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From ESPN.com to the big screen with Don Van Natta, Jr., Will Ferrell

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The headline on the Aug. 25, 2013 ESPN.com article from senior writer Don Van Natta, Jr. seemed custom made for Hollywood: “The Match Maker: Bobby Riggs, The Mafia and The Battle of the Sexes.”

Some seven months later, the provocative story underneath that headline has been optioned to Chernin Entertainment to be made into a feature film with Will Ferrell attached.

Van Natta Jr., a Pulitzer Prize winner, takes Front Row behind-the-scenes of how it all came about:

What was your reaction when you found out the piece had been optioned and how did the process unfold?
Thrilled. When I read that Will Ferrell had agreed to play Bobby Riggs and co-produce “Match Maker,” I nearly fell off my chair. This is my first article to be optioned for a film and friends with film options keep warning me to dial back my expectations to less than zero. But that’s not easy – a very talented screenwriter, Steve Conrad, was just hired to write the screenplay.

When the piece was published last August, I began hearing almost immediately from film producers and production companies, including Peter Chernin and Jenno Topping of Chernin Entertainment, who obtained the rights. As I was writing the piece, I imagined it unfolding like a ‘70’s era movie. Bobby Riggs is a true-to-life character who was born for the big screen. Mix in some mobsters and an iconic moment in women’s rights and the ingredients fell into place. Of course, this was all in my own head, nothing more, so I was elated when others viewed it through the same lens.

How did the piece itself come about? And was timing it to the 40th anniversary of the “Battle of the Sexes” intentional?
Like any good story, it began with a tip. While working on my Babe Didrikson biography, “Wonder Girl,” I met a retired golf pro named Hal Shaw, who lives in Tampa, Fla. In December 2012, I heard Shaw wanted to tell a story that he had kept to himself for nearly four decades. . . Last spring, Shaw told the story to my Outside the Lines colleagues and me. And it became the foundation for more reporting that raised additional questions about the match. The timing of Shaw’s call was fortuitous because it came nine months before the 40th anniversary of the iconic tennis match, last Sept. 20.

Beyond Will Ferrell as Bobby Riggs, who would you cast as Billie Jean King and others from your story?
Kate McKinnon has already played an uncanny Billie Jean King on “Saturday Night Live.” Kristin Wiig would also be a fabulous BJK. In this Battle of the Sexes story, there are mob leaders, in their 60s and 70s, so it will be fun to see who gets tapped to play them. And there is an important character named Gardner Mulloy, a 100-year-old former tennis player who was a close friend of Bobby Riggs. Mulloy had beseeched Riggs to prepare for the King match when all Riggs wanted to do was party. Mulloy was 60 years old in 1973; I’d love to see James Woods or Christopher Walken play him.

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