The Arty Semite

How To Get De Niro and Stallone in the Ring

By Curt Schleier

  • Print
  • Share Share

Thirty years ago, boxers Billy “the Kid” McDonnen and Henry “Razor” Sharp split two hard-fought light heavyweight contests. But for reasons soon revealed, there was never a rubber match, despite the personal animosity between the two.

Now, three decades years later, a young promoter has convinced them to participate in a “Grudge Match,” which will be released nationally December 25. Obviously, two overweight, over-the-hill fighters going at it offers delicious comic possibilities. Take two veteran — that is, geriatric — gladiators: Sylvester Stallone as McDonnen and Robert De Niro as Sharp, and the laughs increase exponentially.

The man in charge of the literal and figurative mayhem is Peter Segal, a successful veteran of comedies that starred everyone from the late Leslie Nielsen (“Naked Gun 33 ⅓”) to Adam Sandler (“The Longest Yard,” “Anger Management”) to Steve Carell (“Get Smart”).

Segal, 51, spoke to the Forward about why there are jokes in the trailer you won’t see in the movie, his first film, a super 8 version of “Lost in Space,” and his grandfather, the man in black.

Curt Schleier: There’s a show business saying: “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” How did you wind up making the hard choice?

Peter Segal: I just kind of fell into it by accident. I was the class clown in school and then someone gave me a camera. I remember in the sixth grade I would do impressions that disrupted my social studies class. Finally, the teacher said, “Get your work done and I’ll give you five minutes at the end of the class to do your impressions.” I was a big fan of Rich Little, and did the voices he did.

It strikes me that directing comedies is much harder than directing dramas because timing is so much of a factor, and you’re working in a vacuum.

Ron Howard’s mother supposedly asked him why he doesn’t do comedy anymore. He told her, “Mom, it’s way too hard.” It’s a very specific art form that has a lot of rules. I go back to lessons I learned from the Marx brothers, who took their movies and performed them on the road first. So by the time they rolled film, the script was much better honed and the timing was better. That’s why I like to rehearse as much as possible. Sometimes improv moments come up during rehearsals that are so good, we just add them to the script. Because no one is omnipotent, sometimes we’ll have three or four alternate jokes. If one joke doesn’t work in a test screening, we’ll have a backup. Sometimes, we’ll have a couple of jokes that work. We’ll use the one which fits the scene best, and use the other in marketing. That keeps it fresh, and audiences don’t show up and say we saw the best jokes in the trailer.

De Niro has a comedic track record. Stallone doesn’t. Was it difficult directing someone without proven comedy chops?

When ever I hear a dramatic actor say I can do comedy, I tell them don’t. I say just be real and grounded and let the situation we wrote do the hard work. When you stop pushing to try to get laughs, that’s when you kill it. Often the dryer the read, the funnier the performance.

You scored a tremendous casting coup. I mean, who better to play these geriatric boxes?

When I got hold of the script a couple of years ago, it did not have anyone cast. I felt there was a lot of humor, but also a wonderful story of redemption and second chances. But the only way it would work, is it the two characters were believable. And the only two guys I could think of who could do that were Sly and Bob. The good news was the studio [Warner Bros.] agreed with me. The big news was they said unless you get De Niro and Stallone we’re not going to do the picture.

Was that hard?

Bob was a little easier, because he already had successfully and humorously tipped his hat to his “Godfather” role with “Analyze This.” But Sly had not done that. So I had to convince him that we weren’t making fun of or parodying Rocky. We were just using it as a subtext to expose him to a whole new audience that doesn’t know him as a comedic player.

Can you tell me a little bit about your life growing up?

I grew up in Manhattan and my grandfather was Orthodox. My father didn’t practice is much, but when we moved out to Los Angeles and his mother passed away my grandfather came out to live with us. There were stories in the paper about him, how this guy in a black hat and black trench coat would take the bus every day to go to synagogue. He made the trek, only to be attacked when he came home by the one rooster we had on the little ranch where we lived. My mother was not Jewish, but she converted. We were what I call recreational Jews. We practiced a lot more when my grandfather was alive.

Were you one of those kids who ran around with cameras making home movies?

Yes. I made one, “Lost in Space,” using my super 8 camera. My dad help me edit it. I used a frisbee on a string as my space ship and model train controls as the spaceship controls. I cut a hole in the lunch paper bag for my space helmet and I put my arms through another paper bag for my space suit and we went from there.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Peter Segal, Interviews, Grudge Match, Film

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  •'s Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.