Interview - Robb Skyler on playing Howard Cosell in "Hands of Stone," Mayweather-Pacquiao, and Canelo

Interview - Robb Skyler on playing Howard Cosell in "Hands of Stone," Mayweather-Pacquiao, and Canelo

By Daniel Zaldivar

May 18, 2016


Playing the role of legendary sports broadcaster Howard Cosell, in the upcoming feature film Hands of Stone, actor Robb Skyler (Along Came Polly, Joe Dirt, For the Love of Money) knew he had landed the role he's been waiting for his entire life. 

Written and directed by director Jonathan Jakubowics, the movie is based on the life of Hall-of-Fame fighter Roberto Duran, who began his professional career at the age of 16 in 1968. Cosell, who is played by Skyler, was a prominent figure in American sports journalism from the 1950's to the early 1990's and was a media staple during this particular boxing era. We caught up with Skyler (over phone) and asked him about playing the pompous sports personality and also got his current take on modern day boxing, some of his favorite fighters, the Mayweather-McGregor rumors, and his take on actor Jon Voight -- who last played the role of Cosell in 2001's "Ali."

  • I read that you got your start in stand-up comedy in Charlotte, North Carolina before moving to Los Angeles. Is that correct?
You’ve done your homework. Yes I did. Stand-up comedy — I did club work for about ten years. I did, predominantly clubs, certain private corporation events, and colleges, actually. And, it was a great —it was fun, exhilarating in the best of times and it was a grind in the worst of times. But, in any event, it was great platform and fulcrum to spring into film and T.V.
— Robb Skyler
  • Was there a point during this time that you knew you wanted to become and actor? Or did it just come naturally from the beginning?
Well that will take up 25 minutes of our interview (laughs), so I’ll keep it short. I knew when I was 3-years-old and I know most people don’t even have memories of themselves at 3-years-old, but I had it internally in me, from the time I was three, standing in front of a big clunky, console T.V. in my mom and dad’s living room. I was watching somebody on a stage, on T.V. — it could have been Ed Sullivan, a variety show. I was just in awe. I was mesmerized. And I didn’t say it to impress anybody, because I was the only one in the room — I just blurted out to the universe, ‘I want to do that.’ Well that was when I was 3-years-old and it wasn’t until I was 27, about 24 years later that I formally embarked on the journey of my showbiz career.
— Robb Skyler
  • A lot of your work has been of a comedic substance of some sort. Like Deuce Bigalo, The Animal. A lot of films with (actor) Rob Schneider. Is it difficult for you to transition into roles as this , which are a lot less comedic in form? 
No. You know, there’s a lot of showbiz attige — ‘dying is easy, comedy is hard,’ is one of them that comes to mind. Comedies at a certain point in your career, whether your Jim Carrey that wants to venture out into drama, or as I’ve come to read about, John Wayne wanted to break out of his stoic-heroic image and his wife said to him ‘Don’t you dare. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.’ So there’s things that somewhat present themselves. A door opens up, you walk through it. I’ve always been comical, in the sense of having a sense of humor, throughout my life. Whether its [being] a kid and my click, and my classroom — the class clown or not the class clown. Subtle or broad. I love, and always have loved, making people laugh and making people feel happy. But with regards to drama, there’s a fine line and yet, there’s a lot of similarities between comedy and drama. There’s a reason why the Screen Actor’s Guild has the Comedy-Tragedy masks, because they’re intertwined. Comedy and tragedy are always going hand-in-hand and there is a fine line. There’s always comedy in the most acute, dramatic circumstances. As a comedian it was always my job to see that, as I like to use the analogy — ‘comedy or humor is like shooting pool.’ A good player will always see the shot on the table. There’s always a shot on the table. The other player won’t see it all the time. It’s that way in comedy and in real life. Finding humor in everyday situations. Well, that came naturally to me. But, I also have to say on the other side of the coin, so does the ability to maybe, bring to life a dramatic role. Because the commonality of it is, you want, as an artist, to move somebody. You want to move them emotionally. You want them to identify, whether it’s something funny you said that they connect with or it’s an emotion in a dramatic situation that they can identify with. So, my answer is probably no, it wasn’t that difficult. It’s all about tapping into the inner life of a character or tapping into real life on a stand-up stage, and trying to bring an audience or somebody watching a movie at home, on an airplane, or wherever, and having them connect on a human level.
— Robb Skyler
Mohammed Ali [right] toys with Sports broadcaster Howard Cosell [left] before the start of the of the Olympic boxing trials in West Point, New York on August 7, 1972. Photo: Associated Press

