Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Tito Ortiz goes Hollywood

By Benny Burkholder

The Octagon just isn't big enough to contain the shine of Tito Ortiz's star anymore. The Huntington Beach Bad Boy has gone Hollywood.

While Ortiz's guest-starring role on the CBS drama Numb3rs this past Friday was his first high-profile delve into acting, Ortiz is not a complete rookie to TV and film roles. Over the past couple of years, when he wasn't busy knocking out Ken Shamrock for fun and profit, you may have seen Ortiz in such films as The Crow: Wicked Prayer and The Dog Problem.

Or, you might have missed those films, like I did. But it doesn't matter.

The difference between Ortiz then and Ortiz now is simple: He's now a huge star. Gigantic. Well, OK ... gigantic by MMA fighter standards. Put it this way: If you were to pin the recent success of UFC on the popularity of a single fighter, Ortiz is probably the guy you'd consider the biggest draw in that promotion. If anyone doubts that, just have a look at the numbers. (Pun? Nah ...). More than a million people paid $49.99 per TV set to watch Ortiz fight Chuck Liddell on Dec. 30.

Think about that for a minute. Consider all of the TV shows on the air that can't draw an audience for free, let alone an audience that will fork over $50 to watch just one episode, which doesn't even start until 10 p.m. on the East Coast. More than a million people did that for UFC on Dec. 30. The main event was Chuck Liddell vs. Tito Ortiz.

Ortiz lost to Liddell that night, but he remains UFC's most charismatic fighter at the main event level. Win or lose, he's fun to watch.

And that's why Ortiz gets opportunities in Hollywood like his guest-starring role in Numb3rs. CBS even promoted the Ortiz appearance ahead of time, which is something you only do if you believe the public will care, right?

Another disclaimer of sorts: I am a sucker for athletes making cameo appearances in TV and film. That said, I tuned in to Numb3rs to catch Tito Ortiz' latest performance. He did well, but then again, the role wasn't much of a stretch.

In the episode titled Contenders, Ortiz played the role of a main-event MMA fighter who becomes a suspect in an investigation into the deaths of other top-level MMA fighters during training.

I'll give you a second to wrap your head around the idea of Tito Ortiz playing the role of a main-event MMA fighter.

What intrigued me before the episode aired was obviously not the idea of Ortiz playing (basically) himself, but the notion of Ortiz as a murder suspect. I've seen my share of crime dramas on TV. Usually, the role of a murder suspect requires some pretty deep acting skills.

I thought perhaps I would see Ortiz in a sketchy environment plotting the untimely demise of a hated rival. Maybe mixing poison into someone's can of Xyience energy drink or sewing a razorblade into a guy's gloves. At the very least, I wanted to see Ortiz under heavy police interrogation. "Tell me where the body is, punchy!" "You'll never make me tap out, detective!"

Unfortunately, Ortiz was only in one scene. He was shown speaking to the media during a pre-fight press conference. His most dramatic line involved a threat to come off the stage and rough up a journalist. At no time was Ortiz shown under interrogation (except by the media), at a crime scene, or even in the cage fighting someone else. He just stood on the stage, running his mouth.

It's safe to assume that Tito Ortiz is pretty comfortable in that environment. It's a good look for him. He does it well, and he did it well on Numb3rs. He was perfectly cast in his role.

There is nothing new about "special guest star" athletes playing roles very similar to, or literally appearing as, themselves. Most of the time, they have been given the guest shot because they are famous already. Which means people like them for who they are in the real world, which for Tito Ortiz, means people like him as an outspoken MMA fighter.

Again, I'm not a TV writer or casting expert. But logically, if you're going to cast a famous athlete on a TV show, why not have them portray themselves, if that's how fans want to see them? Give the people what they want, and the people just might reward you with ratings.

Consider this incredibly random list of pro athletes who have guest-starred on network TV, "acting" as themselves:

• Boxer "Marvelous" Marvin Hagler on 1980s sitcom Punky Brewster. Hagler (as himself) gave a speech at Punky's school that inspired Punky to stand up to a bully.

• Chicago Bears legend William "The Refrigerator" Perry on a 1986 episode of The A-Team. Perry (as himself) assists Mr. T and fellow guest star Hulk Hogan in helping out a troubled kid with an alcoholic parent.

• Figure skater Dorothy Hamill on a 1983 episode of Diff'rent Strokes. Hamill (as herself) convinces Kimberly Drummond (Dana Plato) to move to Los Angeles to train to become a figure skater.

• Baseball greats Reggie Jackson, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Johnny Bench, and Harmon Killebrew on a 1989 episode of Mr. Belvedere. I do not remember exactly what the baseball legends (as themselves) did on this episode. But as long as they didn't leave any streaks on the china, who cares?

From that brief assortment of guest-starring roles, you can deduce two things:

I am stuck in a 1980s pop culture vortex.
Athletes playing themselves is a tried-and-true TV formula that will never go away.
At least on Numb3rs, they gave Tito Ortiz a fake character name in a token attempt to distance "real Tito" from "acting Tito." After all, the real Tito Ortiz would never kill a guy. Especially not some smart-aleck who made light of his dramatic acting gig on a major network.

Please don't hit me, Tito.


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