Showtime
May 14, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

For six months, ”Swingers” star Jon Favreau swore off pasta and worked out three hours a day to prepare to play Rocky Marciano in director Charles Winkler’s biopic about the legendary boxer (Showtime; Sat., 8 p.m.). An Italian New Yorker familiar with Marciano’s legacy, the 6’1”, 200 lb. Favreau knew he had to get ripped to live up to the undefeated heavyweight champ’s athletic physique, not to mention the previous onscreen portrayals of pulchritudinous pugilists by acting giants Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone. ”The minute you start a movie about boxing, you know there’s going to be comparisons to ‘Raging Bull’ and ‘Rocky,’ and I didn’t want the comparisons to suffer for my lack of trying,” Favreau, 32, tells EW Online.

Luckily for Favreau, Winkler hired the Yoda of fight choreographers, Jimmy Nickerson, who had gotten De Niro and Stallone into ringside shape. ”The minute I would start slowing down,” says Favreau, “Jimmy would remind me of how seriously De Niro and Stallone took this, and that was it, I was ready to go.” After watching all of Marciano’s taped fights, Favreau spent two months at a renowned boxing gym in Van Nuys, Calif., learning how to jab and crouch like the Brockton Blockbuster. He was preparing for the six-week shoot in Toronto, where all the boxing scenes were filmed the first, painstaking seven days.

When that week of 13-hour days was finished, Favreau rejoined the world of spaghetti and sweets: ”The day I could eat again, the director brought me this huge cake, but I took a few bites and that was it, game over. My stomach was not happy,” he says. But by the end of the shoot, Favreau and costars Penelope Ann Miller and Tony Lo Bianco — who played Marciano in a 1979 TV movie — were regulars at a nearby Italian restaurant. ”We were like the Algonquin Roundtable,” says Favreau.

His Method performance of Marciano was so thorough, Favreau even considered stepping into the ring off-camera. ”I thought I could hold my own in an amateur fight,” he admits. ”It’s a pitfall of actors who train to fight — they start to believe the fantasy that they can really do it.” Nickerson and Co., however, had conditioned the actor to look like Marciano, not become him. ”They said, ‘Not on your life,’ and I was like, ‘Not even against one of the small guys at the gym?’ And they just looked at me and said ‘Don’t even try. We don’t want to witness it.”’

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