It wasn't until Mark Wahlberg called to say he wanted to make a movie about him that Micky Ward realized he didn't own the rights to his life story. Dicky did. Or rather, a production company working on behalf of Dicky did. In a lawsuit filed in August 2003, Ward claimed that Dicky, his half brother and trainer, had tricked him into signing away his life rights – for $1,000. Ward signed the contract while preparing for his third fight against Arturo Gatti and, he said at the time, "I signed it to get Dicky out of my hair." He claims Dicky told him the movie was about his life, not Micky's, and that he would play only a small role. Dicky tells me the producers duped him as well. "I never in my life would hurt Micky that way," he says. The contract promised Micky Ward between $75,000 and $200,000, plus a small percentage of net profits from the film if it was made. Ward settled the suit three months later, under confidential terms, and entered a new agreement with Paramount. Still, it took three more years for Wahlberg to come on board, in October 2006, when Brad Weston, president of production for Paramount Films, called Wahlberg to see if he'd read a script the production house had. It was about Dicky and Micky. Paramount had obtained the rights. Soon, the two fighters were flying to L.A. for meetings.
The Fighter was shot in 33 days in Lowell in 2009. Dicky often worked with Bale on the set – as a boxing coach and authenticity consultant – and he didn't always like what he saw. "Dicky's is a fascinating roller coaster of a life," says Bale. "And he's having to see all of the lowest points of that life. No one wants that. Everyone wants to see all the golden moments. But that's not a story. And his life is a wonderful story and, alongside his brother Micky's, a wonderful story that takes fortitude to be able to see." Bale has jokingly said he had to keep Dicky from throwing a punch or two at director David O. Russell during filming. "I don't think he'd have landed one on him," says Bale. Complicating matters was that the whole town would turn out to watch the Eklund family watching themselves being acted out on the street.
During one scene, in which cops are beating Bale's character outside a restaurant, Dicky's real sister Gail came screaming up to the actor-cops. "That's my brother! Leave my brother alone!" recalls Dicky, laughing. "Russell had to cut filming until we calmed her down."
While the script was being hammered out, Dicky and Micky moved in with Wahlberg in L.A. so they could coach the two actors in the ring in Wahlberg's home gym. Bale says that one day Dicky was reading the script and looked up at Bale with rage in his eyes. "He said, 'I done a lot worse than what you guys are showing,'" Bale recollects. "'But do you guys have to show my sisters and mother this way?' He was always more concerned about them than himself."
When The Fighter premiered in Lowell in December, it seemed as if the entire town – more than a handful of its residents make appearances in it – filed into the Showcase Cinemas to see it. Many more showed up just to watch its stars, and the actors who play them, parade into their afterparty. Dicky had seen the film weeks earlier with Bale, Wahlberg, and Ward at the Paramount lot in Los Angeles. "I hated it," he says. "But it was what it was." He complained to Bale and Wahlberg: "Micky looks like a million bucks, and I look like a two-dollar bill." He was embarrassed. "We got into my truck after the screening and Dicky just said to me, 'You fucker. You fucker,'" recalls Bale. "'You're a fucker, but you nailed it.'" Bale, who had grown close to Dicky during the filming – and still calls him a few times a week – was troubled by Dicky's reaction, so they set up a public screening for him in New Jersey a few weeks later so that he could see for himself how an actual audience would respond. "I wanted him to watch it without a bunch of people turning to him and saying, 'What did you think?'" says Bale.
"Afterward, people in the theater were all excited; they stood up clapping," Dicky says. "Next two times I seen it, including the premiere in Lowell, people went crazy." Dicky is still embarrassed but also realizes now that Bale's Oscar-winning portrayal actually makes him – not Micky – the star of the film. "That's what people tell me, anyway," he says. "But it's still hard to look at." Four years ago, Paramount paid Dicky $193,000, in two installments, for his life rights and for participating in the film. He soon blew through it all and is now getting by on what little training he does. At the party after the premiere, Bale posed for dozens of photos with locals – $20 a pop, with all proceeds, about $700, going to the Dicky Eklund fund.
"People think I'm rich from the movie," he says. "I can go into a bar or into the drug house and get anything I want – thousand dollars' worth of stuff. But go and try to get 50 bucks a month for your electric bill or gas bill and you can't get it. But people want me around. 'Dicky's here. There's the guy who played in the movie!'" Bale tells me there's an essential element to Dicky's character he felt determined to capture – one that's easily misplaced amid all the dramatic energy of family squabbles, dysfunction, and criminality. "Dicky is the loyalest guy you'll ever meet," says Bale. "And one of the things he was looking for in the movie was: Were we loyal and could he trust us? He's funny and clever and bloody sharp and full of charm. And he'll kick your ass into shape. He's a genetic freak, like the Energizer Bunny. But loyalty is his essence."