MOVIES : The New Land of Boz : Football wasn't big enough for Brian Bozworth, says sports agent Gary Wichard, but Hollywood is just the ticket

Steve Weinstein is a regular contributor to Calendar.

For a while in the mid-'80s, Brian Bozworth was the most flamboyant, the most talked-about, the meanest, baddest college football player in the land. A linebacker for the always-powerful University of Oklahoma, he prowled the gridiron like the Terminator, poised to pulverize anyone dressed in the wrong color. He wore earrings, sported a blonde Mohawk and perfected a glare that would pierce armor. He pumped up his body with steroids, talked back to his coach, and scalded reporters' notebooks with his salty views of upcoming opponents.

Whether "The Boz," as he came to be known, was ever as good at football as he was at attracting attention is questionable, but in an era where style often ranks higher than substance, he pushed all the right buttons, and in the summer of 1987, he hit the jackpot. He signed a contract with the Seattle Seahawks that made him the highest paid rookie in the history of professional football.

Was he worth it? Not on the field. He got beaten up so badly by those NFL guys that he limped away after just three injury-riddled seasons. But he still had his swaggering image, and where there's that, there's always Hollywood. Now, the Boz--with a continuing push from his friend, partner, agent and head cheerleader Gary Wichard--is about to emerge on the big screen. Coming soon to a theater near you: "Stone Cold," a $25 million biker-action movie--produced by Michael Douglas' Stone Group Pictures and distributed by Sony's Columbia Pictures--starring . . . Brian Bozworth.

"Brian became too big . . . for the world of football," says Wichard, whom Inside Sports magazine once dubbed "The Wizard of Hype in the Land Of Boz." "People weren't focusing on the game, they were focusing on his persona not living up to what his billing was. In football, we can't revise scripts. We can't have the hero make the big play every time. That's why I always had my eye on Hollywood. Everything I've done has been geared to having him transcend the world of sports and enter the world of films."

At 25, Bozworth is about to become "the biggest action film star in the world," Wichard predicts. Check that, the agent says, searching for the right hyperbole: "The biggest box office star, period."

How the 40-year-old Wichard, a former small college quarterback turned sports agent, managed to transform an eccentric, headline-hogging college football player into a millionaire NFL rookie and now a movie star is the stuff of the New American Dream: riches through notoriety.

Although Bozworth has the image, Wichard is actually the blow-harder of the duo. During interviews at his beachfront Santa Monica hotel, or hanging around on the movie set, Bozworth seems pretty low-keyed about the upwardly mobile twists and turns in his life. Far from the puffed-up lummox he is reputed to be, he is instead soft-spoken, open to criticism and speaks in complete sentences. Yeah, this is all great, he says--the money, the fame, the new career--but he'd really rather "be in Hawaii right now, just chillin' "That's my big thing," Bozworth says. "I enjoy being by myself and being quiet. I don't need to go out and get noticed and get my ego stroked. But Gary works hard at what he does and we made a commitment to each other to make each other successful. He does his part and I in turn do mine."

The making of "The Boz," the man recently honored as Action Star of Tomorrow by the National Assn. of Theater Owners, began when Wichard attended a University of Oklahoma football game and became mesmerized by No. 44 in Oklahoma's defensive alignment.

"I thought, 'This is one of those rare guys who can be larger than life,' " Wichard remembers. "Just the way he walked off the field, the way he pumped up the crowd. He was strutting his stuff. He was letting everyone know that he was in charge. It was an ego, a charisma that stars have. He had that thing like it was Richard Burton doing Hamlet and you're watching him all over the stage and you can't get your eyes off of him."

Wichard's dream was predicated on his belief that there was a glaring chasm in the world of action stars that Bozworth could bridge. All of Hollywood's big action heroes--Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris, even Steven Seagal--are over 40, and everyone else who's hot--Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe, James Spader, Charlie Sheen--look like boys to Wichard. "Even when he was 20 years old," Wichard says, "Brian had the body and the presence of a man."

Several months after that first sighting, after winning the Dick Butkus Award as best college linebacker in the country and leading Oklahoma to the national championship, Bozworth called Wichard about helping him enter the National Football League. They met at Furr's Cafeteria in Norman, Okla., where Wichard laid out a career plan: He would represent Bozworth in his pro football career, which he estimated might last only four or five years, but beyond that he would lead the Boz into a movie career that would span decades. Of course, Wichard, who is executive producer of "Stone Cold," would be in for the long haul.

Bozworth admits being skeptical. He wanted to get rich playing football. But he understood, too, that he'd want and need a new stage when his playing days were over.

Bozworth played another year at Oklahoma, winning a second Butkus Award and finishing fourth in the race for the Heisman Trophy, but was banned from the post-season Orange Bowl that year after testing positive for steroids. But he couldn't stay away, and the media couldn't resist him. Bozworth roamed the sidelines during that Orange Bowl game wearing a T-shirt that labeled the National Collegiate Athletic Assn., the group that suspended him, a communist organization. Negative publicity swelled, but that didn't concern Wichard. People were talking about him.