Mohammed Ali [right] toys with Sports broadcaster Howard Cosell [left] before the start of the of the Olympic boxing trials in West Point, New York on August 7, 1972. Photo: Associated Press

  • I learned initially, you didn't get the role (of Howard Cosell), but you kept trying and I heard that you found the lawyer representing the heirs of Cosell and reached out to them. You felt that were destined for this role for many years.
(laughes) Well, that’s partly true and let me coagulate that a little better. I had a friend, and he’s still a dear friend. He’s a comedian and a screen writer. We were sitting in a burger joint in West L.A. and he has an inclination to be an interviewer and said ‘You’re a great actor and I believe in you. You’ve done dozens of roles in film, T.V., and commercials. Who would you want to play? Who do you have a burning desire to play?’ This was probably seven to eight years ago, I can’t remember the exact date. And I had to think, you know? He’s prodding me like, with a cattle prod and I said ‘alright — Howard Cosell.’ And he says ‘well then go! Go after it.do it.’ So he was a catalyst in the sense of me recognizing that there’s something within me that wanted to play Howard Cosell. I grew up with Howard Cosell. I’m a boxing fan. I’m a sports fan. I’m a jock at heart. So this is a personality, a character, a human being, that I very much had felt was a part of my life. But, I did at one point, venture out in that early phase of my friend Joby encouraging me to pursue that and I said ‘well, where do I start? What do I do?’ I read a book that was somewhat of an autobiographical book by Howard Cosell and then I did contact the lawyer for his heirs. He, quite honestly, persuaded me not to deal with the daughters (of Howard Cosell) because they were a little difficult, as he said. Well, I don’t want to say I got side tracked and derailed, or my spirit was dampened. I just said — I took that in and didn’t want to necessarily create any angst in my life, but I never let go of it and never forgot about it. I thought I’d develop my own screenplay and then, along came a few years ago, the information that there was this film production with Roberto Duran, his life story from extreme poverty in Panama — his somewhat ‘rags to riches’ and it’s such a beautiful story and Robert De Niro and Edgar Ramirez who plays Roberto Duran, Ellen Barkin and Ruben Blades and on and on and on. I said ‘Oh my god here’s the role for Howard Cosell.’ Two ex-agents of mine that knew me very well, knew that I could do Cosell. They sent me the breakdown (casting notice), unbeknownst to each other. From that moment on, I just took it upon myself, come hell or high water — I’m going to get in there to read. So that was really the springboard to initiate the process of trying to get just the audition.
— Robb Skyler
Robb Skyler knew he was destined for the role of Howard Cosell. Photo: Robb Skyler/MLC PR

Robb Skyler knew he was destined for the role of Howard Cosell. Photo: Robb Skyler/MLC PR

  • Did you feel that you had to prepare for the role since you had been studying him for so many years already? 
I didn’t have to prepare in the sense of researching who this character was. It’s not as if somebody says ‘we want you to play this role. Whether it be fictitious, obscure, or anonymous.’ So in that regard I didn’t have to prepare. I had a lot of lines to memorize. I had like 18 speeches which were equivalent to a paragraph and maybe a half-dozen singular lines. I had to memorize a lot of it because I so much wanted to be prepared when I went on tape for the casting director. But, what I did have to find and I was very conscious of not doing, is, in a dramatic piece, as opposed to doing a bit about Howard Cosell in a comedy act — in a comedy act it’s acceptable and you want to do an impression. If you’re doing a dramatic piece, you don’t want to do an impression and you don’t want to do a caricature. You just can’t do that. So, what you have to do, or at least what I do as part of my process, is — I have to know, almost secondhand, and some people have said that I’m a channeler when I act. Even (Director) Jonathan [Jakubowics] in some instances, in his Venezuelan accent said, ‘you know, you even sounded better than Cosell.’ That’s because I tapped into the essence of who he is. So when you want to bring a character to life from words on a page, and know where you are in the big picture, of the picture of the film, is got to know what the essence is. And through that, will come the right level of inflection and emotion. Cosell had two very distinctive sides to his personality. When he’s setting the stage, which is more dramatic, setting the scene — telling the audience or the crowd what’s going to happen or what they’re about to see. How important the moment is. Whether it’s bad or reporting on the death of John Lennon, or whether it’s Monday Night Football, or the World Series — it’s that Cosell. And then with boxing, once the fight started and he’s basically reporting blow-by-blow action — he becomes a fan and his voice gets more higher pitched and it’s a totally different cadence. I had all that and I just let my process as an actor take hold and trust in my inner voice.
— Robb Skyler
Actor Jon Voight as Howard Cosell in 2001's "Ali." Photo: AFP/Getty

