Roger Donoghue: Everybody Knew

By Clarence George on January 9, 2016
Roger Donoghue: Everybody Knew
Roger Donoghue, Abe Simon, Tami Mauriello, Lee Oma, and Tony Galento in Hoboken, N.J.

Schulberg once asked Donoghue, “Could you have been a champion?” Well, Donoghue answered, “I could have been a contender…”

“We’d go in a bar and two minutes later the bartender is his best friend.”—Budd Schulberg

Born in Yonkers, New York, on November 20, 1930, Roger Donoghue fought as a welter from 1948 to 1952, winding up with an impressive record of 27 wins, 17 by knockout, four losses, two by knockout, and one draw.

Although most of his fights took place at Brooklyn’s Ridgewood Grove, Donoghue finally got his shot at the Mecca, Madison Square Garden, on August 29, 1951. He wasn’t happy with his opponent, however, Brooklyn’s George Flores, as he’d already stopped him by eighth-round TKO earlier that month. He did it even more definitively this time around, stopping him by eighth-round KO. As a result of the injuries sustained in the two Donoghue fights, and perhaps in others (he’d also been stopped by Chico Vejar and Johnny Cerky), Flores died that September 3. He was 19.

It was this tragedy that led New York State to decree that a fighter stay out of the ring for at least a month following a knockout.

Donoghue donated his purse to the Flores family, but that didn’t stop the haunting. There was the time a boy came up to him on the street, “You killed a man,” he said. “I’m going to tell everybody.” No need, Donoghue told him, “They already know.”

Gutted, Donoghue had three more fights before quitting the ring for good.

He got work promoting Rheingold at sporting events until a fairy godfather by the name of Elia Kazan offered him $75 a day (around $650 in today’s money) to teach Marlon Brando how to box for his role as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront.

There were other boxers on the set. Screenwriter Budd Schulberg had the idea of hiring former heavyweights to portray mob muscle, as opposed to the usual Hollywood heavies. “I’ve seen the real mob goons down on the docks,” Schulberg told Kazan, “and I know what they look like, and I think we should bring in real fighters.” To Schulberg’s pleasure and surprise, Kazan gave him the green light. “Great,” he said, “bring them in.” As a result, Abe Simon, Tami Mauriello, and Tony Galento got the roles of, respectively, Barney, Tullio, and Truck, while Lee Oma was cast as the black-shirted bartender. As Martin Scorsese remembers, “The shirt the bartender wears, everything, is literally as if it was shot in, like, on Elizabeth Street or Mott Street or Mulberry Street.”

Schulberg once asked Donoghue how far he might have gone if he’d stayed in the ring. “Could you have been a champion?” Well, Donoghue answered, “I could have been a contender.” A seemingly throwaway line, but “it really stuck in my mind,” said Schulberg, who wasn’t the only writer Donoghue influenced. The title of Norman Mailer’s novel, Tough Guys Don’t Dance, comes from an anecdote the one-time boxer told him. Mobster Frank Costello comes into the Stork Club with gorgeous gal in tow. “Dance with her,” commands “The Prime Minister” upon spying three boxing champs. Knowing the difference between gangster-tough and boxer-tough, the three men do as they’re bid. But one of them, Willie Pep, wonders aloud why Costello doesn’t dance with her himself. After all, she’s his hottie. Snarls Costello, “Tough guys don’t dance.”

Speaking of hotties, Donoghue encouraged fellow welterweight Joe Miceli to go all out against Art Aragon by taking him to the set of Hot Blood, starring full-figured Jane Russell (38D-25-36). Beat Aragon, Donoghue told him, and any woman on the set is yours. No, “Not that one. That’s Jane Russell.” Miceli beat Aragon by unanimous decision at Los Angeles’ Olympic Auditorium on August 4, 1955.

Hot Blood was directed by Nicholas Ray, who wanted to do a movie based on Donoghue’s life, starring James Dean, but the project was shelved following Dean’s death.

