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Wrestling reaches out to its fans

Times Staff Writer

Know what’s wrong with Hollywood? Not enough professional wrestlers.

At least that’s what the folks at World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. would have you believe. This weekend, the local shortage of big men -- and some women -- in tights is going to be alleviated in two ways.

First, the WWE will present exhibition matches today, a Hall of Fame induction Saturday and the Super Bowl of pro wrestling, “WrestleMania 21,” at Staples Center on Sunday. Over the last couple of decades, the much-hyped spectacle has given the public many warm and fuzzy memories, such as competitors throwing salt in each other’s eyes, the ritual shaving of a defeated opponent’s head and, finally, the yanking down of a loser’s shorts.

It’s the first time wrestling’s big show has come to Los Angeles since 1991 -- although it was in Anaheim five years ago. Promoters are hoping the journey out west will buck up its popularity, still solid with its television shows “SmackDown!” and “Raw,” though noticeably down from its halcyon days of the ‘90s. Even so, when tickets went on sale for Sunday’s main event at Staples, they sold out in less than a minute.

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“We compete against the Internet, Gameboys, reality-TV shows, everything has affected us,” WWE Chairman Vince McMahon said last week. “But we’re a combination of all forms of entertainment: part sports, part soap opera, part comedy, part talk show.”

One more thing the WWE will soon be able to add to its list -- part movie studio. In addition to its magazines, websites, television shows, video games -- not to mention live wrestling matches -- the entertainment company is using the weekend to tout its new film division that is rolling out several WWE star-studded movies later this year.

“We are going to reinvent Hollywood,” McMahon said, with typical understatement. “We’re going to do action-adventure films the old-fashioned way.” (Actually, one of the three films is a horror film, but McMahon didn’t say exactly whether they were going to do that one the old-fashioned way too.)

The WWE agrees with the cinema purists and the highbrow critics -- Hollywood is too much flash, not enough substance. Through WWE Films, whose goal is to produce and finance two to four movies per year, McMahon means to correct the problem, pronto -- and hopefully make a ton of money too.

“Our heroes aren’t going to turn and wink at you in the middle of the film. It breaks that sense of character,” McMahon said. “Another thing wrong with adventure movies today is they rely too much on special effects. One explosion has to be bigger than the other. They forgot the story. It’s all about the story.”

Still, Merchant Ivory shouldn’t start sweating just yet. One film ready to go is “The Condemned,” starring “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, a famous WWE wrestler (for those who don’t know). Austin plays a cop on death row given a second chance at freedom by competing in a deadly reality show (not the “The Bachelor”).

“I guarantee you, Austin won’t be smiling in this one,” McMahon said. “It’s going to be true to his character.”

Of course, this isn’t the first time pro wrestlers have tried to jump from the canvas into Hollywood’s money pool. Most recently, the Rock has scored several action-adventure hits such as 2002’s “The Scorpion King.” The former wrestling star (a.k.a. Dwayne Douglas Johnson) now commands multimillion-dollar paydays for each picture.

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The Rock’s path to cinematic glory can be credited in large part to Hulk Hogan, who not only gave professional wrestling a coherent national audience but also blazed a trail in Hollywood. After starring as Thunderlips in “Rocky III” in 1982, Hogan went on to star in dozens of films and TV shows. He has even co-hosted “Saturday Night Live.”

Still, Hogan, who received a lot of roles in children’s shows, would have liked to have had the opportunities today’s wrestlers do.

“When I was coming up, Bruce Willis, Sly Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger were in their prime,” Hogan said. “I did a lot of children’s stuff, and I just couldn’t be the guy who mowed down a hundred people with a machine gun.”

In spite of his show business success, Hogan said a greater honor awaits him Saturday: his enshrinement in the WWE’s Hall of Fame at the Universal Amphitheatre. Stallone is slated to tap the Hulkster for this once-in-a-lifetime achievement. Hogan follows such wrestling greats as Sgt. Slaughter, Big John Studd and Jessie “the Body” Ventura (a.k.a. the former governor of Minnesota).

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“It’s one of the biggest things that has ever happened to me,” Hogan said.

“It’s going to be a very emotional night,” McMahon added. “You’re going to see grown men cry.”

Not everybody makes it to the big time on the big screen. Rowdy Roddy Piper -- also being initiated into the WWE Hall of Fame on Saturday, as much for being hated as loved -- announced in 1987 he was leaving wrestling for Hollywood. After being almost immediately cast as the lead in John Carpenter’s “They Live,” a respectable sci-fi parable about the evils of yuppiedom, Piper eventually had to return to the ring after some lean years in Hollywood.

“It was very difficult to break that boundary,” said Piper, whose feuds with Hogan popularized both men.

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Still, dreams die hard.

In a film shot last year, Piper plays Yokum, the bartender in “Shut Up and Shoot!,” which is in post-production. He took the role as a favor to one of his daughters, who wants to crack Hollywood. “It’s a nice piece of work,” said Piper, speaking from his Oregon home. “But it was kind of a dad thing.”

“I’d love to do a remake of ‘Cool Hand Luke,’ ” Piper said. “Or play Lennie in ‘Of Mice and Men.’ Either one of those would be great.”

Hollywood -- are you out there?

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WrestleMania 21

Where: Staples Center, 1111 S. Figueroa St., L.A.

When: 4 p.m. Sunday. Sold out; pay per view on cable and satellite.

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Contact: For more information on exhibition matches at noon today at Hollywood & Highland, Saturday evening’s Hall of Fame ceremony at the Universal Amphitheatre and other events, go to www.wwe.com/schedules/

appearances/fanfrenzy.jsp.


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