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Sunday, October 4, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movies -- Prefontaine's Tragic Life Gets Another Onscreen Run

Seattle Times Movie Reviewer

The Oregon track-star hero of Robert Towne's new movie, "Without Limits," doesn't win the race at the Munich Olympics, he doesn't get the girl and he dies at 24 in a car wreck.

In other words, the true story of Steve Prefontaine doesn't exactly sound like box-office gold. But Towne, the 63-year-old, Oscar-winning screenwriter of "Chinatown," has wanted for more than 20 years to film it.

Disney beat him to it. Their version, "Prefontaine," starring Jared Leto and filmed partly in Seattle, came and went quickly more than a year ago.

Towne's version, which was originally called "Pre" and was filmed in Oregon with Billy Crudup as Prefontaine, was supposed to be released in 1997. But Warner Bros. kept pushing the date back, partly to avoid competition with the "Prefontaine" videotape.

Now Disney is pushing back the opening date of its new based-on-fact track drama, "Endurance," to stay out of the way of "Without Limits." It probably won't open until next year, while "Without Limits" recently opened in New York to strong reviews. It's scheduled to arrive here soon, possibly on Friday.

"Warner Bros. doesn't know how to sell it," said Towne during a Seattle visit. "When the Disney picture came out, Barry Reardon (Warners' chief) said `The good news is the other movie died. The bad news is the other movie died.' "

Towne's version probably wouldn't have run into such difficulties if Tom Cruise, who ended up as the film's co-producer, had played Prefontaine. Towne and Cruise worked together on several pictures, including "Days of Thunder" and "The Firm," and at one point Cruise wanted to play the leading role.

"Tom read the script and loved it, but he finally said, `I'm 35, I've got a wife and kids and I've been around too long.' I told him he could still play a teenager, but he thought no one would buy it, that it would be a mistake for the movie. But I got to know Tom over the years, and the character is still partly Tom."

As co-producer, Cruise was able to convince Warner Bros. to come up with the $25 million budget.

"That's over half of what Disney spent, though it's still fairly low these days," said Towne. "And we came in under budget. It's a labor of love. We did everything we could to make it as well-made as possible."

"Without Limits" has its roots in 1982's "Personal Best," another Oregon-filmed track drama that marked Towne's directing debut. Kenny Moore, one of Prefontaine's friends, had appeared in that picture, and he eventually made a Prefontaine documentary, "Fire on the Track."

Patrice Donnelly, the star of "Personal Best," worked as Crudup's trainer on "Without Limits." Moore and Towne share the script credit on the new picture.

"It really started with me and Kenny, three years before we did `Personal Best,' " said Towne. "He had run with Pre. When Kenny did the part in `Personal Best,' I began to hear about Steve, what he meant to Kenny, what he meant to everybody."

Also involved in the film was Prefontaine's girlfriend, Mary Marckz, played by Monica Potter.

"Mary was the real love of his life," said Towne. "Kenny was a friend of hers, and she gave us at least 200 of Steve's love letters. It was a very old-fashioned relationship. That's probably the boldest part of the movie."

Marckz also filled in some information about Prefontaine's relationship with his mother, although for Towne "Without Limits" is primarily about Prefontaine and his coach,, Bill Bowerman. The latter cooperated to the extent of allowing Towne to film several scenes with Donald Sutherland playing Bowerman in Bowerman's home.

"That's his home, his backyard, his kitchen," said Towne. "That's where it took place.

"The heart of it was Bill and Steve. The heart of the story was two eccentric Oregon originals. Both taught and were taught by one another."

Towne sees the picture as a change from so many of the Hollywood movies he first worked on, including "Bonnie and Clyde," "The Godfather" and "Chinatown."

"Coming out of the 1970s, our films were about what was wrong with the world," he said. "With `The Godfather,' `Taxi Driver,' `Chinatown,' you had a communal relationship with the audience. You'd nod and say, `I've seen that, too.'

"But this is the first time in my adult life I've been dealing with characters I really respected. I don't want to be sappy about it, but they fought and were tough with each other and they loved each other."

He now thinks that Crudup, who has appeared in such films as "Sleepers" and "Inventing the Abbotts," was the best possible choice.

"He was a wrestler in high school, he's built a little like Steve, and he worked out for a year to get in shape," said Towne.

"It all worked out for the best. I was very happy to find him. The first time I met him, I felt this self-assurance bordering on arrogance. There was an unmistakable intensity, and he really wanted to do it. It was the attitude I liked."

The reviews so far reflect his confidence in Crudup. Indeed, Movieline magazine picked Crudup's portrayal as one of the "top 10 performances" by young actors, claiming that he makes the character's "process of change suspenseful even to a moviegoer who cares nothing for the legend of Pre - or for the glory of running in circles."

Tommy Lee Jones, Clint Eastwood and Harrison Ford were all considered for the role of Bill.

"Donald Sutherland was my last choice," Towne admitted. "I was forced to use him, but I watched him transform himself in some of those takes. It was like wanting George Raft for `Casablanca' when Bogart wanted to do it all along. He was happy to do it and he couldn't have been better."

Editing the film was a major headache, "like dealing with a multi-dimensional chess game," said Towne, because of all the matching of light and film stocks. Most of "Without Limits" is re-creation, but it also includes footage of the real Prefontaine.

"Six shots in one race are of Steve," said Towne. "You go from Steve to Billy to Steve to Billy and you can't tell. Disney didn't allow us to use the ABC footage (of the Olympics) because they bought ABC, so we had to go elsewhere." One of the sources was "Visions of Eight," a documentary about several different athletes competing in Munich.

"Some of the Olympics shots were from unexposed film for `Visions of Eight,' which allowed us to go back and show the entire Munich stadium."

The movie's cinematographer, Conrad Hall, couldn't see how it was all going to match up.

"He felt the footage was the most confusing mess he'd ever seen," said Towne. "He was concerned that nothing was going to match. He so cares about his work. But when we put it together, he cried for 10 minutes. He was so proud of this movie."

Towne still gets a lot of work as a script doctor, sometimes credited, sometimes not. His name has appeared in connection with a number of recent blockbusters, including "Armageddon" and "Mission Impossible." He distances himself from some of these, including "Days of Thunder," insisting that most of that picture was "left in the editing room."

He's hoping to get a more ambitious, personal picture off the ground soon.

"It's something I've wanted to do for a long time," he said, "an epic spanning from 1964 to 1988."

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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