'Mayhem' shines spotlight on acerbic Cosell
By Beth Harris
|John Turturro, center, portrays Howard Cosell in "Monday Night Mayhem," a behind-the-scenes look at ABC's Monday Night Football.
Arledge wants someone who's going to stir things up, someone "that's going to smash the toadyism that these (CBS and NBC) announcers have been ruining the great game of football with."
Enter Howard Cosell.
He is the last person hired as host of "Monday Night Football" beginning in 1970. "Maybe they can't put a Jew from Brooklyn in prime time," an insecure Cosell laments to his wife, Emmy.
Arledge adds Don Meredith as color commentator and Keith Jackson as announcer. Jackson would later be dropped for Arledge's buddy Frank Gifford.
A pop-culture franchise was born.
What happened behind the scenes infighting, inflated egos, gambling and goofs is told in TNT's "Monday Night Mayhem," airing at 7 p.m. Monday.
"What our movie is going to do is show we used to have some good times," executive producer Leslie Grief said. "We can show the youngsters who weren't born yet what it was really like, and the people who remember can say, 'We're taking ourselves too seriously.' "
Football is merely the backdrop as the movie focuses on the sometimes rocky relationships among Cosell (John Turturro), Arledge (John Heard), Gifford (Kevin Anderson) and Meredith (Brad Beyer).
"They had a magic that you couldn't re-create," Grief said of the announcing trio. "These were three personalities who were able to speak their mind and were enthusiastic about the sport."
Turturro grew up spending Saturday afternoons watching Cosell as host of sporting events on ABC.
"He made an indelible impression on the sports part of my brain," said Turturro, who completes his portrayal with a cheesy toupee. "I remember how excited he would get me even if I hated what he said. He would get me involved."
To get Cosell's distinct speech pattern down, Turturro watched old footage of one of the most imitated voices in sports.
"What's tricky is to be able to do it and not just a sketch, to have a variety of expressions," he said. "He could be grating, but he was a pretty smart guy and he made no bones about throwing it in your face."
Cosell and Meredith spent the first season talking over each other. Critics panned the show and advertiser Ford Motor Co. wanted Cosell dropped.
"MNF" was an immediate hit with viewers, however even those who were enraged enough by Cosell's theatrics to throw bricks through TV screens when he was on.
"You see in Howard a person with a big ego and a person who was vulnerable. That's what makes him interesting," said Turturro, known for his work in "Quiz Show" and "Barton Fink."
Cosell became a star announcer in the 1960s and '70s, when there were only three major networks and the idea of airing sports in prime time was still new.
"The world was more conservative then, so if someone was outrageous or stepped over the company line, it was unusual," Turturro said.
Cosell did his last "MNF" game in 1983, Meredith left in '84 and Gifford was gone by 1998. Cosell died in New York in 1995 at age 77.
The show remains popular, although it finished the 2000 season with its lowest-ever ratings.