'Lights' actor a natural in ring and before cameras

Published: Monday, Feb. 28 2011 3:21 p.m. MST

By David Hiltbrand

The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — He's an unlikely guy to play a boxer from Bayonne, the former heavyweight champion of the world, no less.

Holt McCallany, after all, is a showbiz sophisticate, educated in Europe, fluent in French, able to comfortably cite literary figures such as George Bernard Shaw and Brendan Behan in conversation.

But the actor's portrayal of Patrick "Lights" Leary in the FX drama "Lights Out" (Tuesdays, 11 p.m. MST) is so compelling and convincing, Emmy voters had better get familiar with McCallany's name.

"This is a part he was born to play," says Stacy Keach, Lights' hard-as-nails father on the show. "It's an incredible fusion of the physical and the dramatic."

"It's a very small group of guys who could pull off this role," says Warren Leight, the series' executive producer. "In fact, I think it's Holt."

So how does a cultured man convey rough-and-tumble with such fierce authenticity?

Experience.

"I started boxing as a kid," says McCallany. "My brother was a Golden Gloves champ."

He has always followed the sport avidly, but it was a close friendship with boxing trainer and ESPN commentator Teddy Atlas (McCallany played Atlas in the 1995 HBO film "Tyson") that would truly earn him a gym rat's punchy perspective.

Lights is a tricky combination to bring to life. He's a bruiser trying to conduct himself with dignity, a devoted husband and father who knew the right time to step away from the sport. Now, facing overwhelming financial pressures, he's reluctantly realizing that his only hope is to wade back into the cesspool of boxing.

The family scenes in "Lights Out" are touching. But it's the singularly realistic fight sequences that make the show shine.

"We really try to work hard on that," says McCallany, 46. "We go to Gleason's Gym in Brooklyn and spend hours working through things.

"You can shoot a dialogue scene without rehearsal if you really have to," he says. "You can't shoot a big fight scene without rehearsal. First of all, it won't be very good. Secondly, somebody's going to get hurt. All the fight scenes have to be meticulously choreographed."

At 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds, McCallany can bang away with gusto. But he plays the scenes outside the ring with remarkable restraint.

"He's a very economical actor," says Leight. "There'll be a little change in his eyes, a little tilt of his head and you realize his character is taking in a lot of information.

"It's almost like writing for a Western hero like Gary Cooper, except he's Bayonne Irish working class."

Critics have worn out thesauruses praising his performance, describing it as "revelatory," "triumphant," "beautiful and subtle," and "superb."

"He's like an overnight sensation," says Keach, "that took a very long time to happen."

As Lights would tell you, the early rounds don't matter. It's how you end the fight that counts.

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