The formal selling of "The Boz" had begun.

The minute the Heisman race was over, Wichard had Bozworth junk all his suits and ties and began dressing him in oversized, "hip, Hollywood threads." Newly outfitted, he appeared on "Late Night With David Letterman." "I couldn't let Brian be seen as just a football player," Wichard explains. "I wanted him to be like the Elvis of sports. I had to start grooming that Hollywood persona."

Everything Bozworth and Wichard did, they did theatrically: the 10-year, $11-million contract from the Seahawks, the big blue sunglasses, the big mouth opinions, the spider web shaved into the side of his head and painted blue and white stripes on the other. When the NFL players went on strike during Bozworth's rookie year, Wichard refused to let Bozmania fade. He got him on "The Tonight Show," "Good Morning, America" and as a guest video deejay on MTV. Bozworth stopped doing interviews with sports publications but granted one to Interview magazine provided they promise to put him on the cover.

In the off-season, at the age of 23, Bozworth published his autobiography, "The Boz: Confessions of a Modern Anti-Hero," laced with personal opinion and outrageousness. Sports Illustrated offered three times the money to publish the excerpts, Wichard says, but with Hollywood now in his sights, he sold them to Rolling Stone instead.

Endorsement opportunities flooded his way, but Wichard refused to allow Bozworth to appear in a typical "towel-snapping, locker room type environment." He did approve a tongue-in-check deodorant commercial in which Bozworth, dressed in a tuxedo, explains to a group of sunglass-attired schoolboys the importance of personal hygiene. "I passed on a major cereal endorsement because they wanted to have him sitting there with milk dripping down his chin," Wichard says. "I couldn't let him be seen like that."

However, what the public was also seeing was a football career sinking fast. Bozworth was being scorned and derided by many football writers and fans, who saw the bluster of the Boz mostly as all bull. In his third and final season, Bozworth managed to play in only two games. Whether it was a result of crippling shoulder injuries, as Wichard contends, or a lack of heart, as some sportswriters have written, even Bozworth concedes his pro football days were disappointing.

"Football is not the easiest game in the world to play," he says. "If it was, everyone would be lining up to play and to collect the paychecks. And when you come into the game with an 'S' on your chest, with these bigger than life expectations, you're way behind everybody else because no one is going to give you any help and no one is going to watch out for your backside. That's the grave I dug for myself going in. Unfortunately, I had both feet in at the same time."

In a Culver City parking lot early this year, in between takes of reshoots on "Stone Cold," which was originally filmed last summer in Mississippi and Arkansas, Bozworth sits in the shade on top of a metal ice chest. Wearing a custom-made leather biker jacket decorated with a skull that sports a Boz-styled Mohawk and blue sunglasses, Bozworth looks much smaller than the one on the football field. And he is smaller--a trim 215 pounds, down nearly 30 pounds from his playing days.

A few feet away, the star's director's chair, inscribed "Brian Bosworth," sits empty. At least while a reporter is around, he won't sit in it. "It's not my chair," says Bozworth, who recently announced that his name would no longer be spelled with an 'S' as his family had always spelled it.

"It's just an ongoing joke between me and my dad," he says, laughing. "His friends always called him 'Boz' so I asked him why he spelled it 'Bos.' He said, 'That's just how I spell it,' and I said, 'Well, I'm just going to spell it with a 'z.' "

Even while the Boz with an S was knocking heads on the football field, Wichard was scouting opportunities for him in Hollywood. There were nibbles from big fish, Wichard says, rattling off the names of several major studio chief executives. In the fall of 1988, early in Bozworth's second pro season, Wichard convinced Premiere magazine to run a blurb about his protege's Hollywood ambitions, complete with a quote from Guy McElwaine, then chairman of the now-defunct Weintraub Entertainment Group, who called Bozworth "superbly magnetic."

But nobody bit. Though Bozworth had been studying with acting coach Harold Guskin, a New York acting coach known for turning non-actors into stage players, no one was willing to bankroll an entire movie with an untested football player as its star. Instead, Wichard says, Bozworth received offers for small roles in such action films as "Lock Up" and "Tango and Cash."

"My boy wasn't going to do that," Wichard says. "Brian was going to be the hero of the '90s. I couldn't create this major persona and let Stallone beat him up for five minutes in 'Tango and Cash.' People would say, 'Oh that's the Boz and Stallone just kicked his butt. He ain't as tough as I thought.' I went against the advice of a lot of smart people who said he should pay his dues, but I couldn't afford that."

Moshe Diamant, one of Michael Douglas' partners in Stone Group Pictures, and Yoram Ben Ami, the producer of many action films before doing "Stone Cold," brought Wichard a psychological action thriller about an FBI agent who infiltrates the Hells Angels. Titled "The Brotherhood," it had been an "A" project, starring James Caan and produced by Mace Neufeld ("The Hunt for Red October"), but because of difficulties in developing a script, that movie with these players was never made.

