A few days before the premiere episode of the boxing-themed drama Lights Out aired on FX in January, I interviewed actor Holt McCallany, who played the lead role of former heavyweight champion Patrick “Lights” Leary. We spoke in depth about his remarkable road to landing the part and his hopes for the series’ success (http://tinyurl.com/3vc9tqe).
With the season finale airing this week, it made sense to interview McCallany again. But there was clearly going to be a very different tone to this interview. After all, this week’s episode wasn’t just a season finale. It was a series finale.
The news broke two weeks ago that the show had not been renewed for a second season. The disappointment of Lights Out’s fans was eclipsed only by the disappointment of McCallany and the rest of the folks who worked on the show. But nobody on either side of the equation should have been surprised. The ratings were dismal from the start. Some pointed to this as proof that boxing just isn’t a popular enough sport, and there might be some truth to that. But NBC’s Friday Night Lights always battled to stay above the Nielsen ratings Mendoza Line, and you can’t say football isn’t a popular sport. Another football series, Playmakers, lasted just one season on ESPN. Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night received endless critical acclaim and still was lucky to survive for two seasons. Scripted TV shows built around sports simply don’t stand much of a chance, it seems.
So maybe we should just be glad Lights Out aired on a cable network that was in a position to let the full first season play out and give us 13 complete episodes. As for the 13th of those 13 episodes, if you haven’t seen it yet but you intend to, then here’s your spoiler warning: McCallany does talk briefly in the Q & A below about the way the show ended. So bookmark this page and come back to it later if the final episode is waiting for you on your DVR.
As you’ll see, McCallany is as genuine and endearing as guy as exists in Hollywood, and he truly loves boxing. As you’ll also see, the time he’s spent with Teddy Atlas since portraying him in HBO’s Mike Tyson biopic 16 years ago has rubbed off on him. Holt occasionally speaks in Atlas-isms. And much like Teddy, he always speaks from the heart.
So here is Lights Leary himself, with the final word on a show that drew a half-empty arena but left the fans in attendance cheering.
The Sweet Science: I assume you heard the news about the show not getting renewed before it went public. How did you react and how difficult has it been to accept?
Holt McCallany: You know, it was very, very disappointing for me. I got a personal call from the head of the network, John Landgraf, before the news became public, and he couldn’t have been more complimentary. It was a pleasure working for FX, and all of the people there are so supportive, and they value their actors so much. But it was still terribly disappointing to be told that there won’t be a second season. I really loved making the show and I was very proud of the work that we did, and it was very gratifying to me in the way that it was embraced by the boxing community. In fact, on Tuesday night, I went here in New York to one of Lou DiBella’s shows, Broadway Boxing, and it was a great card, and my showrunner Warren Leight was honored with an award for his writing. It was just a really nice event, and there was a lot of love in the room. People liked the show.
It’s disappointing, man, because I think that Patrick Leary could have taken the audience on a very interesting journey in Season Two. And nothing would have given me greater pleasure than to continue working for John Landgraf and for the people at FX. But they run a business. And we didn’t attract a wide enough audience. And no matter how much they might like me and Warren Leight, at the end of the day, you have to do enough ratings in order to be viable. And we were doing about a third of what Justified does. That wasn’t enough. I think if we were doing half of what Justified does, it might have been a different story.
TSS: So what do you think went wrong? Is it fair to attribute the low ratings, as many observers have, to boxing not having a wide enough appeal to support a series like this?
HM: I’m not sure. I know that in you, I’m talking to a guy who really likes boxing. And in me, you are talking to a guy who really likes boxing. It’s tough sometimes for me to wrap my brain around the decline of the sport of boxing because I find it so compelling in so many different ways, and there’s such a long, rich history between Hollywood and boxing. I guess you could suggest that America didn’t want to see a show about a heavyweight boxing champion, but I just can’t believe that it’s true. The success of the movie The Fighter I think demonstrates that there is still an audience for a great boxing drama, and I think we made a great boxing drama for the small screen. I really believe that.
More so, I think the problem is that we live in an age when the landscape in cable television is very competitive and it’s populated by a lot of shows, the appeal of which I don’t understand, but that draw a wide audience. You know, we lose to things like Cupcake Wars on Food Network. And it’s going to take a smarter guy than me to be able to explain to you why it is that these reality shows are dominating the cable television landscape in the way that they are. When I watch them, I must confess, I don’t understand their attraction. Teen Mom and Pawn Kings and Cupcake Wars … I mean, you’re just talking to the wrong guy. I don’t understand their appeal.
TSS: Also, with a serialized drama like Lights Out, where each episode builds off the previous one, once somebody misses the first episode, you’re almost never going to reel that viewer in, whereas a lot of these reality shows don’t have to worry about that.
