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Here was pressure. Carl Lewis had competed on the international track and field stage for 18 years and won nine Olympic gold medals. In 1984, before the start of the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, he had famously promised to match Jesse Owens's legendary performance in the '36 Games by winning four golds (in the same four events) and delivered with ease. Lewis had even once sung the national anthem--albeit horribly--before a 1993 NBA game in New Jersey. The man knows what heat feels like. � At least he thought he did. Here he sat in a small, Southern California acting workshop in the spring of 2005, script in hand, facing down Erika Alexander, 36, a longtime TV actress who was serving as a guest instructor for Lewis's acting coach, Troy Rowland. In this exercise Lewis was playing the role of a husband arguing with his wife, and Alexander was giving him more game than Ben Johnson and Mike Powell combined. � "I love you," Lewis said to his acting partner in the scene. � "I don't believe you!" shouted Alexander. � Lewis recoiled. Alexander moved the rest of the class closer to Lewis, demanding more emotion. Each time he spoke, Alexander jumped in his face and moved the students ever closer. "She totally worked the s--- out of Carl," says Darrell Jones, Lewis's classmate and friend. "I was looking away. It's tough to see your friend get broken down like that." � Eventually the hectoring subsided, and the strangest thing happened: Lewis felt free. He had been taking acting lessons for more than two decades, since before the L.A. Games, and never before had he allowed himself to abandon the stoicism--"the arrogance," he calls it--that made him the greatest performer in modern track and field history. "He spent all those years keeping his emotions under control," says Lewis's sister, Carol. "As an actor, he was being told to release those emotions."
Shortly after his undressing by Alexander, Lewis landed a small role--as a PEOPLE magazine reporter--in Material Girls, a film starring Hilary and Haylie Duff that is scheduled for an August release. He has larger roles in Tournament of Dreams, a film about an inner-city basketball team struggling to survive, and in The Last Adam, the story of six boyhood friends coming home for the funeral of their Little League coach. In the latter film, which premiered in June at the Atlanta Film Festival, Lewis plays one of the friends, a character with Parkinson's disease.
Perhaps the films will make millions. Most do not. For Lewis, however, success is measured in much broader terms. He finally has traction in his life after a long and difficult transition from superstar to starving actor. (Starving, in this case, is measured by roles, not by financial well-being; Lewis has a home in the tony L.A. neighborhood of Pacific Palisades and another in Mount Laurel, N.J.)
Lewis stepped out of public view as an athlete on July 29, 1996, in Atlanta, when he won the Olympic gold medal in the long jump for the fourth consecutive time. He spent the next seven years drifting, even as his track and field accomplishments became all the more impressive with the passage of time. A member of five Olympic teams, Lewis owns 16 of the best 30 long jumps in history. He twice won Olympic gold in the 100 meters and anchored six world-record-setting 4�100-meter relay teams, four of them at an Olympics or the world championships.
Yet track and field left him bitter. For most of his career, Lewis and his manager, Joe Douglas, challenged the financial and bureaucratic structure of track. They demanded more appearance money than any track athlete had ever received and control over how events were run. They also made enemies of meet promoters and many track officials. In the end, Lewis's Olympic career was capped by a snub, when the track coaches at the '96 Games did not include him on the 4�100 relay team. That slight, denying him a final showcase and farewell, still tortures Lewis.
"It was the worst thing in my career," he says. (At the time, coaches pointed to Lewis's last-place finish in the 100 meters at the Olympic trials. Ultimately, the U.S. was beaten by Canada in the relay, the first time an American 4�100 had lost an Olympic final it completed.)
His athletic career over, Lewis lived in Houston for the next three years before moving to Los Angeles in 1999. There he hit the movie premieres, clubbed late and slept in. He avoided track meets. "I was wayward and negative," says Lewis. "I tried to make up for it by partying."
Carol Lewis says, "Carl once told me he lived his 40s when he was in his 20s, then he tried to live his 20s when he was turning into his 40s." And it nearly killed him.
In the early morning hours of April 21, 2003, Lewis crashed his Maserati into a concrete barrier on the 110 freeway in Los Angeles. Lewis registered a .08 blood alcohol reading--the level at which a driver in California is considered legally intoxicated. Drunken driving charges were later dismissed as Lewis pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor speeding charge and agreed to attend Alcoholics Anonymous or Mothers Against Drunk Driving meetings.
The crash awakened Lewis. "It was a good thing," he says. "It made me say, Get your life together. I had gone too far. I needed to get off the couch."