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A cheesy moment from Sam Jackson, the actor who would be King

By Howard Pousner
hpousner@ajc.com

The casting of Samuel L. Jackson as Martin Luther King Jr. in Atlanta director Kenny Leon’s Broadway production of “The Mountaintop” this fall caused some double-takes. And it looks like there may be a few more with the posting of a YouTube trailer of Jackson’s upcoming action flick “Arena.”

Jackson is a movie actor known as much for fromage-fests such as “Snakes on a Plane,” “xXx” and “S.W.A.T.” as he is for acclaimed turns in “Pulp Fiction,” “Jackie Brown” and “Jungle Fever.” One of the hardest-working men in Hollywood, he’s a reliable scenery-chewer (when not in his more nuanced mode) who enjoys a payday and shows little discrimination in terms of choosing projects.

In “Arena,” which does not have an official release date yet, Jackson is the kingpin over a modern-day gladiator game in which online viewers vote on whether they want to see fighters survive or die an ugly death. Hunky, mostly shirtless Kellan Lutz (”Twilight”) plays a Denver firefighter forced into battle.

In the YouTube trailer, Jackson is shown at his hammiest, behind a kingly banquet table overflowing with food. “I’ll make you a proposition,” he tells Lutz’s character, “give me nine more fights and win and [Jackson's voice taking on a crazed tone] I’ll set ya free!

Viewers have not been moved. One YouTube commenter posted, “What happened to Samuel L Jackson? Does he really have to take this role?” Another wrote, “Thank you for this trailer. I am now 15% more dumber for watching it.”

Leon is unlikely to be phased by Jackson’s film work and the responses it provokes. The director and his star are long-time comrades dating to their Atlanta college days — Leon attended Clark  and Jackson studied at Morehouse (King’s alma mater) — who became closer as their careers progressed. When he cast Jackson, Leon said he was sure his pal possessed the chops and the gravity to portray MLK.

Memphis playwright Katori Hall’s Olivier-winning play is about the imagined last night of King’s life. Jackson will share the stage with another powerhouse, Angela Bassett, an old Florida high school friend of Leon’s, who portrays a mysterious maid.

“It’s not a retelling of what happened [in the civil rights movement], it’s just finding a way to introduce Dr. King to a new generation,” Leon told the AJC in a May interview. “And I think people seeing this story will understand the man Dr. King and not so much the iconic historical figure.”

“Mountaintop” begins previews Sept. 22 and opens Oct. 13 at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre (www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200).

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