Actor Jon Voight as Howard Cosell in 2001's "Ali." Photo: AFP/Getty

  • Did you reference at all Jon Voight's rendition of Cosell in "Ali" from 2001? 
No. I saw that and I think Jon Voight is a wonderful actor — I was cringing. It was like fingers on a chalkboard watching Jon Voight attempt to do Howard Cosell. And I love Jon Voight. I love him in ‘Ray Donavan’ and I loved him in ‘Deliverance.’ He’s a wonderful actor and a great artist. But, he was not Cosell. He’s a Nordic-Arian looking guy for one. I don’t care how much silly putty you put on his nose — he can’t look like Cosell, but it’s beyond looking. He wasn’t Howard Cosell, I’m sorry (laughs). It would be like Sylvester Stallone doing Shakespeare or Robert DeNiro doing ‘King Lear’ (laughs). It’s not going to work. I didn’t need to go there. And speaking of that (referencing prior actor’s work), that’s a great question. As an actor when your going into an auditioning room and you’re waiting around with other actors — I’ve learned some tricks along the way, and a lot of times I’m up for a role and there’s other actors coming out for the same role — I’ll listen in on somebody that going in before me and maybe I’ll hear something from the casting director, as a direction before I go into the room. My fellow actors at this audition were horrible. I had to get away down the hallway because they were tainting and polluting my psyche. But, Jon Voight was not my go to guy for Howard Cosell (laughs).
— Robb Skyler
  • He (Voight) said in an interview that when he played the role of Cosell, the makeup took hours for him. Was it just as long for you in this movie? 
(Chuckles) Well, lets just say I had a more conducive canvas. The hardest part of my process was a — one of the barriers, quite honestly, in trying to get into just read for a role that I knew I was born to play — the first eggplant in my face was the casting director told my manager ‘well he doesn’t look anything like Cosell.’ I said to my manager ‘of course I don’t look anything like him. I got a beard, I’m bald! Trust me, if I shave and all that, I know I can look like him.’ If you shave my beard and put a good toupee — I’m not going to look like Brad Pitt, but I’ll look like Howard Cosell. I was frustrated and that spurred me on from that moment. to get the gal who cuts my hair and take my beard off carefully, and I contacted my photographer to squeeze me in to get some pictures of me with the bad toupee. So, yeah there was something there to work from, so to speak. But, look, God bless John Voight. He’s a great actor and I’d love to work with him someday, but he wasn’t Howard Cosell. I think it’s pretty cool that I have an actor who I love and admire his work, to say to friends or people in the business — there’s only two people walking on the face of the earth that have ever played Howard Cosell in a movie; and that’s John Voight and Robb Skyler. I think that’s pretty cool.
— Robb Skyler
  • I read that Robert De Niro is actually one of your favorite actors and this was the first time that you got the chance to work with him. Can you tell me a little bit about working with a legend like De Niro? 
Robert De Niro as legendary trainer Ray Arcel. Photo: "Hands of Stone"(2016)

Robert De Niro as legendary trainer Ray Arcel. Photo: "Hands of Stone"(2016)

