January 27, 2003 12:00 PM

As a child Antwone Fisher never heard a lullaby. Instead his foster mother tormented him with a cruel ditty delivered in a biting singsong: “You ain’t nothing. You’re never gonna be nothing because you come from nothing.”

She couldn’t have been more wrong. Now a successful screenwriter, Fisher, 43, has turned his brutal upbringing into one of the most celebrated films of the season. Antwone Fisher chronicles a young man’s journey from an abusive foster home in Glenville, Ohio, to a Navy base, where a nurturing psychiatrist (played by Denzel Washington) helps the hot-headed enlistee deal with his anger and turn his life around. The movie has helped focus national attention on child welfare and, for Fisher, marks his arrival as one of Hollywood’s most unlikely success stories.

An abused child and a homeless teen, Fisher began his career in show business in 1992 as a guard on the Sony Pictures lot, scribbling the largely true-to-life screenplay for Fisher on a legal pad. “It was such a personal, intense story,” says producer Todd Black, who helped Fisher pound out 41 drafts. “He’s a pretty special guy. He’s been down at the bottom of the barrel, but he had a spirit that could survive.”

As a boy the soft-spoken Fisher yearned for pancake breakfasts (a desire that inspired a memorable dream sequence in the film), not fame and fortune. Yet Cleveland mayor Jane Campbell handed him the key to the city at the film’s gala premiere in December. An All-Clad pancake griddle, a gift from the William Morris talent agency, sits in his five-bedroom L.A. home. “I ought to have a pancake commercial,” Fisher says with a laugh. The real dream come true is his family success. As a father to Indigo, 5, and Azure, 1, “he does all the stuff he wanted someone to do for him,” says wife LaNette, 36, a former security-company account manager he met on the Sony lot and wed in 1996. “He’s got this maternal instinct. He can tell if the baby is sick. He taught me how to comb Indigo’s hair.” Working from home (he says he has sold 10 other as-yet-unproduced screenplays, worked polishing scripts such as 1998’s Rush Hour and written a memoir, Finding Fish, published in 2001), Fisher rarely leaves his kids’ side. “I’ll stop for a break,” he says, “and we’ll say, ‘Oh, let’s go to the beach.’ ”

He never had that bond with his own parents. As the film recounts, his mother, Eva Fisher, was in prison in Cleveland when she gave birth to Antwone. (His father, Edward Elkins, had been murdered by another girlfriend two months before Antwone was born.) Fisher spent his childhood with foster parents, a middle-aged preacher and his wife—the latter of whom Fisher says beat him and her two other foster sons. A babysitter in her 20s, Fisher says, sexually molested him. He steered clear of the movie set when the abuse scenes were being filmed. “I didn’t want to be there,” he says. “I’d already lived it.”

At 16 he defied his foster mother and was thrown out of the house. Sent to a reform school (no other foster parents wanted a teen), he earned his high school degree, then was homeless for several weeks before he enlisted in the Navy in 1977. His quick temper and frequent fistfights with fellow seamen landed him in trouble. “I wasn’t a bad kid,” he says, “but the only thing I knew was to act out.” Over the next 11 years he was treated by three Navy psychiatrists (Washington’s character in the movie is a composite) who helped him tame his demons.

One of Fisher’s therapists urged him to find his blood relatives. After a post-Navy stint as a corrections officer at a California federal prison, Fisher landed his security-guard gig in 1992 and decided it was time to face his past. A search of state records led him to phone Annette Elkins Brewer, his father’s sister in Cleveland. “I could tell by his voice that he was scared,” says his aunt, who with other family members sent him an airline ticket to visit for Thanksgiving.

The reunion “was my dream,” says Fisher. Though he tracked down his mother in a Cleveland housing project, he rarely sees or speaks to her. “I don’t have any ill feelings toward her,” he says of Eva, who has been in and out of prison and has put four other children into foster care, but “we have nothing in common.”

While Fisher was being feted and fed by dozens of aunts, uncles and cousins, back in California his boss was telling Sony executives about the young employee’s quest to find his family. Several producers at the studio were interested in turning his life into a movie, but most of them balked when Fisher, who had begun taking a screen-writing class, asked to write the movie himself. Black, who also produced 2001’s A Knight’s Tale, was the only one who agreed to give Fisher the job. “He wrote with such clarity and command of character,” says Black. “I knew the rest would get there.” Washington, who had been looking for a project to direct, began working with Fisher on the film in 1996. “I promised Antwone I would take good care of him,” says Washington. “I said, ‘I know you’ve been through a lot and I promise I won’t screw you up.’ ”

Far from it. On some days Fisher is so overjoyed by his good fortune that he feels like pinching himself. But even that, he says laughing, is taken care of for him: “My kids wake me up every morning by pinching me.”

Christina Cheakalos

Karen Brailsford and Amy Longsdorf in Los Angeles and David Searls in Cleveland

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