Not until Barbara Kopple found some obscure footage of Mike Tyson, at 15, crying nervously before his fight at the 1982 Junior Olympics, was she sure she had the makings of a film. ''My whole working life is a quest to find those tiny little gems that will make you feel something, even for a second,'' says Kopple, 40, whose documentary Fallen Champ: The Untold Story of Mike Tyson airs Feb. 12 on NBC. The private-Tyson moment that she uncovered ''allows you to see him as a very fragileperson,'' she says, ''and not just as a media-hype thing.''
Though Tyson remains in prison on his 1992 rape conviction, Kopple, who took on this project at the suggestion of executive producer Diane Sokolow, says she ''struggled with a really open mind to portray his life in an open, responsible way.'' In the past, Kopple has lived with her subjects she spent several years each with the coal miners portrayed in 1977's Harlan County, U.S.A. and the meat packers in 1991's American Dream (both films won Academy Awards) but she did not have the luxury of a single interview with Tyson. ''I would have had to sign a piece of paper that gave (Tyson's manager) Don King final cut,'' she explains. ''I would never do that.'' Despite the lack of access, the revealing final product a patchwork stitched from archival footage and 84 hours of original film is the first nonfiction work NBC has promoted as an entertainment movie of the week rather than as news.
Kopple's admirers are wide-ranging: Bruce Springsteen sent her $25,000 so that she could finish American Dream, and director Oliver Stone mailed her a fan letter praising Harlan County and American Dream. ''I associate her with a primitive integrity,'' says Stone, cohost of the Tyson film's recent L.A. screening. ''A documentarian standing out there in the wind, very much alone howling, moving on cold nights through freezing subjects.''
From the outset, the Scarsdale, N.Y.-bred Kopple has seized creative control. As a clinical-psychology and political-science student at Boston's Northeastern University, she was observing lobotomy patients in 1972 when she first resolved to try filmmaking. ''I knew no one would read my thesis (about those patients), no one, forget it. I decided I would make a little 8 mm film and that would be more poignant; the whole class could at least see what I was seeing.'' And though her professor was ''absolutely livid'' that she hadn't written a paper, Kopple had found a home behind the camera.
Her home away from it is a New York City loft where she resides with her husband, Eugene Carroll, 39, a writer and labor organizer, and their son, Nicholas, 11. She's currently developing a nonfiction film about rock entrepreneur Bill Graham and developing a dramatic feature that deals with men in America a theme she admits is common to her films. ''Women are settled in my life. They're people I trust, people I understand. Men are a fascination how they think and how they react at different times,'' she says, smiling. ''I'm still learning about them.''