Tough Guys Do Dance

In the rocky realm of filmic fisticuffs, Jimmy Nickerson is a world-class choreographer
November 18, 1991

Here's some startling movie trivia—startling, at least, to those of us who don't work in "the business." In the filming of a boxing movie, even one as violently authentic as Raging Bull, not a single jab so much as brushes an actor's face. The trick is camera angles, and fight sequences rehearsed right down to the eye blink. That's where Jimmy Nickerson comes in.

Nickerson, 41 years old and a stuntman by trade, is the Balanchine of Hollywood boxing choreography and the D.W. Griffith of ring-sequence directing. He pioneered the new aggressiveness of celluloid prizefighting in Rocky and Rocky II and elevated boxing realism to an art in Raging Bull. When the subject is film fights, he's the champ.

His most recent movie, Gladiator, scheduled to open in March, was shot earlier this year in Chicago, primarily on the city's bleak South Side.

On the ground floor of a seedy warehouse, a guard is posted by the door. Four flights of sagging wooden planks that pass for stairs lead to a huge loft, and in its center is an elevated boxing ring. The room's yellow paint is peeling. Sunlight is refracted by glass panes that are smeared with dust. Bottles of chilled Evian water and a caterer's sandwich trays are set incongruously off to one side of the room.

"Now, Jimmy," says Nickerson. "You're comfortable with the right hook?"

"Yeah. No problem." Jimmy is actor James Marshall, perhaps best known as biker-heartthrob James Hurley of television's Twin Peaks.

"O.K. Now come in with the left," Nickerson continues. "I bob right. Your left again. I bob left. Jab left, jab left. I bob and weave. You come in with a sweeping hook. I hit your body and push you into the ropes. Got it? Let's try it."

Dressed in black sweats, a pinch of Hawken chewing tobacco tucked in his lower lip, Nickerson rehearses the moves with Marshall in super slow motion. The film's director, Rowdy Herrington, a cellular phone in his pants pocket, looks on. Nickerson's punches stop a millimeter short of Marshall's face, and Marshall reels from the mock impact. "That should push you back onto your right leg," Nickerson points out. After a few run-throughs Nickerson hits on a sequence that works, and jots notes on a legal pad.

Gladiator is the story of Tommie Riley, played by Marshall, who learns to survive in a blighted neighborhood where warring street gangs compete in illegal, underground prizefights. The noted character actors Brian Dennehy and Robert Loggia play ruthless promoters. Most of the story unfolds in or around a ring. There are to be 12 fight sequences in Gladiator. By contrast, there were two in Rocky and eight in Raging Bull.

This feast of fisticuffs makes Nickerson's job more challenging. "There's only so much you can do with your left and right hands," he says as he watches Marshall rehearse. Nickerson bears an uncanny resemblance to James Caan, the actor he has stunt-doubled for in six movies, including the rough-and-tumble Rollerball. "We use a few dirtier tactics in this movie for variety, because we don't have to worry about a referee handing out fouls." The illegal fights of Gladiator are, in fact, little more than human cockfights. The boxers use elbows, head butts and booming lefts to the groin. "But it's not World Wrestling Federation stuff," Nickerson says defensively. "It's never gratuitous."

Nickerson and Herrington discuss a sequence that would send Marshall hurtling out of the ring and into the crowd. "Oh, man," says Marshall. "Wouldn't I be dead if that really happened?"

"No," says Nickerson, a dedicated student of his art. "Firpo versus Dempsey, 1923. Firpo punched Dempsey right out of the ring. Dempsey climbed back in and beat the hell out of Firpo."

Such wild real-life scenes are why Hollywood has long been in love with boxing. Some 450 fight films have been made over the years, and Nickerson has seen, and liked, most of them, including old ones like City for Conquest (1940), Body and Soul (1947) and Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956). But he thinks that while other film stunts grew in sophistication through the years—faster car chases, bigger explosions—boxing scenes remained for too long in the dark ages. They looked either mechanical or obviously faked.

And then, in 1976, came Rocky.

"On Rocky, we dumped the phony posing and went for realism," says Nickerson. "We wanted an aggressiveness that hadn't been seen on the screen before." In preparing for the movie, he studied fight films of the Rockys, Marciano and Graziano, and of Joe Louis, Billy Conn and Jersey Joe Walcott. He had boxers tutor the actors. "The actors came to understand the mechanics of the sport—relaxed arms, lead with the shoulder," says Nickerson. "Plus they learned balance and rhythm. Then when we asked them to pick up the pace and fight like stuntmen, they had those fundamentals." Nickerson's method worked wonderfully, "and suddenly you couldn't fool an audience with bad boxing anymore."