HM: I think that you’re absolutely right about that. I also feel that we’re in a transitional period in the way that people want to view serialized dramas. I think a lot of people want to watch them on DVD and watch the whole season back to back. Or record them on their DVR and watch multiple episodes in a row. There’s no longer a necessity for people to be in front of their television at 10 p.m. on a Tuesday night and watch the first run of Lights Out. Having said that, there are still shows that are successful like that. But I think you’ll find that even shows that are critical hits like Mad Men and Breaking Bad—and I like those shows very, very much—but they don’t draw big numbers. You know, maybe if we were on a pay-cable network, where the ad sales don’t drive the decisions, maybe our numbers would have been sufficient to keep us on the air, I don’t know. But on the other hand, if you didn’t have executives like the guys at FX that are willing to take chances and that trust their instincts about material, who knows if Lights Out would have existed at all? And that’s what I’ve said to people. They’ve asked, “Well, what if it was on another network?” And I said, “Well, then it probably wouldn’t exist. And if it did exist, would it have had Holt McCallany as Patrick Leary? Probably not.”
TSS: That’s a great point. At a lot of networks, there would have been greater pressure to give the lead role to a name-brand actor.
HM: Absolutely. You know, John Landgraf recognized something in me that he thought made me right for this particular part, and he took a chance on me, and I’ll always be grateful to him for doing that, because this performance has put me on the map like I wasn’t before. The show was very well reviewed and the performance was very well reviewed—I got the best reviews of my career. And also, the show got a tremendous launch from the network, and I was able to do a huge amount of press, a lot of talk shows, Jimmy Fallon, Carson Daly, and all of this stuff. And I got a call today from John Landgraf, and he said to me that he felt like I’d proven that I could carry a show, and that people had noticed. I hope that he’s right about that. Because it’s exciting to have the kind of responsibility to have a show kind of built around you in the way that this one was. That was a new experience to me, and a very exhilarating one. So hopefully somebody else will say, “Look, Holt did a good job on Lights Out, let’s give him another opportunity.”
TSS: Has there been a substantial uptick in the number of scripts you’re seeing, roles you’re being considered for, etc.?
HM: There has. I haven’t signed on to anything else yet; you’ve kind of got to let the dust settle on one thing before you move on to the next thing. But I have seen a difference. I’ll tell you about a conversation that I had with my friend Teddy Atlas about this subject. He said, “You take a fighter that you think can compete on an elite level—you believe that he can, maybe he’s had a good amateur career or he looks great in the gym—but until you actually put him in the ring against opposition on that elite level, you’re never sure that he belongs there. Holt, you proved that you belong. They gave you a lead on a show and you executed your responsibilities in a way that people took notice of, and you demonstrated that you were worthy of the opportunity that you were given, and that you belonged in there.”
Another thing someone said that will stick with me, John Landgraf said to me, “You left some blood in the ring, Holt.” And I was grateful to him for characterizing it to me that way. Because at the end of the day, you have to be able to walk away from an experience like this knowing that you did everything you could possibly do to make it a success. I did everything that I could think of to try to make Lights Out a success—and we WERE a creative success. We WERE a critical hit. I can’t control what people are going to do with the remote control in their hands. All I can control is what I do out there. And I did my very best, so I can go forward now to other projects and I can feel a particular way about myself. It’s like if you’re in a fight, and you look for a way out, you’re going to be left with the consequences of that. If you don’t give everything you have and you don’t behave in a way that you can admire, then you’re going to be left with an empty feeling at the end. So I’m coming away from Lights Out feeling like I didn’t let myself down.
TSS: Even though the show wasn’t renewed, does it help a little bit knowing that the season ended with a reasonable amount of closure and not a ton of loose ends in the plot?
HM: Yes, I think that the first season of the show exists as a stand-alone, almost like a mini-series. It has a beginning and an end, and I think it’s satisfying in that respect. But it’s still disappointing that we’re not going to have a Season Two. Warren Leight and the writers on the show had terrific ideas, some of which they shared with me.
TSS: Are you at liberty to share those ideas?
HM: Yes, but look, none of it was etched in stone; they were kind of exploring things. As you know, I win the belt back in the final episode of the first season and I’m a champion again. And I was looking forward in Season Two to defending my title. But I think the alliances that I made with Hal Brennan, the character that’s played by Bill Irwin, and with Barry Word, the character played by Reg Cathey, were going to come back to haunt me. And I think that there were going to be challenges that I had to face in my relationship with my wife, and also with my eldest daughter, and with my brother. Different writers had expressed different specific ideas to me. You know, some guys said to me that my wife will find out that I have the dementia and she’ll insist that I stop boxing, but I’ll say I want to take a couple of last easy fights against tomato cans just to get the money.
I’m not sure what Warren would have decided to do, ultimately the call would have been his. But the point is, there were a lot of directions that we could have gone in that I think would have been interesting for the audience. And it’s heartbreaking, man, on a certain level. And I go to some of these Golden Gloves events and I go to some of these boxing events, and among fight fans, the show was a big hit. Plus, here’s one of my biggest regrets, I had guys coming up to me—like Sugar Ray Leonard, I saw him at the Super Bowl, he said, “I’d love to come on the show, why don’t you call me when Season Two starts.” And I said, “I’ll do that, Ray.”
