Lifetime Achievement Award – The most coveted prize in cinema is an Academy Award, otherwise known as an Oscar. The 88th edition of the annual award ceremony goes Sunday, Feb. 28. Sylvester Stallone, inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2011 in the observer category, is favored to win Best Supporting Actor for his performance in “Creed,” a movie inspired by the first two installments of the “Rocky” franchise. If Stallone should win, he would be the second IBHOF inductee to walk away with the treasured statuette, joining Budd Schulberg who won for Best Screenplay in 1955 for “On The Waterfront,” a movie in which the central character is an ex-boxer, Terry Malloy, played to perfection by Marlon Brando.
This latest twist on the timeless Rocky saga is merely the latest example of Hollywood’s infatuation with boxing. Over the years six boxing-themed movies have been nominated for Best Picture. No other sport can claim more than three. Eleven actors have been nominated for Best Actor for portraying a boxer or ex-boxer. The list doesn’t include Hillary Swank, the 2004 Best Actress winner for “Million Dollar Baby.”
Dozens of boxers had small roles in Hollywood movies, often uncredited. Those with facial features that bore the marks of their profession were invariably cast as villains. But an even longer list of retired boxers found work behind the scenes. “Movie Lots Abound With Old Time Ring Stars,” read the caption above an article in the May 28, 1935 issue of the Los Angeles Times. This wasn’t the usual story about ex-boxers pursuing careers as screen actors, but a story about ex-boxers working in various capacities on studio lots.
Most folks stumble into their occupation. They hear that there is an opening down at the plant or perhaps they get to know someone with the requisite juice. In Los Angeles in days of yore, some of the most avid boxing fans were movie studio bigwigs. Boxers active in LA rings often got to know these individuals on a first name basis. That gave them an opening when it was time to find steady employment.
The informal hem between Hollywood film-makers and those in the fight game actually predates the advent of talkies.
The first Los Angeles boxing promoter to strike it big was Thomas McCarey. During the early years of the twentieth century, “Uncle Tom” McCarey promoted a slew of 20-round fights, many featuring title-holders. The referee for most of these fights was Charlie Eyton. An immigrant from New Zealand, Eyton was one of the original investors in the silent film production and distribution company that evolved into Paramount Pictures.
In 1925, Eyton was joined in the executive suite at Paramount by B.P. Schulberg, the father of Budd Schulberg. Eyton and Schulberg often patronized the fights at Hollywood Legion Stadium, which opened in 1921, and the Olympic Auditorium, which opened in 1925. Both venues ran weekly boxing shows that invariably attracted some well-known faces in the Hollywood movie crowd.
Had you attended one of Tom McCarey’s shows, you may have been ushered to your seat by Tom’s oldest son, Leo McCarey. The boy, who was five years old when his father promoted his first big show, went on to become a giant in the motion picture industry.
As an assistant director at the Roach Studio, Leo McCarey developed routines for such notables as Laurel and Hardy and the Little Rascals. He graduated from comedy shorts to feature films where he won accolades as a producer, director, and screenwriter. He wore all three hats for “Going My Way,” the 1944 Christmas classic that featured Bing Crosby in the role of a Catholic priest, Father O’Malley. The sequel, “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” was such a box office smash that it made Leo McCarey the highest paid man in Hollywood. (His younger brother Ray McCarey was also a film-maker but died young and left a far more modest legacy.)
Leo McCarey had boxed at the amateur level. In common with many other Hollywood bigwigs he retained a life-long interest in boxing and was a soft touch for a fighter down on his luck.
Back in 1939 — strange but true — a fellow was plucked off a studio lot to fight Joe Louis for the heavyweight championship of the world. The intrepid leather-pusher was Jack Roper, a 35-year-old electrician at Warner Brothers. He opposed Louis before an estimated 30,000 at LA’s Wrigley Field on April 17 of that year.
We Bestow A Lifetime Achievement Award on Mushy Callahan
Roper had 110 fights under his belt, but his purses were too meager for boxing to be his sole means of support. His record, by his own admission, was splotchy: 61-39-10 according to documentarians. He landed the first punch, a left hook that jarred Louis, and just missed with a haymaker that — had it landed – would have produced a sensational upset. But this was a Hollywood story without a Hollywood ending.
Roper’s pugnacity goaded the Brown Bomber into turning up the heat and the fight was over in a flash, 140 seconds to be exact. “The murderous fists of Joe Louis……transformed Jack Roper from a fine, courageous fighting man to a gibbering, disjointed wreck,” wrote LA Times reporter Bill Henry. The Hollywood crowd was so thick at this event that most of the local dailies supplemented their coverage with a society reporter.
If you’re still with us, you’re probably wondering when we plan to get around to Mushy Callahan. Okay, here goes.
Born in 1905, Mushy Callahan grew up in Los Angeles. He had 66 professional fights between 1923 and 1932, all but ten in southern California. Late in his career he won the super lightweight title, a disputed weight class. He was dethroned by Jack “Kid” Berg in London. They had previously met at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. In retirement he transitioned into a referee. He refereed more than 500 fights, the last of which was the 1960 bantamweight title scrap between the great Eder Jofre and Eloy Sanchez.
About that odd name: He picked it, reasoning that nobody was going to beat down the doors to watch a fighter named Vincent Morris Scheer. There was a precedent for it. Frankie Callahan, a good lightweight from Brooklyn, was born Samuel Holtzman.
During his fighting days, Mushy made the acquaintance of movie mogul Jack Warner. “When you’re done with fighting,” Warner reportedly said, “why not come and work for me?” Callahan took him up on the offer and was placed in charge of the prop department.
Jack Warner was notoriously hard to work for, but Callahan won the boss over with his versatility. When a movie had a boxing scene, Mushy was summoned to choreograph it. He prepped Errol Flynn for his role as Gentleman Jim Corbett and scripted the fight scenes in both “Kid Galahad” movies, the first in 1937 starring Wayne Morris and the second in 1962 starring Elvis Presley. (“A nice young man with a fast learning curve,” was Mushy’s assessment of Elvis, whose prior training in jiu jitsu was beneficial.)
A physical fitness buff, Callahan took it upon himself to see that the biggest stars in the Warner Brothers stable kept in good shape. He trained Burt Lancaster for the movie “Jim Thorpe, All American.” He reportedly taught Jane Wyman to skip rope with the dexterity of a prizefighter. Occasionally he had a cameo role in a movie. With his pancaked nose, he stood out in the crowd.
A man with boundless energy, Callahan was one of the co-founders of the Cauliflower Alley Club, a fraternal organization for old-time boxers and wrestlers living in the LA area, many of whom lived alone, sustained by their memories. At their meetings and annual banquets, Callahan was sometimes accompanied by his son, a Jesuit priest. Mushy Callahan was Jewish, but he was nothing if not ecumenical.
The Lifetime Achievement award presented by the Motion Picture Academy — more formally the Honorary Award (“given to honor extraordinary distinction in lifetime achievement”) – typically goes to an aging movie star, but past winners have included cinematographers, costume designers, make-up artists, and a stunt man. Mushy Callahan, by our reckoning, would fit right in.
So beat the drums for Mushy, thank you, and tell them that The Sweet Science sent you.
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