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William Baldwin's support adds weight to wrestling championships

Thursday, March 25, 1999

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It's been a long time since William Baldwin crouched on a high school wrestling mat and faced his 98-pound opponents. That was many weight classes ago, but the actor has never forgotten the lessons the sport imparted.

"In terms of instilling the values of mental toughness and work ethic and discipline, it's the gift that keeps on giving," says Baldwin, a high school and college wrestler. "I always equate wrestling to having been in the Marine Corps," as his father was. "It's the kind of experience you couldn't get rid of, if you wanted to."

Not that you would want to, of course.

William and brother Alec Baldwin are expected in Pittsburgh today for the start of the 10th annual National High School Wrestling Championships and Convention.

William, who is married to Chynna Phillips, recently starred opposite Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Sutherland in the sci-fi thriller "Virus." He also has appeared in "Backdraft," "Flatliners" and "Internal Affairs." Older brother Alec, husband of Kim Basinger, has a long list of credits including "The Edge," "Malice," "Glengarry Glen Ross" and, on Broadway and television, "A Streetcar Named Desire."

In addition to the actors, more than 700 high school seniors, 800 coaches and 5,000 spectators will converge on the city this weekend for the wrestling event. Today's schedule includes a coaches and officials banquet, with the preliminary rounds starting tomorrow at the A.J. Palumbo Center. Finals will be Sunday.

William - or Billy, as he is also known - Baldwin is the national spokesman for the event, and it's unlikely a more enthusiastic one could be found. He knows that serious wrestling does not usually garner much ink or TV time.

"Wrestling's not a sport that gets the coverage it deserves. It's not a mainstream sport, and there are several reasons for that. It's frustrating and it's disappointing, because it is the greatest game of all," he says, in that sort of raspy, distinctive voice that he and his brothers share.

It's not that Baldwin doesn't appreciate other sports. He's played baseball and football but says, "Wrestling is both a team sport and an individual sport all wrapped up into one because there's nobody on your team that can help you once you're out there on the mat." If you get in trouble, you can't exactly tag a teammate's hand and expect him to step in.

"It's not a mainstream sport because there is no wrestling on a professional level, no NBA of wrestling. And it's interesting, because in the heartland, if you were to put together a professional wrestling circuit and kept the overhead down, I bet you would do fairly well. ... Wrestling is a way of life there. It's as popular as country music and stock-car racing."

As a ninth-grader in Massapequa, N.Y., he started out wrestling at 98 pounds. By the time he graduated, a taller, heavier senior, he was in the 158- or 167-pound class. He stayed in that group as a college student at the State University of New York at Binghamton.

So, did he excel at this sport he so admires?

"Did I set any records? I wasn't that good. I won a lot more than I lost and how would you qualify that? I was a champion, I won tournaments, stuff like that. I was an all-county wrestler. When I wrestled in college, my team was very good," with one teammate a college all-American and another a national champion. Still, he says, he was not a world-class wrestler like many of his friends.

His best friend, Chris Bevilacqua, was a champion wrestler and son of Al Bevilacqua, who is now assistant director of the National High School Coaches Association, which is bringing the wrestling tourney here. Baldwin's father, Alec Sr., was a history teacher and football coach. The elder Bevilacqua, a student turned colleague of the older Baldwin, was a phys ed teacher and wrestling coach.

"It was he and his father who got me involved in the sport of wrestling when I was in about third or fourth grade," Baldwin says of his buddy.

William was not the only student athlete in the family.

Brother Daniel was a heavyweight wrestler. "Alec did not wrestle but he was an athlete, a lacrosse player, a football player, and Stephen sort of monkeyed around with wrestling. He was involved with wrestling early on, in junior high, but in high school he did a little bit of gymnastics but he was more focused on the arts," gravitating toward the drama club and a cappella choir.

In addition to championing this weekend's event, Baldwin is preparing for a Showtime film that will begin shooting for six weeks in Vancouver. Called "The Brotherhood of Murder," it will feature Baldwin as a white supremacist recruit who sees the error of his ways and becomes a federal informant.

He recently completed a low-budget independent drama called "Box," in which he plays the title character of a cop trying to put his life back together. The movie could turn up as an HBO original movie or get a theatrical release in North America and worldwide.

Like millions of other Americans, Baldwin saw part of the 71st annual Academy Awards, although he missed his sister-in-law's presentation of the Best Supporting Actor honor. "I had dinner with some friends and figured I would have missed most of it and I got home and there was still about an hour left - I saw Gwyneth, I saw best director, picture, the Kazan lifetime achievement. I winded up seeing sort of the best part anyway."

Like critics and moviegoers, he had more than one favorite in several categories. "I'm glad James Coburn won. There were a lot of categories I thought were very evenly matched. If [Roberto] Benigni won, it was fantastic and if Tom Hanks won, it was fantastic. If Gwyneth Paltrow won, it was fantastic; I also loved Cate Blanchett's performance" in "Elizabeth," which an old friend produced. "Blanchett was a power on screen; she's a force."

Preliminary rounds I and II start at 9 a.m. tomorrow at the A.J. Palumbo Center. At 8 a.m. Saturday, preliminary III and consolations I and II begin, with quarterfinals and consolations III and IV at 5 p.m. Semifinals, consolation quarterfinals and finals start at 9 a.m. Sunday, with finals at 6 p.m. Tickets, $15 and $12, should be available at the door.

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