Requiem for a Heavyweight: Hard-Punching Honesty On and Off the Screen by Mykki Newton

Updated: Sep 17, 2020

Anthony Quinn called it one of his best performances. It was the feature film version of an Emmy-winning teleplay by a rising young writer named Rod Serling. The story focuses on Mountain Rivera, a boxer long past his prime played by Quinn, then there is Maish (Jackie Gleason)his double-crossing manager in debt to the mob, Army (Mickey Rooney) his corner man, and an employment councilor name Grace (Julie Harris) who tries to find the punch-drunk boxer a new line of work.

Anthony Quinn, Jackie Gleason, Mickey Rooney in Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962)

Anthony Quinn, Julie Harris in Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962)

Rod and Carol Serling (1957)

“The industry loved it. The critics loved it. Everybody loved it. He had this one-hit wonder elephant on his back. Would he ever do anything that great again?”

-Carol Serling, widow of Rod Serling {1}

The live American television production was such a success, it spawned a Dutch television version in 1959, a Yugoslavian television version in 1974, and a 1957 British television version starring a rising young actor named Sean Connery as the over-the-hill fighter.

For a story revered for its honest, Requiem for a Heavyweight had a mysterious beginning with the creation of a television series called Program X. Martin Manulis was summoned to CBS Studios to talk about the program. He had already produced huge hits for CBS during the early days of television, including Suspense, Studio One Summer Theatre, and Climax!, He was intrigued by the secretive nature of the title Program X. CBS executives said that was exactly the reaction they wanted from the audience. It would be the first-ever live 90-minute weekly dramatic series. Every night was opening night and every night was closing night. Three weeks of rehearsal and ready or not you were on the air live. The mysterious title however never made it to broadcast. Program X became Playhouse 90 and Requiem for a Heavyweight became the shows second episode and a legend.

Rod Serling and Marty Manulis (1956)

“Rod Serling would say, ‘How can you do a live drama when every seven minutes the story is interrupted by 12 rabbits selling toilet paper.’”

-Martin Manulis, producer {1}

By 1956, Rod Serling was gaining a reputation as one on the best television writer in the business. He was also a former boxer which gave him the desire to write a piece that presented an unflinching honest look at the grim world of professional prizefighting. To paraphrase a quote about boxing matches, "If there was room enough in a sewer, they’d have them there." So, Requiem for a Heavyweight was deeply personal to Rod Serling.

“He was a very intense writer. He was a very fast writer. At first, he used a typewriter, then he started using a Dictaphone which was marvelous because it would go fast and he would play all the characters. He’d do Mountain, Maish, maybe not Grace.”

-Carol Serling, widow of Rod Serling {1}

Jack Palance, 1957 Emmy Awards

According to Carol Serling, her husband was planning to sell the story to NBC for $100, but suddenly there was Playhouse 90. Martin Manulis jumped on the script, Anthony Quinn wanted to play Mountain McClintock, but was unavailable. The role then went to Jack Palance who won an Emmy for his performance.

Jack Palance, Kim Hunter in Requiem for a Heavyweight (1956)

Rounding out the main cast were Kim Hunter as Grace, Keenan Wynn as Maish, and in a surprising move by Manulis, Keenan’s father and legendary comedian Ed Wynn was asked to play Army. Keenan Wynn asked his father if he was going to do the part. Ed Wynn said he didn’t think the part was big enough. He was also concerned about not being able to wear his trademark funny clothes. He said he couldn’t do that to his public.

Keenan and Ed Wynn (1960)

“And I looked at him and I had to say what I said and it seemed like an hour. I said to him, ‘What public, Dad?’”

-Keenan Wynn {1}

It was a brutally honest moment between father and son and it was just the beginning of the son’s agony during Requiem rehearsals. This was the first time Ed Wynn attempted a drama and it was a disaster from the very first reading. Ed Wynn wasn’t used to doing readings. He was used to doing his own material such as “I have an 11-foot pole for people I wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole.” Every time he became confused with the script, he would slip into an Ed Wynn-ism such as “Oh my goodness!” or “Soooo!” Keenan was terrified his father would disgrace himself in front of 20 million people, but producer Martin Manulis stood by his casting decision.

Ed Wynn, Jack Palance, Keenan Wynn in Requiem for a Heavyweight (1956)

“I really had a strong feeling about not replacing him. I had decided he was a man of extraordinary talent, an extraordinary career in the theatre and I just couldn’t see firing him.”

