Robb Skyler Brings Howard Cosell's Iconic Voice to 'Hands of Stone'

Photo Credit: Robb Skyler
July 21st, 2016

Roberto Duran is one of the greatest boxers in history and Hollywood deems him worthy to have his story hit the big screen. The film, which hits theaters on August 26th, is called Hands of Stone and has several A-list actors including: Ellen Barkin, John Turturro and the great Robert De Niro. The film revolves around Roberto’s (Edgar Ramírez) relationship with his trainer, Ray Arcel (De Niro), during the pinnacle of his career. 

Anyone who saw, or heard, these famous fights undoubtedly remembers the voice that guided the blow by blow, Howard Cosell. His legendary voice and personality were unmatched by anyone in sports broadcasting and earned him the title of The All-Time Best Sportscaster by TV Guide in 1993. Howard is played in the film by veteran comedian and actor Robb Skyler who sat down with us here at TheMovieNetwork.com and told us about Hands of Stone, his love for boxing and Howard Cosell.

Nick Leyland from TMN: Boxing is a great sport. When I was a kid, it was the era of Mike Tyson but Hands of Stone is set before that, correct? 

Robb Skyler: Yes, it is. And I'm glad you mentioned Tyson with regards to that reference, because oftentimes, and I don't know how old you are, Nick, but suffice to say, you're younger than that era, but Roberto Duran was Mike Tyson before Mike Tyson. He was that ferocious, that much of a beast with that game face, with that persona, with that machismo, in and around the ring, before Mike Tyson. With the passing of Muhammad Ali, whom not only was my favorite fighter but regarded as one of the greatest fighters of all time, certainly one of the greatest heavyweight fighters, but transcending the weight class and so on and so forth, Roberto Duran in a very large section, special section of the LA Times, which was entirely dedicated to not only the passing of Ali, but boxing as a whole, Roberto Duran was ranked either one before or one after Muhammad Ali as one of the greatest fighters, transcending weight class, pound for pound, all-time.

TMN: And is this film a sort of a documentary style or is it more of a fiction style with some truths to it? 

Robb Skyler: Well, it's certainly not a documentary, and Oliver Stone is a revisionary documentary dramatist, so to speak. So I would say neither. It's a biopic. It's a biopic and it chronicles the beginnings of Roberto as a little boy growing up in Panama and coming from extreme impoverished beginnings. I mean, extreme impoverished beginnings. And it carries on all the way through his career, and a big chunk of his story revolves around him and what became not only his trainer, a hall of fame trainer at that, a Brooklyn Jewish fellow named Ray Arcel which is remarkably played by Robert De Niro and Edgar Ramirez is wonderfully portraying Roberto Duran. It's their relationship, that trainer and boxer, and father and son, and mentor and student relationship that drives the storyline. That union from vastly different cultures and vastly different worlds coming together in unison, having a phenomenal, a transcendent bond. But no, it is a biopic and it is certainly classified as such. Raging Bull was a biopic about Jake LaMotta starring Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci. Albeit ironically that movie came out at the time of the two biggest fights of Roberto Duran's career, which were both against Sugar Ray Leonard. And both of those fights are very prominently depicted and on display in the film, and are arguably two of the largest, lengthiest, most dramatic scenes in the movie.

TMN: You play the famous sports announcer Howard Cosell.

Robb Skyler: Yes, I do. Yes, I do. I have my showbiz roots steeped in stand-up comedy. I toured as a stand-up comic 10 years before I started to venture out and focus on film and TV, which has been my focus, I don't tour anymore. That being said, yes, Howard Cosell is the most iconic sports broadcaster in the history of broadcasting, absolutely. Right up there with alternative forms of broadcasting, like you've heard of Walter Cronkite and Walter Winchell and anybody else that comes to mind in the realm of straight news broadcasting. But Howard Cosell transcended boxing, although boxing was probably what put him on the map first in the '60s, the '70s, and '80s. He was singularly the most recognizable voice force.

Other than a fighter wearing boxing gloves, he sometimes superseded the boxing matches himself. He was also the cornerstone of Monday Night Football. He announced to the world that John Lennon had been shot during Monday Night Football. He was the commentator on World Series, the Olympics, a weekly magazine-style show on ABC called Wide World of Sports, which back in the day every Saturday was the go-to source for whatever happened in the world of sports from week to week. He was a host of a variety show in prime time. He hosted specials, Battle of the Network Stars, which was back in the '70s, he appeared in movies, and certainly on radio somewhere in the world on a daily basis.

