John Turturro’s father hated howard Cosell. ”Well, maybe not hated,” says the actor, ”but my dad did have a strong reaction to him.” So strong that whenever the sarcastic, bombastic sportscaster made an observation on Monday Night Football, Papa Turturro would scream at the TV: ”You don’t know what you’re talking about! Shut up, Howard! Shut up! Shut up!” On young John, however, Cosell had the opposite effect. ”I was absolutely riveted by Howard,” he recalls. ”He was insightful and elitist and funny and cruel, and he had the unique ability to personalize sporting events in a way that made them sound like high drama. I felt like he was speaking directly to me, like he had somehow smashed through the TV screen and grabbed me by the collar.”
As a teenager in Queens during the 1970s, Turturro entertained his old man by doing impersonations of The Mouth That Roared. He would pretend to grill athletes, politicians, movie stars: ”Burt Lancaster,” he’d bark in Cosell’s urgent, syllable-stressing staccato. ”Tell me, Burt, about your most recent flop, Castle Keep…” Three decades later, Turturro is playing Cosell again. His TNT movie Monday Night Mayhem, which premieres on Jan. 14, chronicles the How-wud Era, 1970 to ’83, on MNF. ”He didn’t just report games,” Turturro says of Cosell, who died in 1995 at 77. ”His commentaries were colored by an emotional sadness and a huge need to say f— you to the sports establishment. You could see in him the Jewish kid from Brooklyn who got pushed around by gentiles, and who found his way out of jams with his intellect.”
An attorney who graduated Phi Beta Kappa from New York University School of Law, Cosell chucked his lucrative practice in 1956 to become a lowly sports reporter for ABC Radio. Besides boundless arrogance, he brought the exotic scent of journalism to the bland, idolatrous world of broadcast sports. With the ardor of an advocate, Cosell told the world that Muhammad Ali had been unjustly stripped of his heavyweight title for resisting the draft during the Vietnam War. He railed against the inequities of baseball’s reserve clause and its antitrust exemption. He weighed in on racism and drug use among athletes. But he achieved his greatest celebrity and reached his largest audience as a National Football League analyst. His telecasts changed the meaning of Monday night in America.
Cosell was the boob tube’s Tower of Babble, and people rearranged their lives so they could catch the game and hear him babble on. Entire cities were inflamed by his caustic pronouncements. Bars drew crowds by offering patrons the chance to hurl bricks through television screens bearing his craven image. A TV Guide poll determined Cosell was the most despised sportscaster in the country. The same poll concluded he was also the most beloved.
”Howard built Monday Night Football into something that was often bigger than the sport itself,” says Turturro. ”Not only did he elevate games into a kind of Greek tragedy, he gave them a gladiator quality.” Switching to Cosell’s rhythmic punching-bag voice, Turturro mimics him doing play-by-play from the Colosseum in ancient Rome: ”That was a beautiful kill, an unbelievable kill! I can’t believe Maximus cut Minimus’ balls off! What a low blow!”