Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Howard Cosell

I was a film editor at ABC Sports, working with Roone Arledge on the Ali fight with Evangelista (an unranked pretender).  Alex Wallou, "The Prince of Promos" (his attribution) and future ABC network el presidente, is sent all around the world to film interviews with knowledgeable fight promoters as to the merit of the challenger.  Alex returns with a load of BS that I screen for Roone, Alex and 2 corporate lawyers on an overtime Sunday afternoon.  Late to the meeting, suffering from jet lag, is Howard Cosell who is the scheduled to host the fight on ABC this week.  There is a couch in the editing room and Howard in his silk silver custom built suit stretches out on the couch, exhausted.

All the VIPs agree that none of the interviews have merit because all the interviewees avoided the central question: Is this "bum of the month" a worthy challenger to the champ?  Roone's gift is to see the obvious; this is a championship fight and we're covering it because every sports journalist in the world will be there.  Forget the big ratings, we're providing a free service to the public for the price of a "few" commercials.  But Howard has to sell this to the public.  Roone asks for a preview of Cosell's opening gambit/speech.

Howard unglues himself from the orange, leatherette couch and walks to the far corner of the room where my close friend and assistant, Wayne Weiss, is guarding the door from any interlopers to this earth shattering discussion.  What I don't see is Howard's face as he walks to the corner but Wayne sees him coming toward him and, just before Cosell turns to face the rest of the room, he gives Wayne a wink.  The exhausted giant turns to face us and all of a sudden, in full throttle,  Howard "the man we love to hate" Cosell with nasal passages whinnying does "his thing":

HOWARD: "AND SO, ..." (we're here because all of sports journalism is here for a championship fight no matter the merits of the contestants.... ).   Roone congratulates him and days later the fight goes on just as rehearsed.  As Howard is delivering his opening, the video switches to all the reporters with pen and tablets poised, and local news crews dutifully blasting away.   The fight was nothing.  Ali danced for a few rounds and then politely finished him off. 

To me, the earth shattering news was to learn that Howard Cosell was an artifice, a face a man put on to face the faces that he met.  Otherwise, he was a regular guy, a bit insecure, that the public and Ali had turned into a god. 

AND SO, he played his part perfectly.

Simon Gribben

Monday, January 14, 2013

How I Got Into Muhlenberg College

I grew up 2 blocks from the Muhlenberg College campus and used it as a playground, swinging on the obstacle course ropes into deep sawdust pits that were there because of the navy unit that was being trained here during WW II; the Trexler Library now sits on top of the obstacle course.  I met one of the sailors 30 years later who never went to college except for his brief training at Muhlenberg but Ed Cioffi ended up as a network reporter and Paris bureau chief for ABC News.  I gifted him my Muhlenberg summer jacket and he proudly replaced his suit jacket with our gray and red colors for the rest of his day in NY.

Although we lived in a middle-class neighborhood, my family was working class; there were no books in the house and my ex-con father wanted me to be a business major in high school so I could cook the books for the family business of distributing supplies to shoemakers.  Since all the kids I grew up with were going to college, I took the college prep curriculum which pissed off my Dad.  I got beaten whether I went along or not, so I took the beatings along with the college prep.  My family was not on board with me going to college so I'd have to pay my own way and that meant Muhlenberg was my only option.  It was college or the army with Vietnam around the corner (Goodbye Bobby Butz).

But I had a problem.  A BIG MOUTH.  I was a gifted wise guy who could easily break up classes with my one liners and usually only in English.  I spent most of my senior year English classes in the library at Allentown High School because my teacher hated my gift of levity but didn't want the administration to know she was incapable of teaching me.  Came final exams, she flunked me.  Flunking English in high school is not cool for college entry.  The summer after high school graduation I was on pins and needles pressing the Head of Admissions, Haps Benfer, to be accepted.  I had been the college's Morning Call paperboy for several years and he had been one of my customers.

My summer job was cleaning private swimming pools for the second year in a row.  One of my customers, a Mr. Mosser, had a large estate in Trexlertown with a 3 foot wading pool.  Mr. Mosser would walk around the grounds with a putter and a dog, a Boxer.  I'd always had trouble with Boxers, they always barked at me until I escaped.  But I couldn't escape.  I had to clean that wading pool!  I came up with the strategy of talking to the dog like we were old friends.  At first he was hesitant but then he relaxed into the patter and I was safe except his owner caught me talking to his dog like we were old buddies.

Mr. Mosser asked me what I was planning to do after the summer and I described my college entrance plight.  It was near the 4th of July and he was going to have a party and Haps would be there.  He asked me to write down my name on a slip of paper and one week later I was accepted at Muhlenberg College, Class of 61.  I saw Mr. Mosser the next week and told him of my success and he told me to work on my English.  I have since learned he was a trustee at Cedar Crest and probably Muhlenberg as well.  So I got into Muhlenberg by talking to a well connected dog.  

I was offered a half scholarship to go out for the football team by coach Ray Whispell during Freshman Orientation Week but turned him down to focus on The Theater.  It took me 6 years to graduate as I spent 2 years in NY studying "The Method" but never made any ripples as an actor; however, I did well as a writer/producer/director/editor of news and sports films for television winning several Emmys and having 5 "easy pieces" in the Museum of Modern Art in NY as well as dozens more in the Paley Center for Media.  I couldn't have pulled that off without that dog and actually attending classes as an English Major at Muhlenberg College, my Alma Mater.

20 some years after graduation, I returned to campus to show a film I made on WW II and an article in the school paper spoke about my accomplishments including that I had been ordained as Sufi Reverend Simon-Peter.  I ran into my favorite religion professor, Rodney Ring, and he said I was exactly the kind of student Muhlenberg wanted.  I was blown away.  Who knew?  Not me, for sure.  Maybe the dog knew.