In Rocky II and Raging Bull, Nickerson refined his technique. For the latter, which is a bio of fighter Jake La Motta, he dissected 20 of La Motta's bouts. "We were true to the way those fights really happened," says Nickerson, "although it's true we may have pumped up the volume a little."

Nickerson's critics are bothered by the pumping; they say his fights are hyperreal, more exciting than what goes on in the ring. Blood is forever raining on the crowd; fighters fall and rally like the Dow. "That may be true," says Nickerson. "But if our fights were as dull as eight out of 10 real fights, the audience would fall asleep. Or, worse, walk out."

Three days after the air-sparring rehearsal, the Gladiator crew is ready to shoot the fight scene. Six hundred extras—"dress dark and seedy" read the casting call—have packed a soundstage in a drafty warehouse west of the Loop. The extras represent a bloodthirsty crowd, and when a punch in the ring lands, they jump to their feet and screw their faces into expressions of delight. But not a sound is uttered. "They'll dub that in during editing," Nickerson explains.

Nickerson dances behind the cameras and intermittently coaches his actors. The pace today is vicious. Nickerson bounds out of the ring and down to a video monitor where director Herrington is watching to see whether the hits are making contact. On film they are.

After eight or so punches, shooting halts and makeup man Lance Anderson hurriedly applies a bloody nose, puffed eyes and split cheeks to Marshall's formerly nice-looking face. "Boxing injuries are unique," says Anderson. "They aren't cuts as much as skin ripping apart across the bones of the face. The challenge for me is creating things in two minutes that will look real in a close-up." Anderson spritzes water—Hollywood sweat—on Marshall and his opponent.

Shooting continues for 30 more minutes; the day's work will consume several hours. It will take six such days to complete what will ultimately be about 10 minutes of screen time.

"Bingo!" yells Nickerson when an eight-punch segment works.

"Print it!" shouts Herrington.

Shooting stops while the technical crew sets up a crane for some aerial shots. Marshall, made up with ribs bruised purple, blood running from his nose and a left cheek hastily stitched, munches on a sandwich. Dennehy yells for some Advil. Loggia chats politely with extras. It's a break in the action, Hollywood-style.

Nickerson grew up in Pittsburgh in a house that overlooked the Monongahela River and the steel mills downtown where his father worked. It was a tough neighborhood, not far from where Fritzie Zivic, world welterweight champ in 1940, grew up. In 1956, when Nickerson was seven, his family moved from Pittsburgh to San Fernando, Calif. The new neighborhood had a smorgasbord of rodeo riders, Hollywood stuntmen, a few boxers. Nickerson tagged along after them. At eight he had his own horse and was able to flip off the sorrel's back, just like the stuntmen did. By age 15 Nickerson was swinging a rope on the professional rodeo circuit. At 16 he was hanging out at a gym in Ventura and boxing as an amateur light heavyweight. At age 18, he had a 16-1 record.

In 1968, Nickerson, then 20, got his first stunt work in the television Western Lancer. "I was thrown out the window onto the boardwalk, then vaulted onto a horse and galloped out of town," he recalls. Parts in Bonanza, Gunsmoke and The Big Valley followed, and then, in 1970, Nickerson landed the job of stunt coordinator for the TV Western Alias Smith and Jones. He worked as stunt double for one of the show's stars, Ben Murphy, and performed the same service for Caan and Gene Hackman in feature films.

In 1975, Nickerson got a call from producer Robert Chartoff to work on Rocky. Chartoff gave Nickerson a date and time and said he was to meet a guy named Stallone outside a Santa Monica gym. Nickerson pulled up at the appointed hour in his brand-new Porsche and noticed a guy loitering on the sidewalk. Nickerson was worried the lug would steal his car. "Nice wheels," the guy said with a snarl. "That's mine over there." He pointed to a swamp-green Mercury Monarch beater with a front bumper that was wired on. "You Nickerson? I'm Stallone."

