"Roll With the Punches" Overview (excerpts below)
My father wasn’t
like other fathers. In fact, none of my
friends’ fathers were anything like him, and their relationships were nothing
like ours either, as far as I could tell.
Perhaps like many of my contemporaries, I remember jumping from adoring little daughter
to angry young woman in about three seconds flat sometime during puberty. But in my case, that’s when my movie-star father
And what a father
he was. I had just turned the corner
into seventeen and he had just reached his greatest filmmaking success with Raging Bull, which was based on his original screenplay, and which he
had nursed to Academy Award-winning triumph. As a self-taught, independent
filmmaker, he had already written, produced and/or directed almost ten
movies. For a “knock-around guy” from
the streets, as he would refer to himself, this was quite an achievement, and
he often used his success as a parable:
“If I could do it, anyone can.”
He was a
complicated man who had started life on the underside of society in 1920’s New
York City, when his immigrant parents exchanged Italian poverty for American
poverty. After an early life of
ostracism and delinquency, he found himself serving five years in prison for a
crime he hadn’t committed, framed by jealous gangsters and an over-zealous district
attorney. And yet, somehow he pulled
himself out of the social and economic quagmire that would swallow so many of
his friends. He educated himself. He studied theology, psychology, politics,
drama. He won his freedom from jail. And he started to write. In 1962 a performance of Tchaikovsky’s
“Pathetique” so moved him that he wrote his first screenplay, entitled
“Pathetique,” based on that symphony.
He began to
realize that in his life, everything bad had ultimately led to something
good, and that the good wouldn't have been possible otherwise. He made a conscious effort to build on the positives and eliminate negativity from his thinking and his life. (For example, we weren't allowed to use the word "can't" in our household.) He also started to work out his
demons in his writing and filmmaking. As
his daughter, it wasn’t always easy to comprehend why he did the things he did early in his life,
from criminal acts to violence to ruined relationships. But out of these dark forces arose the
culmination of his life’s work, Raging
Bull, which was hailed as the best film of its decade. I worked with him on Raging Bull and several of his earlier films, and I was witness to
many of the behind-the-scenes conflicts that mark the difficult evolution of
And now that I can see him with the eyes of an adult, he continues to teach and guide and intrigue me, and sometimes confound
me. He used to say he didn’t know how to raise a daughter, being a tough guy and all, but he held my hand, protected me and came to my
rescue just like dads are supposed to. He was, however, also two generations older than I, and his Old-world values were often out of step
with our contemporary lives. I grew up emulating him while at the same time struggling to understand him.
After his death, he became mythic in my eyes. I couldn’t help comparing my life to his, trying to find meaning, perspective, understanding. When I turned 20, I remember thinking, “Well, Dad was in prison at this point in his life, for another five years, so I guess I’m not doing so badly.” (And when I started dating, I couldn’t help ribbing my mother with my plan to bring a convict home, just as she had.) When my first book was published, I had beaten him by four years -– at my age, he hadn’t been published yet. It wasn’t a competition per se, but a need to find a commonality between us, even if it were only made up of the differences I could define. It was my way of relating to a man I could never talk to or laugh with again.
My relationship with him evolved as we both grew older, and now that he’s gone, I continue to evolve in the ways I understand him. He had warned me to stay out of Hollywood, because it is “full of sharks and wolves and it’s worse for women.” Of course he was right, but I didn’t listen. He hadn't even lived long enough to learn that his baby, the number four film on the American Film Institute's 2007 list of top 100 movies, would never go into profit and his family would never see any income from his decades of work on the project. And now that I have worked in Hollywood for 25 years, I am amazed at the grace and agility with which he navigated its treacherous waters. His rise from the lowest stratum of society to the pinnacle of Hollywood success is evidence that the dark forces in his life drove him to create diamonds from coal dust.
In Roll With the Punches, The Life Story of Peter Savage, Author of Raging Bull, I will illuminate my father’s life and the conflicting urges that drove him. I will show how he grew from a cynical and calculating criminal to an erudite writer and filmmaker, while also learning to be a father to me and my older brother who has had epilepsy for his entire life. Pete battled mobsters and movie producers along the way (and often quipped that he didn’t know which was worse), yet he grew ever more open and optimistic as he aged, and he enjoyed using his life’s struggles and successes to inspire others.
My father’s life story will cover territory that has not yet been explored in any one book. First, it is a biography of an American immigrant “underdog” who beat all the odds to create one of Hollywood’s most notable and enduring films. It is also a unique and intimate peek into the behind-the-scenes development of Raging Bull and how the film grew from such ignoble beginnings. The book will be divided into seven sections, paralleling the seven ages of man. For illustrations, I will provide photographs never before published and I will quote from his radio and television interviews and letters, including some to and from such luminaries as Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. These letters will reveal previously unknown life-or-death challenges triggered by the production of Raging Bull which my father managed single-handedly, such as a death threat to one of the film’s casting agents. I will interview my father’s family, contemporaries and former colleagues and I will include much of his own writing, from his book, his unfinished memoir and his fifteen original screenplays.
