The Reel Deal

Johnny Knoxville is up to his old tricks. The megamasochistic Jackass, who's attached electrodes to his testicles and gone one-on-one with a Taser all in the name of "fun," is at it again. This time he's getting the snot kicked out of him … in table tennis. "Does it mean you're out of shape if you sweat playing Ping-Pong?" he mutters to himself as he chases down the ball that's been drilled past him. Out of shape? Not necessarily. Playing Leonard Flowers? More likely.

It's about a guy who pretends to be retarded so he can win in Special Olympics.

When you first hear the premise of The Ringer starring Knoxville as the title character and Special Olympics champ Flowers as his archrivaltwo questions spring to mind: 1) why didn't I think of trying that? and 2) how did this movie ever get made? Answers: 1) you're not one of the Farrelly brothers; and 2) it took five years and the casting of several intellectually disabled leads before Special Olympics signed off on the project.

"To look at him, you'd never know," says Deb Blackwood, over breakfast at LA's Mondrian Hotel. For 17 years, the San Antonio gym teacher has coached Flowers in Special Olympics (he competes in tennis, table tennis, hoops and bocci), while acting as his mentor and, for the past year, his landlord. To chat with the 33-year-old Flowers, you'd never know, either. Well, almost never.

Ask Flowers if he'd like some apple-smoked bacon and he says, "Yes, thanks very much." Ask how the hotel is and he tells you it's nice but he can't believe the front desk didn't have the comb Blackwood sent him to pick up. Sure, you notice the lisp when Flowers talks, but 95% of the time it hits your ears in a timely manner. The other 5%? That comes when you ask a question of some depth. For example: "If people watch this movie and have no idea you're intellectually disabled, is that a good thing or a bad thing?" Then there's a long silence while Flowers tries to collect his thoughts and push them past his lips in a coherent manner--usually to no avail, the words coming out in bits and pieces amounting to nothing more than bits and pieces. But even then, Flowers has the confidence of somebody who's answered your query as eloquently as the secretary of state. He doesn't sweat. He doesn't apologize. He just keeps eye contact with you and keeps flashing his 50,000-watt smile.

After breakfast, as you watch Flowers pal around with Knoxville at a photo shoot, you still have few clues that he's intellectually disabled. "I drive a car, I have a girlfriend, I have a job," he says between rolls of film. Four jobs, to be exact. By day he's a teacher's assistant in the Lifestrides program at San Antonio's Wilson Elementary. By night he's a bank janitor. By weekend? He mows lawns. And then there's his new acting career. When you see Flowers in The Ringer-as he runs, jumps and hurdles circles around Knoxville, you'd never know that he was--well, you get the point. "The joke on the set," says producer Peter Farrelly, "was that Leonard was actually the ringer."

It's a joke he's heard before.

In 1990, Flowers was 18 and competing in his second year of Special Olympics. Early in a basketball game, the opposing coach called time and asked to see proof that Flowers was, in fact, intellectually disabled, or, as they called it at the time, mentally retarded (MR for short). Why? For starters, the 5'6'' lefty point guard was carving the other team to shreds. Plus, Flowers doesn't have Down's syndrome or Fragile X or any other disability that manifests in obvious physical characteristics. He has what was known as highly-functioning MR.

At the time, anyone with an IQ of less than 80 was allowed to participate in Special Olympics (the threshold has since been "raised" to 70), and Flowers, who grew up with five siblings in San Antonio's rough Denver Heights neighborhood, tested time and again in the acceptable SO range. Nothing came of the challenge.

The next year, Flowers-who played tennis, hoops and football at Brackenridge High-won two silvers and a bronze in tennis at the International SO. By the time he'd nabbed two golds and a silver at the 1995 games, an icon had been born. "Leonard carries the message of all our participants," says SO Texas president and CEO Margaret Larsen. "People with intellectual disabilities can do anything." Besides winning 60-plus medals during his 16-year career, Flowers has become almost synonymous with Special Olympics. He speaks on behalf of SO some 50 times a year, and in 1998 he appeared on a Wheaties box. He's so well-known in SO circles that when Ringer director Barry Blaustein asked the organization to help cast an actual athlete in the role of cocky champ Jimmy Washington, Flowers was the first name offered.

"They showed me a tape of Leonard giving an interview, and it was like watching Rickey Henderson," Blaustein says. The smile, the bling and the shades all screamed Rickey. Or Deion. Or Chad Johnson. Adds Blaustein: "He had this look that said, I'm really hot s-." So hot, in fact, that Blaustein, who co-wrote the scripts for Coming to America, Boomerang and The Nutty Professor, shelved the idea of asking Eddie Murphy to play Jimmy and drove to San Antonio to meet Flowers. Blaustein took 10 minutes to explain the role of Jimmy Washington, then spent the next two hours in awe.

He asked Flowers to name his favorite actor. "Eddie Murphy," Flowers said. "What would you say to Eddie right now if you could?" Without skipping a beat, Flowers ripped a page right out of 48 Hrs.: "There's a new sheriff in town, Eddie, and his name is Leonard Flowers. Y'all be cool."

Blaustein knew he'd found his actor. Says the director: "He's really going to challenge people's perceptions." Which is precisely why Special Olympics isn't throwing a hissy over The Ringer. Quite the opposite, in fact.

"If you watch this movie and ever use the word retarded again," Larsen says, "shame on you." Not that The Ringer portrays Special Olympians as saints. When Knoxville's character scratches a CD that belongs to his SO roommate-played by intellectually disabled actor Edward Barbanellthe roomie's lack of coping skills leads to what may be the film's funniest scene. "Mentally challenged people are just like you and me," Knoxville says. "Everybody feels like they have to talk down to them real loud and slow, but you just have to talk to them on a real level, man."

For the 34-year-old actor, that means introducing Flowers to Jackass humor. Ten minutes into the photo shoot, with stylists giggling and the stars jelling like they were back on set, Knoxville says to Flowers, "We're on fire!" Flowers hits back with, "So hot!" after which the Tennessee-born Knoxville drops his Southern-fried punch line: "Hotter than a two-peckered owl." Both men cackle. Soon after, Knoxville suggests they reenact the poster from the 1979 Barbra Streisand boxing flick The Main Event. "I'm Ryan O'Neal," Knoxville says, and on cue Flowers mimics Babs' classic uppercut. "I love how you know the pose, Leonard," Knoxville says. "That's totally your gay trip going off." Flowers, and everyone else, can't stop laughing.

Moments later, Flowers lords over Knoxville like a matador, heel jammed in his co-star's back. The pose lasts for 25 minutes. "God, I'm going to kill you in Ping-Pong," says Knoxville, eating floor.

Sure will.