Comedians have it tough when it comes to being taken seriously as actors. Their performances are consistently undervalued, possibly because comedy is perceived as an easier job than being a thespian. But it requires an uncommon drive to reach the heights of someone like Will Ferrell. A good actor tests himself, and Ferrell’s latest challenge apparently will be becoming John Madden in an upcoming biopic.
A few weeks ago, the sports world was shocked when Deadline.com reported that Oscar-nominated director David O. Russell is in talks with Ferrell to portray the former Oakland Raiders head coach in a Prime Video Sports Original.
Stunning news on many levels. First, it’s not like there was a sudden upswell for Madden’s unique story to be turned into a movie. He passed away in December 2021, a few days after Fox Sports aired a documentary about Madden’s life and legacy on Christmas Day. Second, no one could have predicted Ferrell and Russell would be attached to this project.
Sure, Ferrell loves starring in sports flicks with a comic twist. He has made films like Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Blades of Glory, Semi-Pro, and Kicking and Screaming. But those were all fictional fare. Now, he will be tasked to play a beloved real-life figure. Ferrell’s famous Harry Caray impression on Saturday Night Live is the closest thing we’ve seen to this. (He wanted to play Jerry Buss in HBO’s Winning Time in a role that went to John C. Reilly).
In acting, playing someone the audience already knows has its hurdles. Everyone will observe with preconceived notions. If your performance doesn’t match their expectations, they often won’t accept it. Madden meant something special to three different generations. To some, he was the Super Bowl-winning coach. To others, he was the wildly enthusiastic analyst for the biggest NFL games. Others only know him as the name of the most successful football video game of all time.
Ferrell, 55, must satisfy all three audiences. That is incredibly difficult, and he won’t please everybody. The movie, tentatively called Madden, is expected to focus on Madden transitioning to the broadcast booth and later his role in developing the Madden NFL video game.
For inspiration, Ferrell should look to Jim Carrey. Carrey is best known for his comic chops but has impressive acting skills (The Truman Show, Man on the Moon, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and I Love You Phillip Morris). The one performance that should resonate with Ferrell is Carrey’s work in Man on the Moon, the Andy Kaufman biopic.
Kaufman had such an avant-grade style it left many wondering how Carrey would pull it off. The fairest criticism of Carrey is that he too often falls back on his over-the-top habits. However, Carrey replicated Kaufman so well that he earned universal praise and Oscar buzz.
How accurately Ferrell can resemble Madden is questionable. They are about the same height (Ferrell is 6-foot-3, Madden was 6-4), but any other obvious physical similarities stop there. Ferrell is an avid long-distance runner. Madden was a heavier guy.
Makeup, costumes, body suits, and camera tricks can alter appearances. But for Ferrell to successfully connect with audiences, his interpretation of Madden must be convincing and not a caricature.
His drama work in films such as Stranger Than Fiction and Everything Must Go has shown us that Ferrell knows how to get into character. But he’s never had to represent one quite like this.
It’s a challenge, but Ferrell deserves credit for not playing it safe.