A rags-to-riches story has universal appeal, but in my father’s case, it traces the evolution of his spirit rather than his bank account.
Prologue (written by Pete himself) - Excerpt
...Everyone's who's ever thought himself a born loser. Everyone who's ever had suicidal thoughts, who has ever resigned himself to the fact that life stinks, or that all the odds are against him or her, and is ready to accept some bleak existence and give up on life... Don't...
Listen to me -- it's not true... Don't believe it... Don't accept any of those negative thought processes. Just don't give up... If something so fulfilling can happen to someone like me, an uneducated ex-con... a guy who has been stumbling around in a morass of negativity for most of his life... If something so wonderful can happen in the life of someone as screwed up as me... It can happen to you.
Chapter 8 - College (written by Pete) - Excerpt
Reformation is a
false excuse for wickedness... If you
are to punish a man, you must injure him.
And men are not improved by injuries.
We are told that the reformation of the criminal is kept constantly in
view; yet the destruction of the prisoner’s self-respect by systematic
humiliation is deliberately ordered and practiced.
- George Bernard Shaw (quoted in Pete’s
When they first shoved me into Sing
Sing Prison, I was in one real “bad ass” mental state. I was really innocent
of the crime I had been convicted of.
Oh, I’m not saying that I didn’t deserve to legitimately be in Sing
Sing, for I had gotten away with a lot of felonious crimes, stickups,
burglaries, muggings, you name it. I probably did it. But, the thing I got sent
away for, I did not do.
One night, I had nothing to do, so I
took a ride with three neighborhood punks – guys about my own age. To me, the
whole thing was a joke, a lark. They made a stop, and the way I remember it,
what happened was that these guys were probably trying to show off for my sake
because I had a half-ass reputation as a neighborhood tough guy who had a horse
room (booking horses, bets), a Cadillac, broads and all the rest.
Well, before that ride ended, with
me being thrown into Sing Sing, half-framed by an over-zealous,
conviction-hungry Assistant District Attorney who was trying to build a
reputation by sending everybody he could to the can, I wound up with 5 to 15
years in prison, convicted of extortion, assault and battery.
I guess if Thomas E. Dewey hadn’t
become Governor of New York and nearly president of the United States by
framing guys like “Lucky Luciano” and being known as the great “gangbuster,”
the D.A. who tried my case and framed me wouldn’t have been as “gung-ho” as he
I remember when they herded me and
the other new fish into the two long tiers in “A” Block which housed the
newcomers for the standard two weeks quarantine and physical and psychological
examinations. The first night in my cell
I paced like a rabid, caged animal.
isn’t right.” “What the fuck am I doing
here?” “I don’t belong here.” “My lawyer... he helped frame me... he had to
be in on it... and he was a former judge at that... he was always with the wise guys... that was
it! They wanted to put me away...” I knew a few of them wanted me killed. I had learned they had sorta planned it. I guess they thought it was easier to just
get rid of me.
And, as I paced about, one thought
kept slicing away at me. What they had
done to me was illegal, immoral... and
unfair. In those days, what I had done
to others didn’t enter my mind. Now it
was what others had done to me...
and I started planning how I was going to get even.
After the first few days in
quarantine, the whole futility of my life started to nudge away at me. What the hell was the use? I guess I would always be at the short end of
things... it had always been so. A stupid, stubborn smart ass. That’s what I was and that’s what I would
always be. Why didn’t I cop a plea? The other two guys did and all they got was a
year in Rikers Island. They bargained
for and received a misdemeanor. They
would be home in 9½ months. But no, I had to be stubborn. I would stand trial. After all, I was innocent. They would never, could never convict an
innocent man! But, they sure as hell did
convict me for a felony and sentenced me as a three-time loser... and the third
guy wasn’t even arrested.
I still don’t know how they ever
wound up picking me up in the first place.
But, as far as the third punk that was there at the caper... everybody
wound up being “stand-up guys” and didn’t mention him. And, being a “stand-up guy” was ultimately
going to cost me an extra year in that rat hole, and it could have been more...
Well, the futility of it all was
really getting to me and, since I had nothing to do but think during those two
weeks in quarantine, I finally came to a grave but final decision. I was appealing my conviction and, if the
higher courts did not ultimately realize the error of the ways of the jury, the
D.A. and the judge, well, I would kill myself, or maybe go out in a blaze of
glory. Because knowing myself, I knew I
would never make parole in five years, and I sure as hell was not going to
allow the establishment to force me to just rot for the 15 years.
I guess I carried this death wish
around with me for the whole five years I was there. In thinking back, there sure were a number of
times I was just asking to be killed, or I’d have never become involved in some
of the things I did...
