It wasn't difficult for the producers of USA Network's new biographical picture, "Rudy: The Rudy Giuliani Story," to convince James Woods to play the former mayor of New York City.
"There is nothing about him I don't like," says Woods, who is no stranger in bringing historical characters to life on screen. Woods previously played Roy Cohn in "Citizen Cohn," H.R. Haldeman in "Nixon," Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Bill Wilson in "My Name Is Bill W.," for which he won an Emmy, and the suspected assassin of civil rights leader Medgar Evers in "Ghosts of Mississippi."
Playing Giuliani, Woods says, came naturally to him. "Character is destiny, and I think he's a man of extraordinary, profoundly great character," Woods says. "He believes in right and wrong. I think he's drafted an entire life and political life around the paradigm of might right be a viable alternative to those who would accept wrong and suffer from it. Therefore, it was an honor to play him, and I couldn't wait to do it."
Based on the book by Village Voice editor Wayne Barrett, "Rudy," which premieres Sunday on USA, examines New York's love-hate relationship with the brash, hot-tempered and ambitious public servant who began his rise to power as a young attorney working for the Justice Department during Ronald Reagan's presidency. Once he was appointed U.S. attorney in New York City, Giuliani took on the mob, crime and white-collar criminals on Wall Street. As his public career steadily rose, he encountered personal problems with his marriage to TV news reporter and actress Donna Hanover.
After being defeated by David N. Dinkins in his first attempt to become mayor of New York, Giuliani rebounded four years later and was elected. But during his two terms, Giuliani endured fights within his own political circle, engaged in an extramarital affair and survived his battle with prostate cancer. Approaching the end of his term in office, Giuliani's political future seemed bleak. But the world's opinion of the mayor changed with his heroism and leadership after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center's twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001.
Executive producer Stephen J. Davis says "Rudy" offers a fair and balanced portrayal of Giuliani. (The former mayor was not involved in the production.)
"Rudy was and is a very complicated man, just as you would expect," Davis says. "We certainly didn't whitewash Rudy. You can see that Jimmy plays Rudy, warts, pimples and all."
But don't tell Woods that. To the outspoken actor, Giuliani is as nearly perfect an individual as they come. "Why would having a temper be a problem?" says Woods, when asked about Giuliani's hair-trigger disposition. "If you are dealing with idiots, why should you suffer them gladly?"
The movie interweaves actual newsreel footage from Sept. 11 with re-creations. Achieving the right tone for those scenes was pivotal to the film's success, says Woods.
"It is one of the seminal moments in the history of the republic, and it can't be ignored in a story of Rudy Giuliani," the actor explains. "Yet you have to be so careful not to have it cross any line of exploitation or bad taste. It is important not to forget [the event], and if you listen to some of these talking heads recently, it seems shocking that some people have forgotten what those awful days were like."
Woods bristles when he hears people say that Giuliani "rose" to greatness after the Sept. 11 tragedy. "I always thought he was at that level of greatness. It was no surprise to me that he responded in the extraordinary way that he did."
"Rudy: The Rudy Giuliani Story" can be seen Sunday at 8 p.m on the USA Network. The network has rated it TV-14L (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14, with an advisory for coarse language).
Cover photograph by Greg Gorman.