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‘Grudge’ moves EWU-grad screenwriter into high-profile movie world

Thu., Dec. 26, 2013

There’s a scene in “The Godfather Part II” where Michael Corleone’s business partner Hyman Roth, played by Lee Strasberg, gives a famous speech discussing the murder of his friend, mobster Moe Green: “This is the business we’ve chosen,” he says. “I didn’t ask who gave the orders.”

Tim Kelleher quotes this line of dialogue when discussing his long career as a film and television writer, where you can’t be married to every line you commit to paper. “That’s kind of the way I feel – you’re going to be rewritten, chances are,” Kelleher said in a recent phone interview. “And if you can’t deal with that, you shouldn’t be in the business.”

Kelleher, an Eastern Washington University graduate, wrote the screenplay for the new comedy “Grudge Match,” which stars Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro as retired boxers and longtime rivals who decide to jump into the ring for one last spar.

He’s written movies before, including the 1996 family film “First Kid” and “The Garbage Picking Field Goal Kicking Philadelphia Phenomenon,” a 1998 made-for-TV comedy that he also directed. But “Grudge Match” is the biggest production that Kelleher has been involved in: It’s Warner Bros.’ major Christmas Day release, boasting a supporting cast that includes comedian Kevin Hart and Oscar winners Alan Arkin and Kim Basinger.

The studio has been advertising the movie, directed by Peter Segal (“50 First Dates,” “Get Smart”), like crazy, and Kelleher says he’s never worked on a project to be promoted so extensively. “When I was in New York City, it was everywhere – every subway stop, there was a poster. There’s a giant billboard in Times Square,” Kelleher said. “I can’t watch a football game these days without seeing a commercial come on.”

Part of that ad campaign has emphasized that its headliners have portrayed two of cinema’s most famous boxers – Stallone as Rocky Balboa and De Niro as Jake LaMotta in Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” – and Kelleher says that watching the legendary actors reciting his dialogue is a surreal experience.

“I was on the set in New Orleans last year, just for a week during the final fight sequence,” he said. “Watching the two most iconic boxing actors in the history of movies up there, I literally had chills a number of times.”

Kelleher has spent most of his career in television, beginning with an internship at “Late Night with David Letterman” during his senior year at EWU. He would go on to write for Pat Sajak and Arsenio Hall’s respective talk shows in the ’80s and ’90s, as well as the Fox sketch comedy “In Living Color” and the NBC sitcom “Empty Nest.” He also created the UPN comedy “Rock Me, Baby” and currently works as a writer on the CBS juggernaut “Two and a Half Men.”

He describes working in TV as a whirlwind of rewrites, rehearsals and pitching new jokes (and, sometimes, flat-out rejection), whereas film offers fewer opportunities for instant gratification. “Movies take so long to either get made or not get made, and I just really like the immediacy of TV,” Kelleher said. “The rapport in writers’ rooms is always great. That’s one of the things I love: You get to hang out with a bunch of smart, funny people all day.”

After so many years in the business, Kelleher still credits EWU and its media production program for jump-starting his career. “I was really fortunate to have been there at a time when there was a group of people who were all really passionate about what we were doing,” Kelleher said. “Like my dad used to say, ‘The harder you work, the luckier you get,’ but to have been put in situations at certain times, all of those things are good fortune. I’ve been very lucky to have been blessed with good fortune.”

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