TSS: Yeah, I was hoping to hit you up to get me a part as a reporter, hollering out a question at a press conference. I guess I won’t get that chance.
HM: (laughs) Well, there you go! I was also hoping to work with my friend Gerry Cooney. And I’ll tell you who else I really like that I wanted to bring on: Iran Barkley. He’s a great guy. And it would have been a privilege to do something with Iran. I always have fun with Iran. And I loved working with my friend Teddy Atlas, because of his encyclopedic knowledge of boxing. And I loved training in the gym with Mark Breland and Harry Keitt and all those guys at Gleason’s. I’m going to stay at Gleason’s.
TSS: That’s good to hear, you’re going to keep training.
HM: I don’t want to give it up. Just because I’m not playing Patrick Leary anymore, that doesn’t mean that boxing is not still my favorite sport.
TSS: Let’s talk a little more about the specifics of the first season. Getting to see the show as it aired and watching it with a critical eye, what stood out that you liked the most about the way it turned out? And looking back, is there something you think should have been done differently, maybe a plot development that didn’t work for you?
HM: I gotta say, I’m really happy with the way that the show turned out. Look, there are going to be armchair quarterbacks who are going to look at what we did and say, “Should it have been more extreme? Should it have been steamier, edgier?” We all know that there are boxers who get themselves into a lot of trouble with strippers and drugs and other kinds of problems in their lives, and I suppose that it would have been possible to tell that kind of a story. But that’s not the character that they wrote for me. And that’s not why we were supposed to like Patrick Leary. Lights Leary is a hero. He’s not …
TSS: He’s flawed in certain ways, but he’s never a bad guy. He’s just a little impulsive at times maybe.
HM: Yeah, that’s right. And sometimes he gives people the benefit of the doubt when maybe it’s not in his best interest to do that. He makes mistakes. But I didn’t want to play him as the kind of carousing, morally challenged diva athlete that might have been more of a headline grabber. I loved those scenes that Warren wrote with my children, the relationship that I had with my daughter Daniella, and all those wonderful scenes that we had together. I really thought that was the heart and soul of the story, this man’s relationship with his family. In a world where you’re trying to please a demographic that’s men 18-35, I guess you could make an argument that they would rather see something more titillating. But I don’t have any regrets. I think that our writers gave me great scripts. And they really took the time to try to understand the psychology of the sport. And they tried to make it authentic. They did their homework and they did their research and they watched hundreds of fights and they met with dozens of fighters and they really immersed themselves in it. And I think that because of that, they captured something kind of unique and real and beautiful.
Also, I thought that a lot of the fight choreography that we did was pretty good. You can always go back and you can say, “Oh, well, maybe we could have been in a different position when this punch landed, maybe there’s a little air here.” But given the time constraints that you have when you’re shooting on a tight schedule, I thought some of that stuff looked pretty good. And I thought Billy Brown did a great job as “Death Row.” And I thought Gavin-Keith Umeh did a great job as “El Diablo.” And Bas Rutten, they don’t get too much better than Bas Rutten. I read a couple of guys on the internet say, “Well, the cage fight, it wasn’t that good, whatever.” Hey, buddy, you know, you go choreograph a cage fight and see how easy it is. The guy was only UFC heavyweight champion and is considered one of the greatest martial artists of all-time. Grab another actor and go for it! Knock yourselves out!
TSS: For the most part, from what I read, there were more compliments than complaints. Now the hope for fans is that at least FX puts it out on DVD and it gets to have a little afterlife in that form. Do you know if they’re planning to release a DVD?
HM: I’m sure they will. One thing I can tell you is that these guys at FX are class acts. Everything that they do, they do in the most dignified and elegant way possible. Even if they’re delivering news that they know you’d rather not hear, they find a way to do it in a way that is very considerate and very respectful.
Also, you can’t possibly knock them for not having promoted the show. Around the time of the launch of the show, it was inescapable. You couldn’t watch a football game, billboards were everywhere all over New York and L.A., there were trailers in the movie theaters. They did a huge marketing campaign for my show. And that’s another thing that I’m very grateful to them for. They gave Lights Out every chance to succeed. Why didn’t it strike a more resonant chord with audiences and reach a wider public? I don’t know. But I feel blessed I had this chance. Not every guy has it. I have a lot of good friends of mine that are terrific actors that are very deserving that have been in the business a long time but have never had an opportunity like the one that I was given.
I said this at the beginning of the process, and I mean this: No matter what happens from this point forward in my career, I don’t really have anything to complain about because Lights Out was such a transformational experience for me in my life on so many levels—personally and professionally. And it’s going to exist now for posterity, and I believe it will have a cult following. The people who saw the show and loved the show, that’s going to always exist.
Eric Raskin can be contacted at RaskinBoxing@yahoo.com. You can follow him on Twitter @EricRaskin and listen to new episodes of his podcast, Ring Theory, at http://ringtheory.podbean.com.