11/23/2005 1:00AM

Remake of 'Little Big Man'?


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The movie pitch for the life of Gary Stevens, who is retiring this weekend, would probably go something like this:

Take a kid from the sticks, a real Huckleberry, who spends more time on horseback than doing chores around the homestead. Picture the young Clark Kent meets "Green Acres." But instead of super powers that he uses on the sly, give him some kind of weird childhood disease, a bum leg or something, that turns him into a feisty little James Cagney kind of scrapper who you don't want to look at crosswise or else he'll go after you with his crutch.

He gets well - we could do a "Rocky" kind of bit with leg lifts and stadiums - and then bluffs his way into the world of the racetrack where he starts to remind people of the young Eddie Arcaro. [Note to self: When pitching story to anyone under the age of 60 substitute "a young Michael Jordan on horseback."] Add scenes of Gary the pint-sized teenager beating crusty old jockeys with tobacco-stained teeth who tousle his hair and give him whiskey shooters, and later Gary showing up the local bikers by winning a race at the county fair and walking off with the prettiest girl.

Flash forward to the kid from the sticks at sea in the Big City - Los Angeles or New York, doesn't really matter - riding monster-sized horses at unbelievable speeds against jockeys who all act and dress like bankers and CEO's, and leave work every day wearing three-piece suits while carrying briefcases and driving black German cars. He vows to be just like them some day.

But first he's got to go through the wringer. Young Gary has a run-in with a notoriously rough-riding hombre (call him "Angel" just for laughs) who is no dummy, because he sees just how good Stevens will be someday. They do a modern version of the Ben-Hur chariot race (with Stevens in the Charlton Heston part) that puts Gary's name in lights once and for good.

Our hero starts winning every race in sight, coast to coast. Maybe use one of those travel montages, with stickers on his steamer trunk, calendar pages blowing away and newspaper headlines racing by. Most people only know about the Kentucky Derby, anyway, but we've got that covered. He wins the damn thing three times!

On top of everything else, Stevens is Paul Newman handsome, which means so what if he's only 5-foot-3? Ever hear of Alan Ladd? Michael J. Fox? Mickey Rooney, for chrissakes? The high life commences. Groupies flock around the jockeys' locker room like seagulls. Give Gary his own Rat Pack and a social life that rivals the Hilton sisters. Wives? In real life, there have been only three (plus four fine children). But hey, this is Hollywood, and we ain't making "Ghandi" here.

Second act. He gets hurt. A lot. A whole lot, so maybe we need another montage, this time using X-rays and guys in white coats and some of those machines that go "bing" and "beep" to tell you if the patient still has a heartbeat. Arms, legs, shoulders, skull, ribs - he breaks them all at one time or another, he's in enough pain to make every mother weep, and every time he comes back it's harder than the last.

Third act. Retribution and rebirth. He tries retiring once, tries cutting back, even tries the mercenary life, selling his skills in exotic locales (depending on film budget, this could be Hong Kong, England, the Middle East, and France, at the very least). There is a fling with show business, and it turns out that he's a much better actor than either Jim Brown or Jake La Motta.

Then there is one last, nasty crash at a track called Arlington that nearly brings down the curtain once and for all. [Production note: The shot will require at least three stunt riders and a George Lucas special effects team from Industrial Light and Magic.] A lesser man would have said "no mas." But not our Gary. He lives to ride, again, and marries the Florence Nightingale who nurses him back to health.

Endings are tough - just ask Gary Stevens - so the best thing is maybe to take your pick and target the audience for whatever taste you want to leave:

Give him one last hurrah with a spectacular performance in an all-star race over the same course at Arlington where he almost bit the dust, just two years before. Call the horse Angara and the race the Beverly D.

Or flash backward to 1997 and a tent in Saratoga Springs, where Stevens spills his emotions to an audience full of fans at his induction into the horse racing Hall of Fame. It's not exactly Gary Cooper doing a Lou Gehrig goodbye, but it's in the ballpark.

Or go existential, play it for real, and rip off the last scene from "Bullitt," with Stevens as Steve McQueen staring in the bathroom mirror after a very tough day at the office. His whip and helmet are nearby. Water is running in the sink. The camera pans his scars. Angie, his real-life Jacqueline Bisset, is in the next room, and you can see it in his cool blue eyes. He's thinking, "There is nothing left to prove. There is everything to lose. It will never be over, but at least this is the end."

Go to black. Roll credits.