Years later, Donoghue had the pleasure of meeting James Cagney, telling him that he’d taught Brando how to fight for Waterfront, but that he hadn’t taught him anything about acting. “You could have taught him something there, too,” said the Hollywood legend. But Donoghue liked Brando, and the feeling was mutual. In the scene in The Godfather, where Sonny Corleone (James Caan) beats up brother-in-law Carlo Rizzi (Gianni Russo), there’s a Rheingold truck prominently in the background, courtesy of Brando. You can bet your bottom dollar that if Donoghue had knocked Brando out on the set, as Tony Zale did to Paul Newman on Somebody Up There Likes Me, there’d have been no Rheingold truck as a backdrop to Sonny chewing on Carlo’s fingers.

Greeting everyone he knew, or didn’t know, with a “Hey, Champ” and a chuck under the chin (including Salvador Dali, which I would have paid money to see), Donoghue was friends with boxers, writers, gangsters, all sorts of interesting people, and there was much sadness when he died from complications from Alzheimer’s in Greenport, New York, on August 20, 2006, age 75.

Said wife of 43 years, Fay Moore, a renowned painter of thoroughbred horses, “I liked him because he was good looking. Wasn’t that good enough? And he had beautiful legs.”

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On the Waterfront - Trailer [1954] [27th Oscar Best Picture]

I Coulda Been a Contender - On the Waterfront (6/8) Movie CLIP (1954) HD

Rod Steiger talks about Marlon Brando & the taxi-scene of 'On the Waterfront' (1954)

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  1. Mike Silver 07:56pm, 01/10/2016


  2. Clarence George 04:20pm, 01/10/2016

    Ha!  How ‘bout Joey Giardello vs. Willie Troy?

  3. Mike Silver 03:50pm, 01/10/2016

    Just testing you George, just testing. Well done.

  4. Clarence George 02:25pm, 01/10/2016

    A worthy guess, Mike, but I don’t think so.  I looked it up—Gavilan-Jones took place at the Garden, all right, but in August.  The story takes place in a much colder month, say, November or March.  Aha!

  5. Mike Silver 11:29am, 01/10/2016

    Clarence, I think it was Kid Gavilan vs. Tiger Jones.

  6. Clarence George 02:11am, 01/10/2016

    Gold star, Mike.  Persoff is still with us, rapidly coming up on 100.  He quit acting a long time ago and became a successful artist.  Whoever was on the card that night, Charley never got to see it.

  7. Mike Silver 10:56pm, 01/09/2016

    Nehemia Persoff- a great character actor. The expression on his face after Terry leaves the cab and Charley says “You, take me to the Garden” says it all.  Wonder who was fighting that night?

  8. Clarence George 07:47pm, 01/09/2016

    Wonderful posts, Mike, thank you.  I’d completely forgotten about Indrisano.  His was a weird death, I remember that.  I know the scene you mean, where Lee J. Cobb slaps the cigar out of the guy’s mouth.  Who’s also in there, who had a bit part as a thug, is Fred Gwynne.  And here’s a trivia question:  Who was driving the taxi?  Uncredited, and you only see him for a moment, but he’s among the greatest character actors of all time.

  9. Mike Silver 07:15pm, 01/09/2016

    There are at least two films of Roger Donoghue’s fights but couldn’t find them on YouTube. He was a tall welterweight with a rangy style whose best punch was a left hook. He indeed “could have been a contender.”

  10. Mike Silver 07:08pm, 01/09/2016

    Met Roger Donahue for an interview I did in Ring magazine back in the early 90s. He told me that Nick Ray wanted to get him work in Hollywood as technical director for fight scenes and boxing movies but “another guy” had that department locke up so he couldn’t get any work. I assumed “another guy” was ex-welter contender Johnny Indrisano whose name appeared in almost every Hollywood fight film as “technical director” in the 1950s. Roger was a gentleman and highly intelligent. By the way, if you look quickly enough you will see young Roger standing in the background in an early scene where “Johnny Friendly” is doling out the week’s take to his cronies and tells a flunky who angered him to “go back to Greenpoint”!

  11. Clarence George 11:37am, 01/09/2016

    As you may know, Eric, Jack O’Halloran was (or at least claims to be) the illegitimate son of Albert Anastasia.