TMN: And he had some balls! I watched some videos of him with Muhammad Ali where he pretty much eggs Muhammad Ali on the whole time.

Robb Skyler: Well, there was a trilogy, so to speak, were three acts in Muhammad Ali's career. There was the younger, first coming on the scene, brash, trashy... They said he was the originator of trash-talking. But nobody knew what to do with Muhammad Ali, AKA formerly known as Cassius Clay. So in the early '60s, in the mid '60s, when anybody had a microphone near or around Ali, they didn't know what to do with him. They didn't know how to handle him. And as you say Cosell had balls. Yes, he had balls! He was brash, he was blustery, he was buoyant, he was bigger than life, larger than life. And he wouldn't hesitate to put Ali in his place. What happened was then after that era, Ali took a stance, refused to go in and be inducted into the Armed Services to fight in Vietnam. Refused flat-out. Was banned from boxing for three-and-a-half years.

It was five years before he got reinstated and was allowed to fight in his chosen profession and was exonerated without trial, and you might say the charges were dropped. But during that interim period of time it was Howard Cosell, a New York Jewish Caucasian that had Ali's back. And in a time of civil unrest, of rioting, of Martin Luther King, it was Howard Cosell that was you might say diametrically opposite of Muhammad Ali, that had his back and said, "This man has the right to believe this." And I believe not the only one at that, Nick, that if it were not for personas such as Howard Cosell mirroring the conviction of a Muhammad Ali on moral ground and religious grounds, had he not had Muhammad Ali's back, I think Muhammad Ali would eventually gone into prison, for a long time. And then after that they forged a bond whereby it was organic how they came to have a routine. Like two musicians just walking into a room spontaneously picking up instruments and just riffing, it was such a natural fit. They were such an odd couple but yet it worked, and it worked brilliantly and it was great entertainment.

The Weinstein Company

(Robert De Niro, Rubén Blades, and Edgar Ramírez in Hands of Stone)

TMN: Were most of your scenes doing announcing or did you have more?

Robb Skyler: There was one scene where outside of the preparation of the ring, there was two... Howard Cosell had two voices, so to speak, and two game faces. He had the preparation before the fight where he's setting the stage, setting the scene for the audience whether it be on radio or TV or closed-circuit TV back in the day before there was Pay Per View. Whoever was watching so to speak, he would set that stage, he would paint very broad strokes, very dramatic strokes, very magnanimous strokes whereby he would basically let everybody know what was going on, the meaning behind it, the subtext, the importance of the event and in a certain sense was the narrator in that regard.

And then once the fight started, he had a little bit of a different voice, literally and figuratively, because Howard Cosell became a fan. And when he spoke of the fight precipitously before the first bell rang, it was one type of a voice. And then when he's reporting blow by blow the action in the fight itself, his voice gets higher. It gets a little bit faster cadence. And I was lucky enough with the tutelage and direction of Jonathan Jakubowicz, who was an unbelievable director to work with. He expanded and kept expanding my voice-over role. So I had most of my stuff on camera was speeches where I'm just speaking to the audience, but I did have some interaction with Edgar playing Roberto Duran as well. But most of the lion's share of what I did was more in the broadcasting mode before and during the fight.

TMN: Did you get to hang with Roberto at all? Did he come to the set?

Robb Skyler: No, he was not around. He was out of town. I don't know if that was by his own design or choice. I know I will meet him at one of the premieres, I'm certain of that. But I did have the pleasure to get to know his son Robin Duran, Robby Duran. And hung out at Roberto Duran's bar and grill, which Robin Duran operated in a presiding sense of the restaurant, the establishment. So I hung out there. I got to speak with him and get to know him a little bit and on set. And I've said before and I'll say again, one can tell an awful lot about a person by their children. Not their toddlers, but their young adult children. And Robin Duran was a prince, prince of a young man. So that tells me a lot about Roberto without not yet having had the privilege of meeting him, and I will. Which his legacy in and around the ring, Roberto was an animal. You mentioned Tyson and you remember Tyson, but if you also know Tyson, there's a soft, gentle side to him, and I have a very strong intuition that by virtue of having to get the opportunity to meet Roberto's son Robin that Roberto Duran is just a wonderful human being and I'm looking forward to meeting him at the premiere.