-Martin Manulis, producer,

Requiem for a Heavyweight{1}

After two weeks of rehearsal, Ed Wynn showed no improvement. Everyone wanted to replace him, including his son Keenan. Both director Ralph Nelson and writer Rod Serling wanted their names taken off the project if Ed Wynn wasn’t fired, but Martin Manulis didn’t want to announce the replacement of a leading star in only the second episode of Playhouse 90. So, he came up with a backup plan. He made actor Ned Glass a secret understudy for the part of Army without Ed Wynn’s knowledge. Glass was already playing a bartender in the show. The person who showed the greatest compassion for Ed Wynn was Jack Palance.

Ed Wynn, Jack Palance, Keenan Wynn in Requiem for a Heavyweight (1956)

“There seemed to be a huge well of loneliness there that needed to be looked at and I think I mentioned to somebody around that time that if Ed left, then I was going to leave too. So, they never told me about Ned Glass.

Jack Palance, Ed Wynn in Requiem for a Heavyweight (1956)

Keenan and I would work with him (Ed Wynn) at night after everyone had gone and I would work with him on the weekends, just to see he wasn’t removed from the cast.”

-Jack Palance {1}

When the countdown to air for the live broadcast of Requiem for a Heavyweight started on October 11, 1956, Martin Manulis said the only thing that went through his mind was what other work would be available for someone with his training. Turns out he didn’t need to worry about losing his job. Ed Wynn’s performance was magnificent and Requiem was a major hit. It won the Emmy for Best Single Program of the Year. Both director Ralph Nelson and writer Rod Serling who wanted their names taken off the project, won Emmys too.

Ralph Nelson, Jack Palance, Rod Serling, Martin Manulis (1957)

Keenan Wynn, Ed Wynn in The Man in the Funny Suit (1960)

In 1960, The Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse produced a television movie about the behind-the-scenes Ed Wynn drama of Requiem for a Heavyweight. It was called The Man in the Funny Suit and it was written by Requiem director Ralph Nelson. Many members of the Playhouse 90 production played themselves, including Rod Serling, Keenan and Ed Wynn, Ralph Nelson, Ned Glass, and Maxie Rosenbloom. There was also a touching guest performance by Red Skelton. The Man in the Funny Suit is yet another example of the honesty associated with Requiem.

Jackie Gleason, Anthony Quinn in Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962)

When Ralph Nelson directed the feature film version of Requiem for a Heavyweight in 1962, the medium of film verse live television gave Nelson more room to stretch the story and the visuals. In addition to a change of cast and a change of Mountain’s last name to Rivera, the screenplay added some new characters such as the cigar-smoking intimidating mobster bookie Ma Greeny, who wants her money from Maish. She's unforgettably portrayed by Madame Spivy.

Madame Spivy as Ma Greeny in Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962)

“Take a good look in the mirror, Maish and then say goodbye to what you see.”

-Ma Greeny, Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962)

The film version of Requiem has an even darker atmosphere of honesty with no happy ending like the television version. Although it is considered an iconic classic film today, it did not wow the critics in 1962. It was remembered mainly for the young up and coming boxer who knocks out Mountain at the beginning of the movie. That boxer was played by Cassius Clay, later known as Muhammad Ali and at one time the most famous man in the world.

Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) in Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962)

“Great fight kid. You were great.”

-Cassius Clay, Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962)

Requiem for a Heavyweight, stage production (1985)

There was a stage production of Requiem for a Heavyweight done on Broadway in 1985. It starred John Lithgow as Mountain, George Segal as Maish, and Maria Tucci as Grace. It closed after only three performances. Even so, Lithgow's performance as Mountain won him the 1985 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actor and a nomination for a Tony Award.

John Lithgow, Maria Tucci in Requiem for a Heavyweight (1985)

Watching John Lithgow's heavyweight performance in ''Requiem for a Heavyweight,'' one desperately wants to believe there's just as much heft to the newly arrived stage version of Rod Serling's 1956 teleplay. There isn't.”

-Frank Rich, New York Times stage critic {2}

That’s a brutally honest review of the play, but the original story and the original live television production of Requiem for a Heavyweight is still considered one of the finest examples of the Golden Age of Television. The 1962 film version is still considered one of the finest examples of cinematic realism, and Rod Serling is still considered one of the best American screenwriters of all-time.

“I guess Requiem for a Heavyweight, as old as it is, was as honest a piece as I’ve ever done.”

-Rod Serling

Rod Serling wins the Emmy for Best Teleplay, Requiem for a Heavyweight (1956)


1- The Golden Age of Television (1987)

2- The New York Times, March 8, 1985

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