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MGM tried to outdo itself with The Champ (1979), the first official remake of its Oscar®:-winning hit from 1931. Originally, Wallace Beery had starred as the washed-up boxer who returns to the ring to build a better life for his loving son (Jackie Cooper). Of course, it was hardly the first time since 1931 that MGM had used that story. In 1952 Red Skelton had turned in a rare dramatic performance in The Clown, which transferred the action from boxing ring to circus ring without much success at the box office.
The 1979 version of The Champ marked the U.S. directing debut of Franco Zeffirelli, a noted opera director who had scored a huge hit on-screen with his lushly photographed version of Romeo and Juliet in 1968. The studio gave Zeffirelli the red-carpet treatment, hiring frequent collaborator Dyson Lovell to produce, Oscar-winner Fred Koenekamp to shoot the picture and Grammy-winning jazz great Dave Grusin to compose the score (for which the film would receive its only Oscar nomination). But for all that, it was an amazingly troubled shoot. In fact, it went into production without a leading man.
MGM originally had approached Ryan O'Neal to star. He agreed on condition that his son, Griffin O'Neal, be cast as his on-screen offspring. The choice made sense since O'Neal's daughter, Tatum, had won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar when she made her screen debut as hissidekick in Peter Bogdanovich's Paper Moon (1973). But Zeffirelli wanted to cast an unknown so he organized a nationwide talent hunt, which helped generate publicity for the film. Eventually O'Neal stepped into the ring in the decidedly lighter The Main Event (1979), co-starring Barbra Streisand. The next choice for The Champ was Robert Redford, but he wanted major script changes that would require pushing back the film's February start date.
With no star, Zeffirelli had to delay the start of shooting until March 1, when he started doing location work in Hialeah, Fla. Later that month, they signed Jon Voight, who had played a boxer a few years earlier in The All-American Boy (1973). A month later, they signed FayeDunaway, still riding high after her Oscar win for Network (1976), to play Voight's ex-wife, whose attempt to gain custody of the son she had deserted years earlier triggers the film's crises. Getting Dunaway for the relatively small role was a casting coup for Zeffirelli, though it fit well with the actress' own career plans. She was hoping to marry longtime love Terry O'Neill and start a family, so she was only taking smaller roles. And the chance to play a mother fit her maternal dreams. In fact, she would become a mother the year after The Champ's release.
The film's real casting triumph, however, was Ricky Schroder, the young boy discovered in Zeffirelli's national talent hunt. When Voight read with the nine-year-old New Yorker, he was so impressed he said it would be a crime not to cast him. Most critics felt the same way. Although The Champ got decidedly mixed reviews, almost every notice praised the young Schroder, who would win the Golden Globe for Best Male Newcomer. He would go on to star in the hit comedy series Silver Spoon, then find adult stardom in the mini-series Lonesome Dove and with a three-year stint on the acclaimed drama NYPD Blue.
But The Champ also marked the end of the road for one of its stars. Veteran actress Joan Blondell made her screen debut in 1930, a year before the first film version of The Champ appeared. She made her name in Warner Bros. musicals like Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade (both 1933) before moving on to more dramatic roles in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) and Nightmare Alley (1947). She was also a frequent guest star on television before landing in her own series, Here Come the Brides, then followed that with an acclaimed stage turn in the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. The Champ would be the last of her films released in her lifetime.
Producer: Dyson Lovell
Director: Franco Zeffirelli
Screenplay: Walter Newman
Based on a Screenplay by Leonard Praskin and a story by Francis Marion
Cinematography: Fred Koenekamp
Art Direction: Herman A. Blumenthal
Music: Dave Grusin
Cast: Jon Voight (Billy), Faye Dunaway (Annie), Ricky Schroder (T.J.), Jack Warden (Jackie), Arthur Hill (Mike), Strother Martin (Riley), Joan Blondell (Dolly Kenyon), Elisha Cook, Jr. (Georgie), Stefan Gierasch (Charlie Goodman), Dana Elcar (Hoffmaster), Randall 'Tex' Cobb (Bowers).
by Frank Miller