    However forgotten, Irish, Henry Daniell was a top-flight character actor, while Basil Rathbone remains the quintessential Sherlock Holmes.

  12. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 10:13am, 01/09/2016

    Eric-That drunk actor was Timothy Carey, the great American actor who happened to be bat shit crazy. He was a highly thought of by Cassavetes and was an inspiration for Tarantino. “I don’t even drink or smoke. I’m just enthusiastic. I don’t need any stimulation.” (Timothy Carey)

  13. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 09:45am, 01/09/2016

    Clarence George-“I’m sure my questions to you have already crossed your mind.” (Henry Daniell as Professor Moriarty) “No doubt my answers have already crossed yours.” (Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes) You just gotta’ love it!

  14. Eric 09:42am, 01/09/2016

    Irish…Great movie and loads of great scenes. Love the jail break scene where Brando lays out Slim Pickens and the scene where Rio takes out the drunk guy abusing the senorita. The whipping post scene is another memorable scene that sticks out.

  15. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 09:30am, 01/09/2016

    Eric-“One Eyed Jacks”....the scene where Brando blows up on Ben Johnson was epic, but for me the most stunning part was Ben Johnson’s wordless reaction, probably the best portrayal ever of someone who was scared shitless.

  16. Eric 08:59am, 01/09/2016

    Ex-boxers as mob goons? Jack O’Halloran & Tex Cobb immediately come to mind as two guys who were made for that role. Trow in a Dino Denis or a Chuck Wepner as well. Wepner for some reason always reminds me of Richard Kuklinski.  Brando made some fine movies in his day. My personal favorites were, “One-Eyed Jacks” & “The Fugitive Kind.”

  17. Clarence George 07:43am, 01/09/2016

    So glad you liked it, Mr. Beregi (and what a superb—Hungarian!—character actor you were, in both comedies and dramas), and what a great post.  From what you say, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he was already suffering from Alzheimer’s at the time of your meeting.  Ha!  I don’t really get Tony into all of my stories; it just seems like I do.  Anyway, impossible to write about “On the Waterfront” from a boxing perspective without at least mentioning Mr. Two Ton.

    All the best,

    Will Kuluva

    Thanks very much, NYI.  I assume he was in an assisted living facility in Greenport, as he and his wife lived in the National Arts Club in Manhattan.  I think she’s still alive, by the way, though she must be in her 90s.

    Great post, Irish, thankee.

  18. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 07:09am, 01/09/2016

    Clarence George-I can’t top Oscar Beregi’s post….won’t even try! I always wondered who trained Marlon to work the body in his showdown fight with Lee J.Cobb. I sat ringside in the row in front of Schulberg, his wife Ceraldine and another couple at the first Quarry/London fight at the Olympic….I could tell he wasn’t too impressed with Jerry’s showing that night….I was kinda’ disappointed myself.

  19. NYIrish 06:57am, 01/09/2016

    Great story Clarence. I hadn’t heard of Donoghue. Been a big fan of Schulberg and On the Waterfront since I was a kid. Nice to read the back story on Terry Malloys famous line. At least Donoghue finished up in Greenport, a beautiful spot on the east end of Long Island.

  20. Oscar Beregi 06:37am, 01/09/2016

    Mr. George: Fantastic story on Roger Donoghue. I had always known about his fatal fight with Flores and his involvement with On the Waterfront, but had never met him until one night at a Long Island bar in the early to mid 1990s. The bartender knew of my interest in boxing and introduced me to him. He was in his cups, and we did not have the best of discussions but I detected a pain in his face, which might have been a result of my own imagination. I never brought up the Flores fight, but we did talk about Brando and Budd Schulberg, but it was hard to get much from him. He died about 10 years later so he might have been in the early stages of Alzheimers. What I remember most about him was how gentle he looked.  He had a kind, priestly face and, unless I was told, would never have guessed he was a prizefighter. Not a scratch or a scar on his visage. I love the way you weave Two Ton into all of your stories. Despite his ample girth and bombastic personality, you squeeze him in. Great work.

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