Howard Cosell may have died in 1995, but he’s been having a very good winter. First Jon Voight, impressively expressive under prosthetics, summons the sportscaster’s unflagging loyalty to Muhammad Ali in Michael Mann’s film ”Ali,” and now John Turturro, over the course of director Ernest Dickerson’s two-hour TV movie Monday Night Mayhem, offers an even more detailed portrait of Cosell.
Why should anyone who’s not a sports fan be interested? Because ”Mayhem” also provides vivid revelations about the way the TV business works — or, perhaps, used to work. Based on the 1988 nonfiction book of the same title by Bill Carter and Marc Gunther, with a teleplay by Carter (a TV-industry reporter for The New York Times), ”Mayhem” is one of those true-life fairy tales about going for the gusto and programming from your gut — instincts that are increasingly rare in this excessively cautious medium. Turturro, complete with a Cosell toupee that looks as if it had been pried loose from a ventriloquist’s dummy (which is to say, exactly like Cosell’s own rug), is unquestionably the vociferous center of this TNT movie, emitting a verbal spray that is at once ornate, orotund, and obfuscatory. ”They are waging a literary pogrom against me!” is how he describes a few critics’ gibes. ”My career has become dispiriting drudgery,” he laments toward the end of his broadcasting days. Cosell had a way of making ill-read people — including his broadcast-booth partner Frank Gifford, played with shrewd blandness by Kevin Anderson — feel they were in the presence of a savant, and educated people feel in the presence of an amusing mountebank.
It is, however, Roone Arledge, as embodied by a suitably bullheaded John Heard, who is this film’s catalyst. It’s difficult to recall now, with ABC’s ”Monday Night Football” a prime-time fixture well past its prime, just how novel a concept producer Arledge cooked up in 1970 in collaboration with people like director Chet Forte (played with vulgar vehemence by NYPD ”Blue”’s Nicholas Turturro, John’s brother). ”Our games are going to be about entertainment,” says Arledge. Whereas, pre-Roone, football games were telecast as the battles of tiny titans ramming each other from afar, Arledge sent the camera operators running up and down the sidelines, and let his microphones pick up the players’ grunts, moans, and bellowings. Arledge understood that unlike baseball, which lends itself to leisurely between-pitches repartee among the broadcasters, the inch-by-inch progress toward touchdowns required livelier commentary to hook viewers.
Thus Arledge put the compulsively polysyllabic Cosell in the booth with straight-arrow straight man Gifford and good-ol’-boy yahoo ”Dandy” Don Meredith (an affable Brad Beyer). This trio rattled off stats, argued strategy, and needled one another in a way that electrified fans, with Cosell inspiring the most extreme reactions. (We’re shown his rise as a celebrity coinciding with a torrent of anti-Semitic mail.)
”Mayhem”’s dramatic structure posits Arledge as an ambitious enigma, a guy who stuck his neck out early on, when advertisers wanted to bail on his combustible concept, but who later grabbed bigger rewards than any of the stars he created. (Cosell, who always fancied himself a hard-news reporter, is particularly bitter about Arledge’s promotion to head of ABC News, around the same time when the only way Cosell could increase his profile was to host a disastrous 1975 variety show, ”Saturday Night Live With Howard Cosell.”)
I’d say that at times ”Mayhem”’s dialogue seems stilted, but with Cosell, who can tell? ”The man is an incorrigible womanizer” is his staccato summation of brief broadcast-booth buddy O.J. Simpson, played wittily as a kind of gleeful moron by Chad L. Coleman. And I have a feeling that both Arledge and his second-in-command, producer Don Ohlmeyer (Zak Orth), were bigger SOBs than they’re portrayed here — you’d have to be, to accrue the kind of power they did. But what the hell: John Turturro captures the spirit of a unique if ultimately morose man, and ”Monday Night Mayhem” captures the spirit of a TV format being created literally on the run.