By Jay Mwamba
Six-foot-two, well sculptured and with rugged good looks, Holt McCallany is a boxer on the side and an accomplished actor full time. That one-two combination makes for a powerful performance in his latest television role as an aging prizefighter.
McCallany, whose credits include such memorable films as “Fight Club,” “Three Kings,” and “Men of Honor,” as well as numerous television and Broadway shows, is the lead star in “Lights Out,” a 13-episode boxing drama premiering on the FX channel next Tuesday [10 pm, January 11].
A son of the late Michael McAloney, the Dublin-raised Tony Award-winning actor and producer of Brendan Behan’s “Borstal Boy” , McCallany plays former world heavyweight champion Patrick “Lights” Leary.
Five years removed from his last fight, Leary is struggling to support his family and find his identity, amid dwindling finances and early symptoms of pugilistic dementia, a neurological disorder that affects boxers that take too many blows to the head.
The one-time heavyweight king reluctantly accepts a job as a brutal debt collector. When a ten-figure sum is dangled in front of him, he mulls a risky comeback for one big payday to safeguard his family’s financial future.
What ensues is gripping and compelling television, including some of the most realistic boxing scenes ever choreographed. The latter is thanks to McCallany’s actual ring experience and the input of some boxing trainers -- Teddy Atlas, Harry Keitt and Mark Breland – who are familiar to Echo sports readers.
For fans of McCallany and the palpable presence he brings to the screen, “Lights Out,” which is set in Bayonne, New Jersey, but shot in Astoria, Queens, is must-see. And you don’t even have to be a serious boxing fan to enjoy it.
“I’d hate to characterize it as a boxing show,” McCallany, undefeated as an amateur (1-0) told the Echo in a recent interview. “It’s a family drama. It’s about my relationship with my wife and children.”
English actress Catherine McCormack, Mel Gibson’s love interest in the 1995 epic “Braveheart” and a respected star of the screen and stage, plays Leary’s wife. She’s finishing her medical residency and is the mother of his three daughters.
McCallany speaks glowingly of his co-star, an alumna of the Oxford School of Drama. “She’s a really accomplished actress and done a lot of fabulous films,” he remarked, noting, in addition to “Braveheart,” “Spy Game” in which she appeared with Robert Redford and Brad Pitt.
Adding to the family dynamic is another Hollywood and Broadway heavy, Stacy Keach, as Leary’s trainer-father, and Pablo Schreiber (Law & Order) as Leary’s manager-brother.
“They could have searched for years and I don’t think they’d have found a better guy to play my dad,” McCallany said of the multi-talented Keach.
“He’s done everything that you can do as an actor – Broadway, the West End (London theater district), films, television. He’s a veteran and really good.”
Keach, with a filmography dating back to 1958, is actually an old hand at the fight genre. His portrayal of a fighter past his prime in the boxing drama “Fat City” earned him – along with Marlon Brando (for “The Godfather”) – a share of the Kansas City Film Critics Circle’s 1972 Best Actor award.
Like Keach, both of whose parents were actors, McCallany grew up in a show business family, inheriting strong acting genes from his father, Michael McAloney, and mother, the noted American singer/actress Julie Wilson.
“I grew up amid the business and knew from when I was six years old that I was going to be an actor,” the Manhattan-born, Irish- and French-schooled thespian recalled.
Boxing, then defined by names such as Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Roberto Duran, was another irresistible lure for the youngster.
“I was a young boy in that era when Muhammad Ali was champion of the world and when boxing was so exciting and people were so enthusiastic about the sport,” he recounted.
His kid brother was a frequent victim of his nascent boxing skills until the former raised the ante by embarking on a serious amateur career that would culminate in a golden gloves title.
Confined to sparring sessions in the gym by his acting ambitions, McCallany would not fight competitively until last year, while training for “Lights Out.” He scored a three-round decision over a German opponent on a card at Brooklyn’s famed Gleason’s Gym and was floored by the euphoria he felt.
“It was just the best experience that I’ve ever had,” he enthused. “It felt like I’d won the heavyweight championship of the world.”
“Lights Out” was undoubtedly the most physical project he’s undertaken. “It involved a tremendous amount of boxing. You have to live the life of a fighter, you have to be in the gym every day, you have to be sparring lots of different guys,” he noted.
That he plays the role of Leary so well is due in equal parts to his athleticism, drive and talents as well as the quality of boxing instructors such as Teddy Atlas that he worked with.
Prior to filming the “Lights Out” pilot, McCallany worked out with Atlas, the renowned trainer and boxing analyst, and an old friend. Atlas in turn would serve as a consultant and fight choreographer on the show.
“He’s done everything to make it successful and he has a real passion for boxing,” said Atlas, who was portrayed by McCallany in a cable movie on Mike Tyson back in the 90s.
McCallany, meanwhile, calls his role in “Lights Out” transformational.
“I love boxing and I’m Irish and I’m born in New York, so to play an Irish boxer on his own show in New York; I wake up some mornings and think ‘can this really be true?’
“I’m one of the lucky ones; I got a chance to do something that’s really meaningful to me. No matter what happens from this point forward in my career, at least I got to have this moment,” the actor summed up.
Lights Out Sidebar
Duddy adds punch in cameo appearance
By Jay Mwamba
A must-watch for John Duddy aficionados is the 13th and final episode of “Light Outs.” That’s when the Derry-born boxer, long touted for his movie star looks, makes his U.S. screen debut.
“Just a blink of an eye,” Duddy, who’s had bit parts in a few Irish-made movies, laughs about his cameo with Paulie Malignaggi and other New York area prizefighters. “It was a great experience and I’m really looking forward to the show,” the charismatic middleweight adds.
Duddy, 29-2 (18 Kos) in the ring, is just one of several boxing personalities with Irish connections tied to Holt McCallany and the FX drama. Others include Duddy trainer Harry Keitt, the Brooklynite who’s also worked with Arklow’s James Moore; and renowned trainer/fight analyst Teddy Atlas.
While Keitt and Atlas – along with amateur legend and former world champion Mark Breland – coached McCallany at different stages, Duddy was the main inspiration for the actor’s ring persona and fighting style.
Said McCallany, whose character’s fight trunks are modeled after the emerald green pair worn by Duddy: “Of all the boxers that I studied, I’d say that John is the one that I was most anxious to emulate.”
“I think John, if he wanted to could make a great actor,” McCallany continued. “He’s smart, personable, very handsome [and] men love him and women love him.”
For his part, Duddy, who counts Sir Sean Connery and Liam Neeson among his other thespian associates, gives McNally two thumbs up for his work in “Lights Out.”
“He’s going to be another superstar before not too long,” the Derry Destroyer predicts.