Rocky, shot in just 28 days and with a paltry production budget of a million dollars, "was where I learned how to shoot a boxing match," says Nickerson. He stationed eight cameras around the ring and let them roll. Then, by watching the daily rushes, he learned which camera angles were effective and which weren't. "We shot mostly over the shoulder and told actors to aim for the middle of the forehead," says Nickerson. "For profiles, the actors punched in different zones so the camera couldn't see the missed hit."

Nickerson got not only a crash course in fight filming during the making of Rocky, but also lessons in real-world boxing. He sparred between takes with Joe Frazier, who shot a cameo for Rocky before fighting Muhammad Ali in Manila. Frazier showed Nickerson some moves he was practicing for the Thrilla, and Nickerson has incorporated them in his choreography ever since. "For example, Frazier would get Ali in the clinch and then-boom!—take every opportunity to punch Ali on the top of the deltoids, hard," says Nickerson. "By the late rounds Ali couldn't lift his arms to jab." Rocky won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1976 and remains the only boxing movie so honored.

Nickerson's next project was Rocky II, which was released in 1979. "Much better fights than Rocky," he says. "The actors had really learned how to box. Turn off the volume and watch fights from the two movies. You can see for yourself how Bill Conti's music and the sound-effects people saved the Rocky fight scenes."

In 1978, Nickerson got a call for help from the producer of Raging Bull. La Motta, however, wanted nothing to do with some patsy Hollywood boxing choreographer. During Nickerson's first day on the set, La Motta and his entourage strode into a 14th Street gym in New York City, where the filming was taking place. La Motta marched up to Nickerson and said, spitting out the words, "Who the——told you you could come here and do my story? Can you fight? You wanna fight me?"

"All due respect, Mr. La Motta," replied Nickerson, who is disarmingly polite for a tough guy. "I didn't volunteer for this job. I was asked to help out. But if you want to fight me, I'll fight. If that's really what you want." Actor Robert De Niro and director Martin Scorsese grew tense. La Motta stared at Nickerson. Nickerson stared back and waited for La Motta's booming left hook.

"You're all right, kid," La Motta said, laughing and grabbing a chunk of Nickerson's cheek.

De Niro won the 1980 Academy Award for Best Actor for Raging Bull, and the film is considered by many to be the finest boxing movie ever made. According to Stanley Weston, publisher of The Ring magazine, "The fight scenes in Raging Bull were the most realistic that I've ever seen. I thought I was seeing Jake again, back in the '40s."

Raging Bull cemented Nickerson's reputation as the boxing choreographer in Hollywood. Nickerson, however, was beginning to find life behind the camera dull. He went back to stunt work, igniting in flames for an episode of TV's Crime Story, driving a car beneath a truck and shearing off its roof in the Matt Houston detective drama, running off the lip of a canyon for Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer. Although he's good at what he does, Nickerson has been repaired by doctors many times in the last 20 years for such injuries as fractured hips, broken arms, concussions and separated shoulders. "Jimmy never ceases to amaze me," says Sherrie, his wife of a decade. "Here is a guy who can barely watch his own two girls run down a sidewalk for fear that they might fall down and scrape a knee. Then he goes out and does what he does for a living. I think he's crazy, but I'm behind him. Stunt work is in his blood."

In 1985 Nickerson was inducted into the Hollywood Stuntmen's Hall of Fame, and two years later he won a top-stunt-man award for driving in the freeway-from-hell scene in To Live and Die in L.A.

Of course, stuntmen need calmer careers that will serve them in their dotage, and so Nickerson is behind the lens in a Chicago warehouse, watching Marshall, who is tied up in a body hold. "Shouldn't he wiggle more?" Herrington wonders. "Struggle a little?"

"No," says Nickerson. "Joe Frazier wouldn't struggle. It would use up too much of his energy."

Herrington, wisely, defers to Nickerson's singular brand of cinema veritè.

PHOTODAVID STRICKWhen he takes the gloves off, Nickerson becomes a true softy. PHOTOSTUNTS UNLIMITEDRecalling moments like Firpo's launch of Dempsey (left), Nickerson (right, center) sought similar drama in "Rocky." PHOTOAP[See caption above.] PHOTOMOVIE STILL ARCHIVESDe Niro put on pounds to resemble La Motta (top). Marshall (bottom, left) gained weight, too, then learned to shadowbox from the master. PHOTOVAN REDIN/COLUMBIA PICTURES[See caption above.]

Lisa Twyman Bessone wrote about Special Olympian Andy Leonard in our Nov. 11 issue.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)