Tale of Two Carters

Former 'White Shadow' Star Directs True Story Of No-Nonsense Coach
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It should be said at the outset that Ken Carter and Thomas Carter are not related-at least in a biological sense-but the lines of their lives each owe a lot to their time on the basketball court. Coach Carter, opening on Jan. 14, is the logical culmination of their mutual sports backgrounds.
It's a movie, directed by the latter, about the former. Ken Carter is the high-school coach who created controversy and headlines in 1999 when he benched his entire undefeated team for their shoddy scholastic showings and maintained that lockout till their grade points improved, barely giving the squad enough time to eke their way into the state playoffs. Thomas Carter is the high-school hoop star who grew up to play one on television (coached by another Ken, last name Howard) in "The White Shadow," the series that pulled him hypnotically behind the camera and turned him into a director.

Both men were well beyond the basketball court by the time they officially crossed paths. Having heaped trophies aplenty on his Richmond (CA) High School team, Ken Carter went into early (if hyperactive) retirement as a small businessman, still harboring the hope that his shining hour in the national spotlight would photograph well as a movie. Thomas Carter didn't entirely leave his hoop glory at home in Smithville, TX, when he trooped off to California to become an actor. Practically on the first bounce, he landed the plum part of James Hayward, the brooding star player on a mostly black inner-city basketball team on "The White Shadow." His interest in all phases of the production soon became so apparent and pervasive that producer Bruce Paltrow (Gwyneth's late father) sent him in during the second season to direct an episode or three-and a true calling firmly took hold.

"I don't think of this movie as a coming-home, but in a way it is," concedes Thomas. "The very first thing I direct was an episode on that basketball series, and now, in a different way, I've come back to that. In many ways, it's reflective of how I got started."

The pairing would seem to be inevitable, but oddly it wasn't. It was Ken who courted Thomas-and he did it oblivious to the baskets Thomas had racked up as a high-schooler.

"I don't think he knew anything about me playing basketball. He was interested in me because of the things he had seen that I had directed or produced on television in the past several years. He was actually a guy who was paying attention to what was on television. He was going to see movies. He worked it out that way. He was more sophisticated than most people in his position would be, figuring out how to package his life as a movie."

One day, the director got a call from his agency and was told a guy named Ken Carter from the Bay Area was trying to reach him. "They thought he might be a relative of mine," the director remembers, "but I didn't have any relatives up there so I didn't get back to him right away. Finally, we connected. He told me his name and the intro to his story and said he was coming to Los Angeles and could we have breakfast. I said, 'Sure.'

"This was about a year or so before I actually came to the project. He was, at that point, about to meet with some packaging agents and producers to see if he could interest them in getting this project going. For a guy who was not experienced in Hollywood, he was actually pretty savvy. He put together a number of deals. I liked his story, too, very much. I was very taken with him and thought it was a very powerful and positive story to tell."

The director pitched the flick to Paramount Pictures' MTV Films, for whom he did the very successful Julia Stiles-Sean Patrick Thomas interracial romance, Save the Last Dance, and a long corporate dance began, prompting him to move on to another project.

"I said to Coach Carter, 'Listen, I'm out of it, but if I can help you in any way as you try to negotiate the waters of Hollywood, don't hesitate to call.' And he didn't, either. He'd call from time to time and say, 'It's going well, but I really want you to direct this film.'"

The coach had a history of getting what he wants, so when Thomas' project hit a script snag and sank, the director gave the Coach Carter script another read. "I didn't think the screenplay was as compelling as the breakfast I'd had with Coach Carter, so I sat down with the producers and told them the script was incomplete and what I wanted done to fix that. Basically, I didn't think it had a real third act. Originally, the movie ended when the lockout ended. You really didn't know what happened in the state playoffs, so I researched it and brought in a new writer to add on to the film and finish with the playoff scene.

"Without giving the ending away, let me just say I thought there was an opportunity at the end to challenge the notion of what is victory and what the higher stakes are in the lives of these kids and do it dramatically. It now makes a more powerful statement."

Samuel L. Jackson, whose degree of Intimidation Concentration is so pronounced he could probably use a stunt double for the sentimental scenes, is ideally cast as a hard-driving coach battering the best out of his team. The title role could, in fact, have been custom-tailored to his persona. "There actually were conversations with two or three other actors," the director admits, "but Sam was essentially who we all came down to. I think it is the best work he has done in about ten years. It's a role that really suited him."

One new flourish to Jackson's established macho act is his flurry of spectacular ties that unerringly upstage the grubby gym settings and point up a stylish dignity at the core of the role. "That's something drawn directly from Coach Carter," claims director Carter. "The real Ken Carter has the snappiest ties in Hollywood, snappier than Sam's in the film."

The real coach approved of the Jackson casting. "Sam is taller than Ken Carter," notes the director, "but, beyond that, there's a real similarity to the look of Sam and the feel of Ken. Both have lots of charm, but we didn't get near all of Ken's humor. He's a dynamic guy."

In addition to a totally retooled finale, the director fortified a couple of the subplots-one involving a teenage pregnancy, another involving a hood finding his place on the team.

The 50-year-old director has a respect for audience needs and a sizeable reputation for fulfilling those needs on the small screen. It has been said that what Joe DiMaggio did to baseball with his 56-game hitting streak, Thomas Carter did to television with his run of eight consecutive pilots which became hit series (including "St. Elsewhere," "Miami Vice," "Hill Street Blues," "A Year in the Life," "Midnight Caller" and "Call to Glory"). He turned executive producer his ninth time at bat ("Equal Justice"), and-wouldn't you know-the result was merely a moderate success, but enough to win him Emmys for directing in 1989/90 and 1990/91. He also won an Emmy for producing Don King: Only in America and a 1984 Directors Guild of America Award for one of the ten episodes of "Hill Street Blues" he did.

Carter's feature career pales in comparison-only four entries so far, starting with 1993's Swing Kids (i.e., jazz-crazed teens weighed down by the Nazi swastika) and 1997's Metro (a nondescript Eddie Murphy cop romp). His next? A period piece ('20s and '30s) based loosely on a true story called Buck Jackson. "It's an original script that came to me. And then I have a number of television projects that I'm doing as well. I have a pilot that I'm working on called 'Fat Friends.' It's based on a British TV series that has been very popular there, and I'm working with the writer from Britain, Kay Mellor. It's in the class of a one-hour drama, but it's a drama with a lot of comedy."

Carter is a chameleon kind of director who doesn't believe in boundaries-in mediums or in material. "I have a real eclectic taste. I'm interested in a lot of different things-drama and romance and sophisticated comedy. What I'd love to do is something like Tootsie."

Yeah, but who'll tell Coach Carter? That kind of idea could get you a hundred push-ups.