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Jim Murray

Howard Has Much to Be Vain About

September 29, 1985|Jim Murray

"Who the hell made 'Monday Night Football' unlike any other sports program on the air? "If you want the plain truth, I did." --HOWARD COSELL in "I Never Played the Game." "As for Monday Night Football, an additional factor came into play: me! I am sure my absence had a negative effect on the ratings. Without me, the nature of the telecasts was entirely altered. I had commanded attention. I had palpable impact on the show, giving it a sense of moment, and now it seemed no different from an ordinary Sunday afternoon telecast. If that sounds like ego, what can I say? I'm telling it like it is." --Ibid. Normally, when an employee leaves a longtime job in industry, there is a protocol to be observed. He can say:

--"It has been fun working with you guys."

--"I'll miss each and every one of you."

--"The (choose one) boss/company has been a brick about the whole thing."

When Howard Cosell left "Monday Night Football" a year or so back, he must have felt as if he were leaving Devil's Island, Stalag 17 or getting thrown into the sea in a shroud off a dungeon wall.

Howard, you will remember, was a member of a rollicking trio of entertainers--the others were Frank Gifford and Don Meredith--who brought you the thrills and excitement of Monday night NFL football games--sort of. When they weren't too busy bickering among themselves, introducing Burt Reynolds or Angie Dickinson, exchanging inside jokes or getting sick on the floor, that is. One of them just sang.

It was all supposed to be great good fun. Turns out it was World War III. Armageddon in a glass booth. Two ex-jocks and an ex-lawyer. An invisible blood bath.

Cosell is not going gently into that good night. Howard is going down like the Sundance Kid or the Merrimac. With all guns out and firing.

"To begin, Gifford's greatest talent is not broadcasting. He is what he is, a physically attractive man with a matchless ability to charm almost everybody he meets. After so many years of playing the role of hero, he has grown so accustomed to the part that he often seems more concerned with preserving the image than expressing feelings. "He is a Teflon man. No matter how many mistakes he makes in a telecast, no matter how glaring his weaknesses as a performer, nothing sticks to him.

"For my money, Gifford is far from your classic play-by-play man. He is not in the same league with NBC's Dick Enberg or CBS' Pat Summerall. Gifford's voice is thin and monotonic and he is incapable of using it with rhythm and pace for dramatic effect. In addition, he stumbles over words, and it's not uncommon for him to lose his train of thought. His propensity for error was embarrassing. He's not a natural performer, never was, never will be." Well, so much for the old Giff.

How about the old Danderoo, the other guy in the booth, the free spirit, the comic relief, the good ol' boy?

"I do not understand Don Meredith, and I never will. In the beginning I loved the guy. He was terribly insecure about his performance and I'd often counsel him. Eventually, he ended up winning an Emmy. I was genuinely pleased for him, in spite of the fact that I realized he had won a popularity contest. "Meredith rarely prepared for a telecast in the manner of a professional. He often showed no interest at all. He'd try to compensate for his lack of knowledgeability by singing a song or talking to his imaginary alter ego, Harley Smydlapp. And everybody would write about how funny and irrepressible he was. Meredith's lackadaisical attitude never bothered me as much as it did Gifford. His disinterest in what he's doing must surely be apparent to anyone over the age of 2. (Without me) Meredith was lost. He had nobody to react to. I didn't know whether he was a singer, a cowboy, a philosopher, a clown, or what. "He thought he had the kind of talent he didn't remotely possess. There's a mean streak within him. He groused and grumbled, snapped at people, and he could be contrary to the extreme. He was hardly the lovable ol' cowboy with the homespun view that was so ingratiating. "It really didn't matter, though. When push came to shove, Gifford and Meredith were as thick as thieves. They would never take sides against each other. I could never really trust either one of them." You can see from the foregoing that ABC had the cameras trained on the wrong action during the years the threesome was together. The action down on the field was inconsequential. Who cares if Miami beats New England? Give us Cosell against the world, the network, his own colleagues. I mean, that was the Super Bowl!

Is Howard like that Peter Finch character in "Network," railing against TV corruption: "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!"? Or is he just a grumpy old party who has been dismissed with a shrug and a gold watch after putting the company on the map?

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