ESPN revealed its fall lineup of documentary films, as well as its upcoming series "Rise Up" at the Television Critics Association summer press tour in Beverly Hilton Wednesday.
Beginning Tuesday, Sept. 27 at 8 p.m., ESPN Films will air seven documentary films under its "30 for 30" banner on consecutive Tuesdays, on topics ranging from boxer Chuck Wepner, the inspiration behind the "Rocky" films, to former Boston Celtics player Chris Herren, who spiraled into addiction during his playing career.
In "The Real Rocky" (debuting on October 25), director Jeff Feuerzeig tells the story of New Jersey-born former heavyweight Wepner, nicknamed "the Bayonne Bleeder," who served as Sylvester Stallone's inspiration when crafting his Rocky Balboa character. (Among Wepner's other accomplishments: He went 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali, knocking the champ down during the bout, and boxed a 900-pound bear.)
Producer Mike Tollin said that the relative obscurity of Wepner's tale was a big part of the appeal of making the film.
"It is part of mythology that there is a guy who inspired Sylvester Stallone; yes, Stallone has said it; it's on the record, but it's really not that well known," Tollin noted. "It gives us an opportunity to treat this thing almost like fiction — you can tell the story as you choose."
"Unguarded," meanwhile, will chronicle Herren's struggle toward sobriety, after hitting rock-bottom. Though Herren has written a book on the subject, "Basketball Junkie: A Memoir," the former NBA player says that this project (debuting October 18) will differ in that it will focus on his period of recovery. (Herren noted during the panel that he is approaching his third year of sobriety.)
"When [producer] Jon [Hock] came along and we talked about doing documentary, I was more interested in shedding light on addiction and shedding light on the recovery process," Herren noted. "To me, that's the beauty of it."
ESPN films' documentary slate will also include "Catching Hell" (Sept. 27.); "Renée" (Oct. 4); the Morgan Spurlock-directed "The Dotted Line" (Oct. 18); "Charismatic" (Nov. 1); and "Roll Tide/War Eagle" (Nov. 8).
The ESPN panel also unveiled the new original series "Rise Up," which travels to four cash-strapped schools in order to provide much-needed aid to their athletic programs.
Though NBC aired a similar program, "School Pride," last year, ESPN executive producer, content development Joan Lynch said that "Rise Up" will take a more multi-faceted approach, focusing on the physical benefits of athletic programs.
"I think the biggest difference between our program and what NBC did is that they were more aligned the cosmetic [aspects of renovation]," Lynch said. "ESPN does nutrition, injury prevention — it is very specific to [the] athletic and the physical education side and the movement side."
The series' host, ESPN college football analyst Chris Spielman, noted that a robust athletics program also has the ripple effect of boosting morale among the student body.
"School pride still means something," Spielman said of the students they worked with on the series. When a renovation project is undertaken, the students "sign their names to their school; they all want to do well, they all want the opportunity to participate in sports."
The four-episode "Rise Up," which chronicles the renovation campaigns of athletic programs at schools in Boston, Seattle, Wellston, Ohio, and Chicago, premieres on Tuesday, Sept. 13 at 7 p.m., and will continue on Tuesdays at 7 through Oct. 4.