First Time For Everything

No Hollywood screenwriter would have dared to dream up a story as improbable as Antwone Fisher's--except one. Fisher grew up in Cleveland's foster-care system; his foster parents neglected and abused him, and he picked fights with everyone in sight, even after he enlisted in the Navy. But aboard ship he bonded with a Navy psychiatrist named Jerome Davenport, and their profound relationship gave him the tools to cope with civilian life. While working as a security guard in L.A., he finally tracked down his birthfather's family, who offered him a ticket back to Cleveland for Thanksgiving. "To get the time off, I basically had to tell my life story to my boss," says Fisher, 42. That story quickly got around town--because Fisher just happened to work at the Sony Studios lot. Eventually producer Todd Black decided to film the story. To write it, he picked a first-timer with no credentials but a world of experience: Antwone Fisher.

The heart-wrenching "Antwone Fisher," which opens this week, is also the debut for its leading man, 28-year-old Derek Luke (whose most notable previous credit was a walk-on in Brandy's UPN show, "Moesha"), and its director, Denzel Washington--whose name you may just possibly know. Washington's pal Tom Hanks has called 2002 "the year of Denzel." It kicked off with his Oscar for best actor (only the second time an African-American has won) and it's culminating with--well, who knows? "I'm not looking too far ahead to awards or anything," Washington says. "Let's just see what happens." Washington became interested in the Fisher project almost five years ago. "It's definitely a love story, in a sense, between two men," he says. "I can't think of another film or TV story where a relationship like this between two black men was the main plot." Fisher, naturally, was "blown away" when he got the call. "Denzel could have chosen any movie to direct for the first time." Washington gave Fisher an office at Twentieth Century Fox, conferred with him on rewrite after rewrite while making such films as "Training Day" and thinking about returning to Broadway to refresh himself. Instead, directing turned out to be the answer, and he sank close to $2 million of his own money in the Fisher project.

Before casting Luke as his lead, he tested Ja Rule and Cuba Gooding Jr. "But I wanted someone no one knew," he says, "so you could feel you were really seeing Antwone Fisher and not a rapper or a singer. I wanted people to see it with no distractions." He even hesitated to cast himself as Davenport--until he thought about what his high-profile face on the posters could do for a small film about a big subject--and he says he might never again try to act and direct at the same time. "It's a tough gig. I act in a scene and then have to put on my other hat and look through the cameras to see how it turned out." Luke, on the other hand, says working on the picture was "a blessing": "I feel like things happen for a certain reason at a certain time." And for Fisher, writing his own life was part of his healing. "It took me a long time to get myself together," he says. "Of course there were people who thought I couldn't do it--I was a security guard, for heaven's sake. But that just made me try harder." And now he's got the perfect Hollywood ending.