors never get a great role. Moore got one his first time out as Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Over time, the film enjoyed a better reputation than it had upon its first release. Many still regard it as their favorite of the many Huck Finn movies, thanks largely to Moore's performance, which is probably the best ever given by a boxer in a film.

If it was easy for Moore to identify with Jim, it’s because they were kindred spirits. Moore once said of Jim, “He is not an educated man, but he uses his head to accomplish what he needs,” describing a quality Moore may have recognized in himself, having used his own brilliant head to navigate through more than two decades of boxing, at a time when the sport was dominated by criminals and racism. "He's like me in one respect," Moore added. "He eventually finds what we're all looking for - freedom."

Don Stradley is a freelance writer from Massachusetts and a regular contributor to The Ring.

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