LOS ANGELES – When unknown actor Peter Berg wandered into the Outlaw Boxing Club in Hollywood about 17 years ago for a workout, a young trainer named Freddie Roach immediately earned his respect.
“I came in, and nobody would really talk to me,” Berg said. “Freddie was the first one to come up to me and really say, ‘God, you’re horrible.’ “
Berg took Roach’s counsel and stuck to his strengths, eventually becoming the powerful filmmaker behind “Friday Night Lights” and “Hancock.” He’s turning his cameras on Roach this winter, telling the story of the former boxer afflicted with Parkinson’s disease who became the world’s most respected trainer.
The six-part series, “On Freddie Roach,” premieres tonight on HBO. Fans of the network’s innovative sports programming, such as the “Hard Knocks” and “24/7” series, might be surprised by what they see from Berg and fellow executive producer Jim Lampley, the longtime voice of the network’s boxing telecasts.
The 30-minute episodes feature no Liev Schreiber narration, no story lines, no stunts – just cameras silently following Roach through his complicated life training Manny Pacquiao, Amir Khan and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., while also running the busy Wild Card Boxing Club and stoically managing his encroaching disease.
The 51-year-old Roach is still surprised anybody wanted to put his life outside the ring on television.
“I think I’m kind of a boring person,” Roach said during a break in his nonstop daily training routine at the Wild Card.
“Jim and Peter thought otherwise, and they asked me if I’d be open like I am on ‘24/7.’ I thought about it, and I always wanted to be a little bit famous, so I chose to do the show, and they were with me for almost a year. They’d catch me in good moods, and sometimes in bad moods. People really get to see what my life is about and how I deal with it. Parkinson’s is always there, of course, but it’s something I try to ignore as much as I can. I generally don’t even think about that. Just work, work, work.”
Berg, whose next studio film is the big-budget summer release “Battleship,” has loved boxing since the counselors at his summer camp on Cape Cod roped off a ring in the woods and bet on the young campers’ fights. Berg became a fan of Sugar Ray Leonard through his epic fights with Roberto Duran, and he trained in the sport to stay in Hollywood shape, even playing a boxer in the 1996 film “The Great White Hype.”
“This is always something I’ve always had a great respect for,” Berg said. “There’s no more intense form of athletic competition. It’s two men fighting for their lives. There’s less safety net in boxing than any other sport, and that makes it undeniably compelling.”
When Lampley approached Berg with the project, both men agreed on a bold break from traditional sports storytelling. Berg’s biggest influence was the cinema-verite style of Frederick Wiseman, the prolific 82-year-old documentarian whose naturalistic purity has guided two generations of filmmakers.
“I thought this would be the right style and it would separate us from ‘24/7,’ which I’m a huge fan of,” Berg said. “I think HBO had more of an appetite to do something different. It was just a very emotional experience, and they recognized that we could do something that felt genuine and emotional.”
The series gets emotional in its second episode: Roach’s brother, Pepper, had a stroke at the Wild Card while Berg’s cameras filmed. Not every episode features life-or-death drama, but Berg believes even non-boxing fans will be fascinated.
“I never felt like we had to make something happen,” Berg said. “This place is an inherent gold mine of invention and emotion and activity. It was nice not to have to be driving the bus.”
If the unfamiliar style catches on with viewers, Lampley thinks this team could examine other sports figures. They’ve considered doing a similar show on Washington State coach Mike Leach, another old friend of Berg.
“Some people are going to watch this and say, ‘It’s too slow. It’s too contemplative. I’m bored,’ ” Lampley said. “We don’t want the biggest audience – just the smartest. I really wanted to do a show that trusts the viewers. You don’t need to gild this lily.”
Roach quickly got used to the constant presence of the cameras: He sometimes fell asleep in his own bed while the crew filmed, and it documented his obsession with cleaning his home – particularly his sinks. Roach’s employees also get plenty of screen time, including Marie Spivey – his ex-girlfriend turned assistant – and Roach’s mother, who lives next-door to him in Los Angeles.
“The hardest part about the TV show so far is watching it,” Roach said. “The best part about the show is they never asked me to do anything. It’s just truly my life, day by day, what challenges I have to go through. Some of it is sad. Some of it is sappy. I don’t have Liev Schreiber to help me along the way with his voice, so I have to have my own voice.”