Throughout a 30-plus-year career as a sportscaster, Howard
Cosell developed a reputation as someone who would "tell it like it is." Home
Box Office's new documentary on the maverick ex-lawyer keeps true to that axiom.
Although mainly a tribute to the man whom at the peak of
his career, in the late 1970s, was one of the most famous people in the United States, Howard
Cosell:Telling It Like It Is isn't afraid to shy away from Cosell's
controversial or bombastic side.
That bombast was there even early in his career. The
documentary devotes a good deal of time to Cosell's rise from host of a show starring
Little Leaguers to the country's pre-eminent boxing announcer.
Robert Lipsyte of The New York Times recalls Cosell
using his tape recorder "like a battering ram" to "slug his way into the
group" while covering the New York Mets' inaugural season for WABC radio.
It also offers insights into Cosell's early life
growing up as a Jewish kid in Brooklyn, and how that influenced the attitudes he brought
with him into the booth.
For example, the documentary explains how the
discrimination Cosell experienced in his own life -- both as a Jewish kid in the
neighborhood and as someone tagged by ABC executives as too ethnic to make it on TV --
influenced the way he covered racial issues in sports in the 1960s.
Cosell was the first to call Muhammad Ali by his Muslim
name following his conversion to Islam, and he also stood up for the fighter when he
refused to be drafted to fight in Vietnam. He also railed against baseball's
reluctance to hire black managers in the 1960s.
"I don't think he had the answers, but he
understood the problem and he asked questions that gave a young athlete like myself enough
space to say what I felt," recalled 1968 Olympic gold medalist Tommie Smith,
explaining why he sought out Cosell for an interview following his famous "Black
Power" salute on the medal stand.
It also points out the irony behind the offhand comment
that almost unmade Cosell -- his early 1980s description of Washington Redskins wide
receiver Alvin Garrett as a "little monkey" -- noting that it wasn't the
first time he used the description and playing a highlight of Cosell using the same phrase
to describe a white Denver Broncos player in 1972.
Many of the subjects of this interview-driven program --
ranging from Cosell's daughters, to ABC Sports executives, to famous friends like Ali
and comedian Billy Crystal -- reveal the mixed emotions people had about Cosell.
But the two most revealing interview subjects were his
longtime ABC colleagues, Frank Gifford and Al Michaels, who seem to still have some
fondness for the man even after he trashed them in his memoir.
"He was the omniscient, all-knowing, all-seeing eye of
the viewer," Michaels reflected. "He really carved out a role that had not
existed in this business and I'm not sure even exists to this day."
Howard Cosell: Telling It Like It Is bows on HBO
Monday, Nov. 1, at 8 p.m.
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