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Game Time to Prime Time

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Joe Namath nervously wipes his palms, licks his lips and sprays Binaca past his perfect teeth. “Quiet on the set!” shouts the director. “Roll cameras.” Namath beams and begins a promo for his new NBC show, The Waverly Wonders. “Cut!” yells the director. “Sorry, Joe. A fly flew across your face, and it wasn’t wearing makeup. You were fantastic! Once more from the top, please.” A makeup girl scurries over to dab Namath’s forehead with Kleenex, then leaves him alone under the hot lights. Joe swallows hard and forces a grin.

Out in Burbank, where grown men sacrifice their stomach linings to apprehension over ratings, not linebackers, Joe Willie Namath is a rookie again. For the first autumn in 20 years, one of the richest and most celebrated athletes in America is not throwing a football. Instead, after a humiliating final season with the Los Angeles Rams in which he was benched the last 10 games, Namath, 35, is going on prime-time TV as Joe Casey, a washed-up pro basketball player who turns coach and reluctant history teacher. The Kotteresque sitcom may be derivative, but “it feels like a second stage of my life,” Namath says. “I’m having more fun working than I ever had before.”

That’s the voice of the new Burbank Joe that his old Broadway swells would hardly recognize. The sleepy blue eyes and loopy grin are unchanged, but the new métier has brought forth a new man. Now that he’s quit football, ironically, Joe is training hard. His drinking was once so heavy it caused blackouts, but, faced with weekly scripts to memorize, Namath has forsaken alcohol, save for an occasional glass of wine. “Now I can sleep through the night, and in the morning I feel so good,” he says.

Moreover, he most often sleeps alone. Namath’s six-year romance with model Randi Oakes ended 14 months ago. They still see each other for dinner. But, says Namath, “This is the longest since college I’ve been alone.” He’s practiced TM for five years—”You can just feel your body throwing out junk and stresses”—but he still smokes Sherman Cigaretellos. Jimmy Walsh, Namath’s business manager and best friend, believes, “Joe has changed more in the past year than in the last five. He’s matured.”

The easygoing style may help Namath shrug off TV critics who’ve blitzed Waverly Wonders as “vacuous” and worse. (The show begins weekly this Friday, two weeks after its hokey “preview” special.) “I learned to accept criticism in sports,” Joe says. “I don’t like it, but it’s part of life.” Yet even when gimpy knees were retiring him from football, Namath didn’t have to endure such critical jeers as “a wooden soldier” and “a walking chalk talk.” (The rap may be unfair: Despite weak scripts, Namath displays surprising presence and charm in the show’s early segments.)

“The acting part took me a while to figure out,” Namath admits. He was bothered at first by stage fright—the show is taped before a live audience without a TelePrompTer—but feels “less nervous as we go along.” He likens acting to football: “You’re working with other people. You have a plan, a script. You have choreography. The big difference is that in TV you get a second chance and no one is trying to stop you.” “He’s marvelous,” says director Dick (Laugh-In) Martin. “He begs for direction. He’s used to being coached.” Adds co-star Joshua Grenrock: “He’s so damn sincere he doesn’t belong in this business.”

Namath may have left his earlier business just in time. His creaky left knee is scarred by so many operations it looks like a tic-tac-toe game. (The longest scar is eight inches.) He lives in daily pain. “You get used to it,” he says. Yet he still winces at the memory of a nerve injury in 1971 that was worse than the knees, or his broken wrist, or his separated shoulder. “Jolts of pain shot up my body every 15 seconds,” he recalls. “Morphine didn’t help. It took two weeks to find a drug that would alleviate those jolts. My foot was paralyzed for six months and numb for three years. I lost 32 pounds, but I made it back to play that year.”

Now Namath’s routine starts in his bachelor suite on the second floor of the Beverly Hills Hotel where he rises at 7:15 a.m. (in the old days, that was when he turned in) for push-ups and a swim. At 6’1″ and 195 pounds, he is only four pounds over his playing weight. After room-service breakfast (three fried eggs, two glasses of orange juice, raisin toast and Sanka), he climbs into his white Cadillac Coupe de Ville and cruises 15 miles to station KTLA’s Stage 3, in between the Dinah and Carter Country sets. “It’s the best of all working conditions—regular hours and no locations,” exults Namath. He briefly sat in on one of director Joan Darling’s popular acting classes, then stopped. “I don’t want to sacrifice one or two nights. I’m more interested in taking care of myself and having some free time.”

On weekends that might mean a booth at Roy’s, a pricey Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles, where he washes down his favorite “600-year-old chicken” with Perrier and lemon. Women flow by in a steady stream. They all smile. One bends over and whispers in his ear. The next leaves a card with a phone number. Another breathes, “Hi, Joe. Remember me?” “No,” Namath grins, “but I’d like to.” In the end, he hurries home at 11 p.m., alone, in time to catch a Rams game rerun on TV.

Joe dates around with such pretty faces as actresses Debra (The American Girls) dinger and Marcy (Roller-girls) Hanson. “I would love to have a lady who loved me and whom I loved,” he says. “But it’s not easy. A lot of people I meet already have formed some kind of opinion about me.” As for marriage, “Traveling around you run into some lovely ladies,” he explains. “Until I get over that kind of temptation, until I’m sure I’d be honest and loyal, I won’t get married.”

His solemn approach to marriage dates back more than two decades, to when his Hungarian-born steelworker father and mother were divorced while he was in sixth grade in Beaver Falls, Pa. Joe is still loyal to his family and has missed only two Christmases there in his life. His four older brothers and sister have given him 18 nieces and nephews and two great-nieces. “They’re raising their children to be good folks,” Joe says admiringly. “They’re the real superstars.”

Most of the time Namath inhabits an almost exclusively male world. Some days he plays up to 27 holes of 11-handicap golf with pals like Dick Martin and Bob Newhart at the swanky Bel-Air Country Club. His best friends are his oldest: men like business manager Walsh, who was a University of Alabama pal, an old football crony named “Hoot Owl” Hicks and his college coach, Bear Bryant. It can be lonely—Namath sometimes eats by himself—but not, Lord knows, out of impoverishment.

Lorimar Productions, which produced both Waverly Wonders and Avalanche Express, Namath’s forthcoming movie with Lee Marvin and the late Robert Shaw, pays him more than the $500,000 he earned per year on the gridiron. In addition, he has a 20-year deal with Faberge that guarantees $250,000 annually. He puts his name on products ranging from Arrow shirts to La-Z-Boy chairs. These endorsements bring in $1 million more, but Walsh says, “Joe has never been greedy.” In fact, Namath helped put Walsh through law school and more recently gave $50,000 to Alabama’s women’s sports program. He’s prudently stashed some money into tax-shelter properties and a restaurant in Tuscaloosa, Ala. and soon will be moving into singer Neil Diamond’s $1 million mansion in Beverly Hills.

For all that, Joe seems more relaxed in his two-bedroom, canal-front condominium in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for which he pays less than $300 a month. He commutes there to fish for snapper, grouper or sole from his 19-foot Boston whaler, A Lotta Heart. “I catch enough to eat, then I give the rest a little artificial respiration and put them back.”

Namath has “reservations” about a long-term television career and toys with the idea of someday owning a professional football team. A practicing Catholic, Joe “can be walking down the street, and if I see a church I’ll stop in,” he says. “Sometimes I sit around and think, ‘Why me? How did I get here?’ Someone has given me an opportunity. Why? It feels as if I’ve been taken special care of. I know that I’m thankful.”