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HEADED IN THE WRONG DIRECTION : Chet Forte, Former Award-Winning Director of 'Monday Night Football,' Says Longtime Gambling Addiction Is Why He's Unemployed, in Debt and Facing a Possible Prison Term

May 20, 1990|LARRY STEWART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — By all accounts, Chet Forte knew a lot about directing sports telecasts. Directing his life was another matter.

Forte, the longtime director of "Monday Night Football," was paid well--reportedly as much as $500,000 a year. He lived in the fashionable area of Saddle River, N.J., in a six-bedroom, seven-bathroom home appraised at $1.5 million.

But he has lost everything--his money, his home and his dignity. He has no income, no assets and debts of about $1 million.

Forte's home was auctioned last month for $908,000 to help satisfy creditors. A few days later, his Mercedes-Benz was repossessed.

Fulvio Chester Forte Jr., 54, says he was a compulsive gambler.

"Everybody at ABC knew he was a compulsive gambler," said Howard Cosell, Forte's friend and former co-worker. "But there was nothing anybody could do to get him to stop."

Now, Forte has major legal problems and is facing a possible prison term.

Indicted April 27, Forte is charged with fraudulently misrepresenting his finances on loan applications to four banks and mortgage companies in 1985 and '86. The 19-page indictment alleges that Forte got $1.47 million in loans through applications that overstated his assets and understated his liabilities.

He also is charged with failing to file a personal income tax return for 1987.

Forte, free on a $500,000 bond co-signed by a relative, appeared in a federal court in Camden, N.J., on May 11 for arraignment. He pleaded not guilty.

The day before, Forte had appeared in a municipal court in Saddle River, where he faces charges stemming from a complaint filed by a contractor seeking payment for air-conditioning work in 1987. The contractor contends that Forte's check for $5,300 bounced.

Also pending is a civil suit filed last year by cousins Ann and Lou Perrin in Hackensack, N.J. They claim that Forte defaulted on a $280,000 personal loan. Forte's accountant, Al Simon, also is named as a defendant in this case.

Forte's mother, Ida, who was co-owner of the Saddle River home, was forced to file for bankruptcy last July.

Forte, who hadn't spoken to the media since he was indicted, recently talked with a small group of reporters in Camden. The day before, Forte had asked his attorney, public defender Lawrence Lustberg, for permission to speak. Lustberg stood nearby as Forte talked.

"Gambling is why I'm in this predicament," Forte said.

He said he began betting on sports in the early 1960s and didn't give it up until a year and a half ago.

"I finally just stopped," he said. "I had no more money to bet."

Forte also played blackjack in casinos at Las Vegas and Atlantic City. "I once lost nearly $200,000 in one night in Atlantic City," he said. According to the FBI, it was $204,000.

"That was six years ago," he said. "And I lost it with a business associate, so it was really only about half that."

He declined to name the business associate.

"My main problem wasn't the casinos. It was sports betting," Forte said.

"Most gamblers might make two or three bets a day. But when you're a wacko like I was, you make 10 bets a day."

He said each bet was $500 to $1,000, meaning he was betting $5,000 to $10,000 a day. But friends have said it was more like $30,000-$40,000 a day.

To make matters worse, Forte said, he usually lost. "I was a terrible gambler," he said. "The guys in the crews I worked with used to hang around me to see which way I was going to bet, then they would bet the opposite way. They were laughing behind my back, and I didn't even know it.

"On games I was working, I always bet the underdog. I was rooting for a close game. That was more important than winning a bet. The telecast always came first.

"You probably wonder why I didn't stop after five years, or 10 years, or 15 years.

"I don't know why. I used to tell my wife, 'I need this, I need the action.' She'd say, 'Why?' I couldn't give her an answer.

"Sure, there were times I'd stop for a week or two. But I'd always go back.

"I had a gambler's mentality. It didn't matter if I won or not. I needed the action.

"Gamblers don't wake up until it's too late, and that's what happened to me."

STAR ATHLETE

Chet Forte, it seemed, had life made.

The son of a pediatrician, he was a basketball star at Hackensack High School. He was handsome and bright.

"I'm really shocked because I thought he had it all," former high school teammate Al DiDonato said.

Although only 5-feet-8, Forte went on to become one of the leading scorers in the nation in 1956-57 as a senior at Columbia University.

He used to brag that he had a higher scoring average than Wilt Chamberlain of Kansas that season, but actually Chamberlain averaged 29.6 points, Forte 28.9. Elgin Baylor of Seattle averaged 29.7 that season.

Still, Forte was a consensus All-American and the United Press International player of the year.

He was successful in his professional life as well, working at ABC for 25 years and winning nine Emmy Awards.

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