Chapter 13 - Sharks and Wolves - Excerpt
...At first, my father
and Jake took turns coaching De Niro on the basics, without any sparring
partners. Throughout his training, De
Niro spent a good deal of time shadowboxing, dancing around the ring, learning
how to move, practicing change-ups on the speedbag and fine-tuning his punching
style on the heavy bag. Even Joe La
Motta, Jake’s younger, handsomer brother, held the heavy bag for him and
instructed him on the proper way to throw a left hook. While I captured this cozy scene on film, my
father watched intently from a distance, arguing with Jake who was
off-camera. My father was irritated
with Jake for his unenthusiastic coaching style – if you could call it coaching
My father yelled at Jake, “You heard
what he wants to do, work on the left hook – show him!”
“Nah,” came Jake’s annoyed response.
My father’s voice got louder. “Show him!
The guy wants to be told!”
“He knows what to do.”
Disgusted, my father pleads, “The
guy wants to be told, Jake!”
“He knows how to throw a left hook,
he knows, he knows, he knows. I told him
My exasperated father backed away to
stretch and warm up in the background of my camera frame, still focused on De
Niro pummeling the bag, doggedly trying to formulate a genuine left hook. At this point, even Joe snapped at Jake,
“Come over here and help him!” After a
few tense moments, Jake and his naked beer belly then appeared in the frame,
and he finally demonstrated his own brand of championship punch-throwing for
the fledgling boxer, all the while muttering unintelligible instructions.
Later, in a fit of friendly
one-upmanship, my father exacted a little revenge on Jake. He asked me to zoom in on Jake’s naked,
bloated belly while Jake sparred with De Niro in the ring. Once I had my shot, my father called out,
“Look at that belly, Bobby! Oooh, look
at that belly, Bobby! Ooh, Bobby, look
at that belly!” Later on, my father also
asked me to do the same thing to De Niro on the set of Raging Bull, in the Los Angeles Olympic Stadium. Scorsese and De Niro were shooting the Jimmy
Reeves fight, and while De Niro waited for some lighting adjustments, he stood
off to the side, slouching a bit, which pushed his very toned tummy
outward. My father whispered in my ear,
“With all the working out he’s doing, he can’t seem to lose that little bit of
paunch! Take a shot of it!” It felt naughty, but I did it anyway...
On some days, it seemed my father
and Jake butted heads more than usual.
While my father could see the bigger picture, Jake was mired in petty
grievances, egotistical rants, and generally destructive – instead of
productive – behavior. It spilled over
into his treatment of De Niro and his effectiveness at the gym. My father wrote:
got so bad with Jake that finally, in sheer disgust, I decided to make myself
scarce in the training of De Niro... But
De Niro called me at home and asked why I hadn’t been making my usual rounds at
the gym. I asked him to understand that I sorta wanted to fade away until we
started the actual shooting of the film. But he shocked me with, "No,
Pete, you can't do that. If you don't come down to the gym, I don't go down to
the gym." I said, "I don't
understand, Bob. You signed the contract, the deal is set." He replied with, "I don’t give a fuck
about no contract, Pete. You come back to the gym or I stop going as of
now. You are too important to me and to
this production." This frightened
me because I knew he meant it.
I went back to the gym, and contributed in some big measure, I believe, in
training De Niro for the fight scenes for his role as Jake La Motta. And, to my unending fascination, I watched an
inexperienced layman evolve into a rough, tough polished warrior holding his
own and often getting the best of fairly decent professional fighters -- and he
twice knocked out cold a well-muscled Golden Glove light-heavy champion.
Still exasperated with Jake’s
laissez-faire manner of training De Niro, my father decided to step into the
ring himself. His style of teaching
encompassed the bigger picture – he integrated all the disciplines De Niro had
been learning piecemeal. First he made
De Niro chase him around the ring, dancing backwards all the way, just out of
reach of De Niro’s blows, saying, “Catch me!
Catch me!” Then he showed De Niro
how to bob and weave by doing it himself – he had De Niro throw punches at him
in slow motion so he could rhythmically avoid them, almost like a ballet. Then they switched roles and my father threw
the slow punches so that De Niro would learn how to duck, left and right, over
and over. Eventually he combined this
defensive dance with offense – throwing punches at the same time. Then they sped it up into real time. All of this took a great deal of time, but it
was building De Niro into a well-rounded, aggressive fighter – and one who
fought very much like Jake La Motta.
In the ring with De Niro, Jake would
chant to him while they boxed, “Never back up, never back up! Push!
Push! You’re the boss!” Perhaps this is a peek into the mantras that
Jake used himself during his illustrious career. Similarly, my father would encourage De Niro
with, “Yeah! Dig in like La Motta! Dig in like La Motta!” At one point, my father, as De Niro’s
sparring partner, pulled De Niro into a rapid, violent volley of punches, and
De Niro pounded him, backing him into the ropes and cornering him. When De Niro finally backed away, my father
playfully fell forward onto his knees, feigning injury and laughing. Later on, after another spirited volley of
punches from De Niro, he turned, exhausted, and said into my camera, “Did you
get that, Paula? I sure did!”