CAN ANYTHING ever
replace The Sopranos, which said ciao to HBO two weeks ago? Fuhgeddaboutit. But
the network is trying with the spooky surfer drama John from Cincinnati, which
premiered on June 10. Austin Nichols, 27, who plays the mysterious title
character, has one thing in common with John, a brilliant surfer who seems to
pick up the sport out of nowhere. Nichols has made a living by picking up
athletic skills on the fly.
Nichols was up for the part of a John McEnroe type in this romantic comedy,
which meant he had to impress the film's tennis adviser, Pat Cash (a Wimbledon
winner in '87). His problem: He'd never touched a racket. "[At the
audition] they kept yelling, 'Swing hard!'" he recalls. "I didn't know
how to play, so I just kept launching balls straight out of the court."
Fortunately Nichols could act, and that got him the role opposite Kirsten Dunst
and Paul Bettany. "When Pat saw my serve, he said, 'We can do it.' There
was something about my motion that told him I was O.K." After four months
of training for up to five hours a day, Nichols was ready for Centre Court.
When he was cast as a member of the 1966 Texas Western basketball team that was
the first national champion with an all-African-American starting lineup,
Nichols, never big into team sports, hadn't played roundball since he was a
guard in junior high. Luckily, coaches like the Heat's Pat Riley and Western's
Don Haskins were at a preproduction camp in New Orleans to provide lessons.
Haskins, then 74, led the cast through drills. "He singled me out and
started riding my a-- bad," recalls Nichols. "It felt like Little
League all over again."
Nichols, who grew up in Austin, comes from a family of water-skiers—his mother,
Kay, was a national champ. He swam before he walked, and won waterskiing events
as a teen. Nichols convinced the show's surf consultants that all he needed to
get camera-ready was to "surf a bunch on his own." Now he (instead of a
double) is able to do about 50% of what the scripts call for—"but that will
keep growing every day." If John lasts as long as The Sopranos, maybe he'll
end up being a pro, instead of just acting like one.