Wichard says that the only thing he liked about the original script was the Harley Davidson motorcycles. The Boz on a Harley--that's the look he was after. Wichard insisted that they "Bozify" the script before he'd consider it, which meant, among other things, that the screenwriter was handed a copy of Bozworth's autobiography and asked to incorporate his personality as revealed in that book into the script.

Bruce Malmuth, who had just finished the hugely successful "Hard to Kill" with Steven Seagal, agreed to direct on a modest $10 million budget. Rick Bieber, Douglas' partner and president of Stone Group, said the company did not hesitate to greenlight the project even though Bozworth had never acted before. Bieber acknowledged that Bozworth's celebrity certainly encouraged them to take that risk, but he cautioned that his public profile and the curiosity factor will only lure people into the theaters the first weekend.

"The film has to stand on its own as a well-constructed action film and I just thought that this was more than some contrived, silly vehicle in which to launch Brian's career," Bieber said. "And Michael, Moshe and I all agreed that Brian had the makings of a really unique actor. He is so contemporary and young and hip and he has a great sense of self-deprecating humor that when juxtaposed with his athletic abilities really make him quite distinguishable from all other actors in this genre today."

Wichard announced Bozworth's retirement from football from the set of the new movie. In an Associated Press piece about Bozworth's new venture, Malmuth said: "I see in (Bozworth) Marlon Brando, James Dean and Gary Cooper--all in one package. He's got the same appeal of a Stallone or Schwarzenegger."

But Malmuth was not to be the man who launched Hollywood's new hero. Thirteen days into the production, he was fired. As Wichard explains it, Malmuth was emphasizing emotions unbecoming a tough, budding superhero. In one scene, Bozworth's character, who was married and had a child, actually cried. "They were tremendous acting performances, but some 17-year-old kid is going to say, 'Oh man, Boz, what are you doing?' I had to sell this movie. I had to give them what they expected."

Production shut down and Craig Baxley, who had previously directed "Action Jackson" and episodes of TV's "A-Team," was hired to replace Malmuth. The script was retooled as the production team debated whether Bozworth should have a family his first time out.

"Gary thought the Boz shouldn't be married," says a source close to the film. "He thought all the teen-age girls should want him and all the teen-age boys should want to be like him. He thought the family turned him into a wimp."

"He's 25. Let him go undercover and have fun," Wichard counters. "Clint Eastwood when he played 'Dirty Harry' didn't have to call home every few minutes and ask if his kid had done his homework. I may not know where to put the lights or how to set up the camera, but I know how to sell the Boz."

The family was scrapped. The beginning of the film was reshot and the movie became heavy on pumped-up, unrelenting action. One member of the crew said Bozworth even started to rewrite some of the lines himself. Costs soared to nearly 2 1/2 times the original budget as even more reshoots were required here in Los Angeles several months after production wrapped in the South, Wichard acknowledges.

To further glorify Bozworth, Wichard also changed the title of the film. Though it sounded sinister enough, "The Brotherhood" was the name of the biker gang. Wichard wanted Bozworth's character, John Stone, to be the film's one and only centerpiece. Hence "Stone Cold," which Wichard adds, is also inner city lingo for a very cool attitude.

"Gary and Brian had never been on a movie set before and yet the babies were running the preschool," the crew member adds. "Gary was very tenacious about getting it the way he wanted it, and who knows, they may have a hit on their hands."

"What will make Brian special is his personality," said Bieber, "and at some expense we tried to integrate that combination of hipness and humor and strength and intensity into the film. Gary is right in keeping those distinguishable characteristics in focus."

Bozworth says he understands the importance of exploiting his celebrity and his brute physical skills the first time out. But he says he is determined to avoid being tagged solely as another in a long line of marketable action warriors. As his career blossoms, he says he intends to branch out into comedy, even romance.

Though Wichard worked hard to transform "Stone Cold" into a platform for the Boz-persona, Bozworth said that movie audiences will see that the persona has already changed. The fledgling actor acknowledges that those who consider him "a clown" going in will flock to theaters just to jeer, and no matter what he does in the film, "they will leave hating me just the same."

But most people, he concludes, will experience "shellshock"--not from the vicious fight scenes, chase sequences, heavy metal music, roaring motorcycle engines and spectacular explosions, but from the realization that the muscle-bound, big screen Boz is a man with a heart.

"And over time as the persona evolves, I think that image will change even further from this violent, hard-nosed mentality of a football player into a much softer, more honest human being, who has the ability to show his innermost emotions and concerns," Bozworth says. "You will see a mind at work instead of just the brawn. I'm confident that if you go into the theater, you'll see that I've brought some color into what has been a stark black and white photo. That there is a little bit of human kindness behind this medieval mask of armor."

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