Here waspressure. Carl Lewis had competed on the international track and field stagefor 18 years and won nine Olympic gold medals. In 1984, before the start of theSummer Olympics in Los Angeles, he had famously promised to match Jesse Owens'slegendary performance in the '36 Games by winning four golds (in the same fourevents) and delivered with ease. Lewis had even once sung the nationalanthem--albeit horribly--before a 1993 NBA game in New Jersey. The man knowswhat heat feels like. ¬∂ At least he thought he did. Here he sat in a small,Southern California acting workshop in the spring of 2005, script in hand,facing down Erika Alexander, 36, a longtime TV actress who was serving as aguest instructor for Lewis's acting coach, Troy Rowland. In this exercise Lewiswas playing the role of a husband arguing with his wife, and Alexander wasgiving him more game than Ben Johnson and Mike Powell combined. ¬∂ "I loveyou," Lewis said to his acting partner in the scene. ¬∂ "I don't believeyou!" shouted Alexander. ¬∂ Lewis recoiled. Alexander moved the rest of theclass closer to Lewis, demanding more emotion. Each time he spoke, Alexanderjumped in his face and moved the students ever closer. "She totally workedthe s--- out of Carl," says Darrell Jones, Lewis's classmate and friend."I was looking away. It's tough to see your friend get broken down likethat." ¬∂ Eventually the hectoring subsided, and the strangest thinghappened: Lewis felt free. He had been taking acting lessons for more than twodecades, since before the L.A. Games, and never before had he allowed himselfto abandon the stoicism--"the arrogance," he calls it--that made himthe greatest performer in modern track and field history. "He spent allthose years keeping his emotions under control," says Lewis's sister,Carol. "As an actor, he was being told to release those emotions."
Shortly after hisundressing by Alexander, Lewis landed a small role--as a PEOPLE magazinereporter--in Material Girls, a film starring Hilary and Haylie Duff that isscheduled for an August release. He has larger roles in Tournament of Dreams, afilm about an inner-city basketball team struggling to survive, and in The LastAdam, the story of six boyhood friends coming home for the funeral of theirLittle League coach. In the latter film, which premiered in June at the AtlantaFilm Festival, Lewis plays one of the friends, a character with Parkinson'sdisease.
Perhaps the filmswill make millions. Most do not. For Lewis, however, success is measured inmuch broader terms. He finally has traction in his life after a long anddifficult transition from superstar to starving actor. (Starving, in this case,is measured by roles, not by financial well-being; Lewis has a home in the tonyL.A. neighborhood of Pacific Palisades and another in Mount Laurel, N.J.)
Lewis stepped outof public view as an athlete on July 29, 1996, in Atlanta, when he won theOlympic gold medal in the long jump for the fourth consecutive time. He spentthe next seven years drifting, even as his track and field accomplishmentsbecame all the more impressive with the passage of time. A member of fiveOlympic teams, Lewis owns 16 of the best 30 long jumps in history. He twice wonOlympic gold in the 100 meters and anchored six world-record-setting4√ó100-meter relay teams, four of them at an Olympics or the worldchampionships.
Yet track andfield left him bitter. For most of his career, Lewis and his manager, JoeDouglas, challenged the financial and bureaucratic structure of track. Theydemanded more appearance money than any track athlete had ever received andcontrol over how events were run. They also made enemies of meet promoters andmany track officials. In the end, Lewis's Olympic career was capped by a snub,when the track coaches at the '96 Games did not include him on the 4√ó100 relayteam. That slight, denying him a final showcase and farewell, still torturesLewis.
"It was theworst thing in my career," he says. (At the time, coaches pointed toLewis's last-place finish in the 100 meters at the Olympic trials. Ultimately,the U.S. was beaten by Canada in the relay, the first time an American 4√ó100had lost an Olympic final it completed.)
His athleticcareer over, Lewis lived in Houston for the next three years before moving toLos Angeles in 1999. There he hit the movie premieres, clubbed late and sleptin. He avoided track meets. "I was wayward and negative," says Lewis."I tried to make up for it by partying."
Carol Lewis says,"Carl once told me he lived his 40s when he was in his 20s, then he triedto live his 20s when he was turning into his 40s." And it nearly killedhim.
In the earlymorning hours of April 21, 2003, Lewis crashed his Maserati into a concretebarrier on the 110 freeway in Los Angeles. Lewis registered a .08 blood alcoholreading--the level at which a driver in California is considered legallyintoxicated. Drunken driving charges were later dismissed as Lewis pleaded nocontest to a misdemeanor speeding charge and agreed to attend AlcoholicsAnonymous or Mothers Against Drunk Driving meetings.
The crashawakened Lewis. "It was a good thing," he says. "It made me say,Get your life together. I had gone too far. I needed to get off thecouch."
Between the timeof the crash and the spring of '05, Lewis retooled his entire support group,hiring a new Hollywood agent and publicist and signing on with Rowland, hisfourth acting coach. He reorganized the Carl Lewis Foundation, putting aspecial emphasis on helping inner-city youth through athletics. (Lewis has alsolong been an active fund-raiser in support of organ donation through the WendyMarx Foundation.) "The guy who lived from 1997 to 2003, he was tired andburned out," says Lewis. "Now I've got my mojo back. I've pulled myselftogether."
On a rainy Juneday Lewis sat for an interview and photos in a lower Manhattan loft. Hisdisappointment at failing to run that relay in '96 will never go away, butthere is plenty else to embrace. He remembers '84, when he matched Owens, andhe recalls the last night of the '92 Olympics in Barcelona, when hebreathtakingly anchored the U.S. 4√ó100 relay to a world record of 37.40 secondsthat still stands. "My best race," he says. "The only time in mylife I wanted to make a statement, that I was the fastest man in theworld."
He is leavingnow. Down the elevator, into the lobby and off to a long summer that includesfive big parties in celebration of his 45th birthday and then a return to theacting trenches. "Everything is in a good way now," he says. "I'mhappy with my legacy, and I'm excited about everything that's going onnow." He steps onto the puddled sidewalk, and his famous legs break into agraceful jog as he dodges the droplets.