Absolutely. He’s not one of my favorites, he is my favorite and he has been for 40 years. There’s something that I had never done, and I’ve worked with a lot of great actors, a lot of Academy award winning actors, a lot of Emmy award-winning actors — the one thing I’m very conscious of is, I have to establish a professional rapport with somebody. Doesn’t mean we have to go hang out and get drinks afterwards. It’s not about that. It’s about a professional to a professional. To use a sports-boxing analogy — go toe-to-toe with somebody on the set, once the director yells action. To be able to hold my own and go toe-to-toe with Robert De Niro. But aside from that, I can’t elevate him to a greater than and push me down as a lesser than. Not when I’m working with him. I can be in awe watching him work, as I did when I was locked in a set and we weren’t dialoguing one-on-one with each other and making eye contact in the scene and watching him work while I’m in the set. I’ll say this about Robert De Niro — I’ve never ever, ever seen somebody work as hard as he does. You can have all the God-given talent in the world, but if that’s all you have, you’re not going to have a 45-year career like Robert De Niro has. He works his butt off. To see a guy that’s so successful, so wonderful — works so hard and not works hard at it as in a struggle, but because he loves it and is passionate about his work. That was something that I could have possibly lived a lifetime and never experienced, because even when I get to have a five-picture deal from the studio — I don’t know. Things happen in business. It’s random. You may never get the chance to work with somebody you want to work with. It’s schedule, projects, this and that. But, to have that opportunity was amazing. I also had some moments that weren’t scripted with Mr. De Niro and he and I as an actor found that. As well as with Edgar [Ramirez] who plays marvelously Roberto.
— Robb Skyler
  • Is it true that he [Robert De Niro] called you 'Howie' on set?
(Laughs) Yeah. That’s how I knew he liked me, because he can’t see me doing the facial impression of Robert De Niro and I quite honestly do a lot of impressions. I don’t do a great verbal, but if you could just imagine his classic grin that he gets, whether he’s either on camera in a role, or whatever — dramatic or comedic. He’s a great example of somebody that does great comedy and also, has done some masterful dramatic roles. But, yes, every chance he saw me he called me ‘Howie.’ We were in an elevator going down to set because we were in the scene together and I’m 6 feet and he’s about 5 ‘10, so he’s slightly looking up over his shoulder at me, and the hair and make-up department always — God bless them all, but they always forget to take the hair clips out of my wig. I’ve been wearing this wig for five hours. I even forgot they were in there (laughs). There was probably a dozen hair-clips holding the wig in place and, if you can just visualize this — he stares up at me with that grin of his — (laughs) ‘You go to set like that ‘Howie?’ and I go, ‘yeah, apparently so.’ So, if he wasn’t him teasing me like that — it was just some icing. I could read people and I could tell it was his way of telling me he likes me, or he accepts me, or he’s fond of me, whatever. He and I had some conversations and the one thing I can tell you about Mr. De Niro, and I would not patronize him whatsoever, but I told him and I wanted to — I was anxious to convey to him; I said ‘I’ve been watching you for 40 years. I love all your work.’ But, if somebody like I was just about to — tell them what their favorite role of his is, I’ll bet you 99 of 100 people are going to say ‘Taxi Driver,’ ‘Goodfellas,’ ‘Godfather,’ ‘Raging Bull’ — something like that. Some iconic role. But that’s not what I brought and I said to him ‘My favorite role of yours was ‘Bang the Drum Slowly.’ What matters is the memory I have of telling him in a very interpersonal, casual moment on set, and seeing how he took that in and how he reacted to it — I could tell that the role meant so much to him and quite possibly, nobody has ever referenced it to him the way I just did to him. If we can have that moment together, how cool is that?
— Robb Skyler
  • Are you a current fan of today's boxing?
I love boxing! Modern boxing — I’m a historian of boxing. I can say that my two favorite fighters of all time have been Cassius Clay/Mohammed Ali, and in the last 12 years, Manny Pacquiao. I’ve almost pay-per-viewed all of Manny’s fights in the last 10-12 years. As a matter of fact, we were in Panama and my first day there I’m not really working. It’s a Friday night. I got flown in and I’m reunited with the director, who I only had met on Skype, and we’re doing a boxing movie in Panama. Roberto Duran, Sugar Ray Leonard, amongst others, and the Pacquiao fight is the next night. That’s the cast and crew’s day off and I said to Jonathan, the director — ‘C’mon we all go to go see Manny’s fight,’ and he looked at me like ‘why didn’t I think of that?’ Off of that passion, we all congregated at Roberto Duran’s Bar and Grill. How cool is that, watching a Pacquiao fight, doing ‘Hands of Stone’ — the Roberto Duran story, in Roberto Duran’s Bar and Grill? It’s crazy! I was there and it was like a packed house and I’m surrounded by cast and crew, Panamanians — and that’s what’s interesting. Boxing is sort of a universal language. I’m rubbing up shoulders next to guys and they have the pay-per-view on in there, and I can’t speak Spanish, they can’t speak English. Just on body language, certain things we’re conveying as we’re enjoying and watching the fight together as if we’re in the ringside seats together. It was awesome. But, anyway, Manny Pacquiao I love. By the way, I also did a movie with Ray ‘Boom Boom’ Mancini, and God bless Mike Quarry’s soul. I actually attended Passover with Mike Quarry. He was the husband of the wife of my cousin’s best friend’s daughter. I know that’s a stretch, six degrees of separation Kevin Bacon style. I’ve been in the company of Mike Quarry, but Ray Mancini summed up the essence of boxing. When I asked Ray — I used to work with a guy named Gilbert Chacon, in a day job, and I knew that Gilbert Chacon was a cousin of Bobby Chacon. Bobby was in the same weight class as Ray and I wasn’t sure and I didn’t want to be presumptuous, but all I said to Ray was “hey, did you know Bobby Chacon?’ and he says ‘know him? I fought him.’ That to me summed up boxing. Fighting somebody is so far — light years ahead of knowing them. It’s the only sport where for approximately 45 minutes to an hour, you’re literally — you’re not side-by-side. It’s beyond being locked in a phone booth with somebody. You’re sweating and bleeding on each other. You’re breathing on each other. I mean, I don’t care whether you like or respect the guy or not. From that point forward you’re forever bonded together. For the rest of your life. That’s how Roberto Duran and ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard were. Both of them were immensely and profusely affected by for the rest of their lives and their careers because of the ‘No Mas’ fight. But, I love boxing. I hope you can see that.
— Robb Skyler
  • Would you want to see a second rendition of Floyd Mayweather vs. Manny Pacquiao? 
Listen, I used to have better fights with my ex-wife. Those guys were sort of fornicating. They were dancing. They were kissing, and I know a lot about boxing and I don’t have a problem of going on record as saying, well obviously Pacquiao’s camp knew that he had a bad shoulder. They were attempting to get some drugs approved where it will mask the pain. I didn’t knew all this — I watched that fight. I paid it. I wish that fight would have taken place five years earlier. But, the one thing I know about boxing — I always look at somebody’s feet and I was shocked. In the first round, do you remember seeing how flat-footed Manny Pacquiao was? I was watching it and I thought ‘something is going on here.’ I didn’t know what it was, but a guy that’s a caliber like Manny Pacquiao doesn’t start the fight flat-footed. Something is wrong, something is not right. Any fighter is prone to going flat-footed. It’s fatigue, or a preoccupation with pain, which was the case. So, did I feel cheated that I paid $60 or whatever? — No. I was just disappointed because I was kind of hoping, okay maybe they’re both not in their primes now, but maybe it’ll bode better for a better fight. Maybe Mayweather won’t be able to slip and slide as much. Maybe Manny will catch him here and there. Mayweather is like ‘B-Hop’ (Bernard Hopkins). They’re counter punchers. They were all about counter punching. So I was hoping — okay, well Mayweather is a little slower and maybe Manny is still on his game. But it didn’t pan out well. I can’t see how a second Mayweather-Pacquiao fight is going to be any better than the first. It might be a bigger travesty.
— Robb Skyler
  • Besides Pacquiao, is there anybody else in the current state of boxing that you like? Like a Canelo Alvarez or Triple G? 
You know, I was thinking about it — the problem with developing favorites and a following of other fighters is that the coverage of boxing is so swayed and fragmented. Even before my day. I do like Canelo by the way, yes I do. There’s so many outlets for boxing now. It used to be Friday night fights and Saturday night fights and all you had was commercial television. It was all about going on the T.V set and tuning in. Now, it’s so, what’s the word — almost anonymous. That even as a passionate fan, it takes a lot more to develop a following. It does. I do like Canelo a lot. I love his heart. I love boxers that have heart. I don’t necessarily love boxers that have the fastest hands or have the heaviest punch. I love grinders. I love boxers with a lot of tenacity. That’s the thing about Roberto Duran. He was [Mike] Tyson before Tyson in the sense of his ferocity, tenacity, and heart. People don’t realize he had like 120 fights. Nobody does that anymore. So it’s harder to develop a favorite now a days.
— Robb Skyler
  • What do you think about this whole ordeal about Mayweather and Conor McGregor? Do you think that they will actually fight each other? 
Hollywood is based on buzz. In the business of Hollywood, buzz is planted in the sense of creating an interest. It’s almost like a test marketing of sorts. I don’t know, though. I’d say it’s a flip of the coin. I mean, Mayweather — I think he has a certain proclivity to protect his pristine record. Only two guys that have ever gone undefeated; him and Rocky Marciano. Even though I wouldn’t consider Mayweather to be humble — I think he’s smart enough to realize, as great as he thinks he is — anything can happen. If Manny Pacquiao can walk into a short right [against Juan Manuel Marquez], so can he. I don’t think he wants to jeopardize that. I just don’t think he does. So, if I’m a betting man, and I am — I’m going to say no. I don’t think so.
— Robb Skyler
  • Tell us a little about 'Hands of stone' before we have to let you go.
‘Hands of Stone’ is going to be opening WIDE-WIDE-WIDE release, Friday, August 26. Harvey Weinstein is very much behind it. It’s going to open in three thousand screens, so it definitively will be showing in a theater right near you. I hope that you go out and tell a thousand of your closest friends to go see it the first weekend.

Daniel Zaldivar is a boxing contributor for Frontproof Media & Page2sports.com. He is the founder and CEO of Z-BoxingNews (a partner with Frontproof Media), a YouTube channel that delivers the latest news, interviews, fighter workouts, & analysis within the sport. Check out the Z-BoxingNews YouTube channel HERE. Also follow on Twitter @Z_BoxingNews

(Feature photo: "Hands of Stone," 2016)

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