The court comes to order. The accused, a burly Navy man with close-cropped hair, enters the room. He has come to face trial for the most serious of military crimes: leading an uprising against his ship’s captain. With appropriate discomfort, he addresses his lawyer in a low, clipped growl. It’s the opening scene of Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, but this officer isn’t the only fellow on trial. Playing that uniformed man is the first pro football quarterback to make a play for the Great White Way. His name: Broadway Joe Namath, of course.
To some extent, the jury is still out on Joe’s Broadway debut. Though he has played Lieut. Stephan Maryk (Van Johnson’s part in the 1954 Caine Mutiny film) at the Circle in the Square theater since Sept. 20, the critics, who reviewed the production before Joe entered it, have kept silent. Theatergoers, however, have turned in a positive verdict: Box office grosses have grown steadily since Namath joined the cast. He may have few lines, but Joe’s role, which keeps him onstage for the entire play, is pivotal. Says the theater’s managing director, Paul Libin, “He opened the eyes of a lot of people who felt maybe he couldn’t do such a thing.” Co-star Michael Moriarty, who plays defense lawyer Lieut. Barney Greenwald, also raves: “If Joe Namath set his mind to anything, he’d do it well. And he certainly has put his mind to acting.”
This project gives new meaning to Namath’s nickname, bestowed by a teammate after Namath posed for a 1965 SPORTS ILLUSTRATED cover on Broadway. The name stuck, enhanced by the wild and perhaps wildly exaggerated tales of Broadway Joe’s New York nightlife. For quite a while Joe has wanted to act on Broadway, although, he admits, “Until a year ago, I was afraid to say it. I didn’t know I’d be able to work hard enough to justify being here.”
Namath decided to go for it only a week before his debut. Director Arthur Sherman suggested the casting to his agent, Robert Lantz, who also represents Namath and encouraged Joe to take the role. “He thought this was the best way for me to be presented at this stage in my career—not having the focus right on me,” Namath explains. To compensate for the truncated rehearsal period, Namath made a tape of the play, which he listened to as he finished other business in Los Angeles. Six days before his first appearance, he arrived in New York. “I honest to God didn’t know a word of the play the Thursday before I went on,” he says. The next Tuesday, he faced his first Broadway audience “a nervous wreck.”
Not that Joe was without experience. In his early years Namath, the son of a Beaver Falls, Pa. steelworker, saved his theatrics for the 50-yard line. “Where I came from, sports were the only way to get out front. But the more I played football, the more I thought about other kinds of performing.” Even before leading the Jets to their 1969 Super Bowl victory against the Baltimore Colts, he had segued into commercials. (He now holds a 20-year contract with Fabergé, doing commercials and off-tube PR.) His disastrous 1970 movie, C.C. and Company, a motorcycle epic with Ann-Margret, led to guest spots on The Love Boat and other TV series, as well as a number of minor films. In 1979 Joe first hit the boards in an Ohio summer-stock production of Picnic, which was followed by annual stage outings that have generally charmed fans but left critics cold. Namath laughingly remembers a former Jets coach who commented about his 1981 appearance in Damn Yankees, “Well, it’s a darn good play, but you sure can’t sing.”
Namath gets more generous encouragement from his pal, Jet quarterback Richard Todd, who attends all his plays at least once, and his current steady, actress Deborah Mays. The scenario doesn’t call for marriage, however. “I’ve been in love three times,” Joe confides. “But it hasn’t worked out to where we were willing to live together. It will happen spontaneously someday. Like when you run into somebody and you get that first shot of electricity, and then you develop an understanding. That hasn’t happened yet, but not because I’m ducking it.”
Nor is he trying to live down his glory days. Namath readily admits that his past career has fueled his present one. “My ego’s not the kind that says, ‘I want to be an actor and be accepted as that.’ I’m always gonna be Joe Namath, and I’m not running from that,” he says. When Caine Mutiny closes in early November, Joe will film Chattanooga Choo Choo, a comedy with Barbara Eden. Then he may join a touring company of Caine Mutiny. If Broadway should beckon again, Joe hopes it will be for a musical. Observes Namath, “I like music and I like ladies. I like to see them dance.” Now that’s Broadway Joe talking.