NEW YORK — "Lights Out," FX's new drama about a prizefighter, is the main event for Holt McCallany. Even if he wasn't born to play this embattled former heavyweight champ, McCallany has been training for a series such as "Lights Out" his whole career.
For him, the first round is Tuesday at 11 p.m. MST, when "Lights Out" premieres.
But "Lights Out," which is rated mature audiences, is more than just another boxing story. It's a splendid tale about a husband and father who is torn between devotion to his family and a last-ditch try at a comeback in the ring. It's a love story and a thrilling action saga.
And it's a potential star-making vehicle for McCallany, who, at 46, is hardly a household name. Not quite yet.
Born in New York to show business parents, he is the son of actor-producer Michael McAloney and Broadway actress-cabaret singer Julie Wilson. He decided in childhood that he would be an actor and has logged supporting parts in such films as "Three Kings," "Fight Club" and "Men of Honor," as well as numerous TV guest shots.
But he nursed a dream project.
"I always wanted to play a boxer," he says over fish-and-chips at a midtown Manhattan pub near where he lives. "I had boxed, off and on, all my life recreationally." Plus, he knew boxing people and in the 1995 HBO biopic "Tyson" played trainer Teddy Atlas, who is the boxing consultant to "Lights Out."
"It wasn't possible for me to imagine a role that could've ever interested me more," McCallany sums up.
As he speaks, his animated manner and expansive gestures strike a contrast to the style of his character, Patrick "Lights" Leary: chipper yet burdened by opposing demands. In his performance, McCallany taps that grace under pressure.
The series opens with Leary bloodied and senseless. He has just lost his world heavyweight title after only nine months, in a questionable split decision. Though he already wants a rematch, his much-adored wife and the mother of his three cherished daughters (co-star Catherine McCormack) extracts his promise to give up boxing.
But that's a flashback. Today, five years later, Lights has money troubles. The good life he provides for his family is in jeopardy. His manager-brother (Pablo Schreiber) wants him back in the ring. His father (Stacy Keach) would love to be training him again. And, nearing 40, he is restless in retirement — even after being diagnosed with possible brain damage.
He holds firm to his pledge, at first, but he's beset by conflicts.
"Lights is a guy who wants the love and respect of his wife and his children, and the approval of his father," says McCallany. "He has to be capable of brutality: When the bell rings, you're in the hurt business. But that doesn't mean that when you step out of the ring, you're not a nice guy." The violence lurks, but does not define him.
McCallany's mission to land such a role predated "Lights Out" by a decade or more. He had written his own script for a series about an aging boxer. He met with a few networks to pitch the show. Then, to his shock, he learned FX was launching its own boxing drama. He read the pilot script and realized it was what he had dreamed.
But then he had to win the role, which he did, in a pivotal audition where the only prop on hand was a life-size promotional cutout of "24" star Kiefer Sutherland.
"I spent a few moments kind of contemplating this big cutout of Kiefer, letting Patrick decide how he feels about it," McCallany recalls, "and I relaxed."
The pilot was produced, then largely scrapped and reshot, with delays along the way.
Finally, last spring and summer, the show was in production in the New York City area. It was a seven-day-a-week shooting schedule, says McCallany, including fierce fight sequences that had to be choreographed and staged.
The season's 13 episodes unfold grippingly, with an unexpected twist in the finale that will leave viewers hungry for a second season. But first the series must get on the air. For that, McCallany must wait a little longer, not with impatience but with obvious excitement.
"I wake up some days and I still can't believe it's true. I'm looking for more great parts down the road. But whatever happens from this point forward, I can never complain," he says, his eyes moistening. "I got to play Patrick Leary on 'Lights Out.'"