Robb Skyler is Howard Cosell in Hands of Stone

“This is Howard Cosell…”

If you grew up in the 60s, 70s, or 80s, you can probably still hear the iconic drawl of the most famous and influential sportscaster of his era.

Cosell helped shape the events that became part of sports history, and the makers of the new Roberto Duran biopic Hands of Stone needed an actor who could not only mimic the broadcaster’s patter but who also understood the man behind the showman. They turned to veteran comedian and character actor Robb Skyler.

Although Skyler described his challenge as needing to “bring [Cosell’s] voice, literally and figuratively, to life,” he was determined not to simply do an impression. In a serious film, like Hands of Stone, doing so, he realized “would have stuck out like a sore thumb.” So preparation involved not just intense scrutiny of Cosell’s speech patterns but a clear understanding of the man behind the persona.

In preparing for the role, Skyler realized that Cosell actually had two distinct voices. He describes the first as “overstated” and “melodramatic.” This voice was used when the announcer was setting the stage for an event. Once an event started, Skyler said, Cosell’s voice had a different cadence and octave range. He “became more feverish” and spoke at a “quicker clip.” The actor’s interpretation? At heart, Cosell was a sports fan, and the genuine excitement of the moment influenced him like it does every fan.

Because Cosell was a fan of the sport of boxing and admired trainer Ray Arcel (played by Robert DeNiro in the film), Skyler played his response to Duran’s infamous “no mas” moment during the Sugar Ray Leonard fight as one of more sadness than anger. He praised director Jonathan Jakubowicz for giving him, a supporting actor, a key moment at a crucial point in the film. The director and actor both understood that Cosell would have conflicting feelings at such a moment. That mix is evident from archival footage of the actual Cosell speaking to both Duran and Arcel after the fight:

Skyler describes the opportunity to work with some of Hollywood’s biggest stars as “exciting” but not intimidating, saying an actor can’t do justice to a film or a role if he is too nervous.

Most of Skyler’s best known films are comedies. While some critics may think dramatic roles have more prestige, for him it is the variety that makes his job special. “You want variance to a certain degree,” he said, saying it is human nature to want to try something different. He cites Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler, and (especially) Bill Murray as actors who have tried out more serious roles without turning their backs on comedy.

The portrait of Howard Cosell that Skyler brings to life is one of a complex, compassionate, conflicted human being who could easily be the subject of a biopic himself. As Skyler mentions, Cosell appeared in a Woody Allen movie, announced John Lennon’s assassination to television audiences, and was one of the first to adopt and use Cassius Clay’s new name of Muhammad Ali.

“He transcended sports,” Skyler concludes, succinctly.

Hands of Stone opens in theaters on August 26, 2016.

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