In 1978, Nickerson got a call for help from the producer of Raging Bull. La Motta, however, wanted nothing to do with some patsy Hollywood boxing choreographer. During Nickerson's first day on the set, La Motta and his entourage strode into a 14th Street gym in New York City, where the filming was taking place. La Motta marched up to Nickerson and said, spitting out the words, "Who the——told you you could come here and do my story? Can you fight? You wanna fight me?"
"All due respect, Mr. La Motta," replied Nickerson, who is disarmingly polite for a tough guy. "I didn't volunteer for this job. I was asked to help out. But if you want to fight me, I'll fight. If that's really what you want." Actor Robert De Niro and director Martin Scorsese grew tense. La Motta stared at Nickerson. Nickerson stared back and waited for La Motta's booming left hook.
"You're all right, kid," La Motta said, laughing and grabbing a chunk of Nickerson's cheek.
De Niro won the 1980 Academy Award for Best Actor for Raging Bull, and the film is considered by many to be the finest boxing movie ever made. According to Stanley Weston, publisher of The Ring magazine, "The fight scenes in Raging Bull were the most realistic that I've ever seen. I thought I was seeing Jake again, back in the '40s."
Raging Bull cemented Nickerson's reputation as the boxing choreographer in Hollywood. Nickerson, however, was beginning to find life behind the camera dull. He went back to stunt work, igniting in flames for an episode of TV's Crime Story, driving a car beneath a truck and shearing off its roof in the Matt Houston detective drama, running off the lip of a canyon for Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer. Although he's good at what he does, Nickerson has been repaired by doctors many times in the last 20 years for such injuries as fractured hips, broken arms, concussions and separated shoulders. "Jimmy never ceases to amaze me," says Sherrie, his wife of a decade. "Here is a guy who can barely watch his own two girls run down a sidewalk for fear that they might fall down and scrape a knee. Then he goes out and does what he does for a living. I think he's crazy, but I'm behind him. Stunt work is in his blood."
In 1985 Nickerson was inducted into the Hollywood Stuntmen's Hall of Fame, and two years later he won a top-stunt-man award for driving in the freeway-from-hell scene in To Live and Die in L.A.
Of course, stuntmen need calmer careers that will serve them in their dotage, and so Nickerson is behind the lens in a Chicago warehouse, watching Marshall, who is tied up in a body hold. "Shouldn't he wiggle more?" Herrington wonders. "Struggle a little?"
"No," says Nickerson. "Joe Frazier wouldn't struggle. It would use up too much of his energy."
Herrington, wisely, defers to Nickerson's singular brand of cinema verité.