The Civic Auditorium in Stockton, Calif., where fight scenes were being filmed for the forthcoming movie Fat City, was one atmospheric arena. The on-camera seats were filled with about six ethnic strains of scroungy-to-genteel Stockton extras, and the air was heavy with fumes: fake smoke, from a machine that blows mineral oil over dry ice, and real smoke, from the Don Diego Dunhill Selecci�n Supremas Director John Huston handed out to front-row spectators when he felt the air was getting too clear around them.
Vapors aside, the auditorium carried a good funky history. At one time or another both Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis made tank-town appearances there and, according to local promoter Jack Cruz (who plays a pitiless local promoter in the film), Max Baer once pounded his head against the steam pipes downstairs to get ready for a bout with someone named Chief Cariboo.
Possibly the air was further charged by virtue of the fact that so many people, real and fictional, were breathing it through broken noses. That included the film's two central characters, hard-scrabble Stockton club fighters Billy Tully and Ernie Munger, played by actors Stacy Keach and Jeff Bridges.
Ernie Munger got his nose—with the aid of some pretend blood applied by a makeup man—in his first fight on camera. Then Billy's and Ernie's handlers, themselves former fighters, exchanged the following dialogue:
Babe: How's your nose? Can you breathe?
Ruben: Yeah, can't you?
Babe: Not on a wet day.
Babe, the punchy trainer, was played by retired Art Aragon, the Golden Boy, whose nose isn't so good in real life. The same goes for Leonard Gardner, who grew up in Stockton and who wrote the novel Fat City and the screenplay for the movie. Gardner gave up organized boxing some 15 years ago after his nose was broken two times in seven amateur bouts (of which he says he won "about three"). Like Ernie in the novel, Gardner in his fighting days tried to toughen the lining of his nose by sniffing brine up into it.
Director Huston's nose was broken for the first time "when I was chasing an ice wagon and the wagon stopped," and again during his late teens in Los Angeles, when at six feet and 138 pounds, he fought under various names, sometimes twice in one night, for $5 or $10. Huston says he was not, however, amateur lightweight champion of California, as has often been reported.
Keach, the most prominent actor in the mostly amateur cast of Fat City, has never broken his nose (and he appeared for one scene with his trunks on backward—EVERLAST in the rear), but while he was posing for still pictures his looks were inspected approvingly by Aragon and former light heavyweight contender Sixto Rodriguez, who also appears in the film. "He's got the profile of a fighter," said Rodriguez.