Barbara Kopple

updated 02/15/1993 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/15/1993 01:00AM

ALL THAT "REALITY PROGRAMMING" ON TV in recent years has served up some very dubious fare: cretinous home videos, chesty cheesecake and a lot of Elvis impersonators dying in the bathroom. But on Feb. 12, NBC will present something practically revolutionary. Fallen Champ: The Untold Story of Mike Tyson contains no cheesy re-creations, no sleaze. Instead, this complex, disturbing two-hour movie about the former heavyweight champion consists of 100 percent actual footage along with interviews of Tyson intimates providing a prism of viewpoints about him. For the first time an NBC Movie of the Week is a nonfiction film. And for director Barbara Kopple, winner of two Academy Awards for her documentaries about American labor disputes, it's a big first as well.

After 20 years of grubbing for funding, this is the first time she actually got paid to direct. "I called my parents to tell them," says Kopple, laughing. "My mother said, 'You mean you're getting a salary like anybody else?' She yelled to my father, 'Honey, Barbara got a job!' and then she said, 'Honey, we're so proud of you.' "

Yet when NBC first approached Kopple in May 1992—three months after Tyson's conviction—she wasn't sure she wanted the assignment. The 40-year-old maker of 1976's Harlan County, U.S.A. and last year's American Dream had always brought a crusader's passion to her work, but "I had no attitudes or preconceptions about Mike Tyson," she says. "Nothing. I had to see if I could do something different, in my sort of intimate style." Researching his life, she found a trove of footage of Tyson in his teens, shot almost by accident by a German cinematographer doing a story on another young boxer. "After that, I was very enthusiastic about the project," Kopple says. "I knew I had a gem. There's a scene of Tyson at the 1982 Junior Olympics crying just before the finals, he's so afraid he'll lose. Then he knocks the kid out in seconds."

It's this kind of footage in Fallen Champ that humanizes Tyson—too much so for some tastes. Says Teddy Alias, 36, Tyson's former trainer and one of those Kopple interviewed: "People will see in these tapes Mike was once a kid—sensitive, personable, fragile almost. But Barbara doesn't show enough how bad he could be too"—referring to Tyson's previous career as thief and thug. "People may overreact to the sensitive stuff.

Still, viewers will see Tyson breathless after a victory, saying, "I wanted to hit him in the nose one more time for that bone to go up in his brain." They'll see him sentenced to six years for raping beauty contestant Desiree Washington. What they won't see is a fresh interview with Tyson. Boxing promoter Don King, who controls access to the ex-champ, "wouldn't let me talk to him," says the director, because King couldn't control the film. "Still, I don't think not interviewing Tyson hurt it. We have childhood stuff, backstage at the fights..."

Raised in the comfortable New York City suburb of Scarsdale, Kopple credits her parents—a textile-firm owner and a housewife—with giving her "a stable upbringing and a tremendous amount of love so that I fell free to lake chances." That, combined with growing up in the '60s ("when we all felt we had a tremendous amount of power to change things"), steered her toward the high-risk, low-income world of social documentaries. "I wanted to hear real stories and put them in a theater," Kopple says. "There's a lot of power in that."

After graduating from Northeastern University in Boston in 1973, Kopple got a scut-level job with filmmakers Albert and David Maysles, creators of the concert—film noir classic Gimme Shelter, which ends with the Rolling Stones' performance at Altamont. From the Maysles brothers, Kopple learned the hand-held, fly-on-the-wall style that colors much of her work today. For her own first feature, Harlan County, U.S.A., she zeroed in on exploited coal miners in Kentucky who were trying to join a union. Then as now she was fascinated with the American working class. "I admire them so much." she says. "They're truthful, and they're mostly willing to stand up for what they believe in."

Kopple made Harlan County—an intensely pro-labor movie on the miners' brutal, 13-month strike—in spite of withering opposition. First she had to win over a lot of suspicious residents. "When I first saw Barbara," says Lois Scott, 63, one of the local strike supporters, "I thought she was just a little hippie, with this long hair that needed shampooing two or three times. We didn't know whether to trust her or not." So the mining community set about testing the little hippie. "I had to drink white lightning, chew tobacco," Kopple says. "They wanted to see how tough I was."

For over three years, Kopple collected some harrowing footage—from an old man gasping with black lung disease to the mother of a murdered striker wailing over his coffin. The most dramatic sequence is a predawn attack by strike-breaking "gun thugs" on the strikers and the film crew itself near the mine. "First they fired machine guns over our heads," says Scott. "Then they started beating on everybody. They knocked Barbara down and were kicking her, and she was screaming." Next day. Kopple was back, filming again. "She has the most incredible tenacity," says Kevin Keating, 48, her chief cinematographer and longtime friend. "She never gives up. Ever."

Poverty was always dogging her. "Lots of times it was very depressing," she says. "I'd come home to New York, and the electricity and the phone would be off. I couldn't afford anything. I was begging the lab to develop my footage." Finally, Kopple went to the 1976 Oscars ceremony in a Volkswagen and a borrowed dress and wound up winning the Academy Award for best documentary.

By the early '80s she had established a stable home in New York City with husband Gene Carroll, a writer on health-care issues, and son Nick, now 11. But in 1985, when plant closings hit the heartland during the Reagan era, she decided "nothing is more American than meat-packing" and set off for Minnesota to film the layoffs there. Instead she was drawn into the vortex of another strike: the rancorous 1985-86 walkout at the Hormel plant in Austin, Minn. Struggling for dribbles of cash—her supporters ranged from the National Endowment for the Humanities to TV producer Norman Lear—Kopple almost had to quit. "I was in a motel room once," she says, "when my office called and said, 'We have $275 in the bank. Thai's all.' When they called back and said, 'You just got $25,000 from Bruce Springsteen,' I literally burst into tears. He had responded to my letters. We could keep going." After five years' work and $1 million, she won her second Oscar, for American Dream, in 1991.

And then had a tortuous time trying to get it into theaters. It's a problem a lot of documentarians face—another reason Kopple is rosy with hope about the Tyson project. Maybe, she thinks, she and her peers have finally cracked the commercial networks. "I'm soaring," she says. "It could open up a whole new world for all of us."

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