Peter Savage Film Enterprises
Book - "Roll With the Punches"

ROLL WITH THE PUNCHES, written by Savage's daughter Paula Petrella who worked with him on many of his films, 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 include never-before seen photographs, excerpts from Savage's radio and television interviews as well as from his personal letters -- including some to and from such luminaries as Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro.  

Savage died suddenly in 1981, only a year after RAGING BULL was released.  He didn't live to see the honors it would receive nor its enduring legacy.  Always concerned with posterity, he wanted to use his life as a parable:  "If I could do it, anyone can."

"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 suddenly died.  

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. A live performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” in 1962 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 that happened to him had ultimately led to something good, and that the good wouldn't have been possible otherwise.  Developing a love for reading and writing while incarcerated is a good example.  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 such projects.

           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.

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, thanks to "Hollywood accounting," 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 unpublished photographs  and I will quote from his radio and television interviews.  I will also present private letters, including some he exchanged with 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 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 personal papers)


            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 was.

            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.

           “This 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 at all.

            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 several times.”

            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:

            It 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.

            Well, 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!”