The rug is George Jessel without the brilliantine. The body, face and defiant (if slumped) posture suggest a cross between Ichabod Crane and Bella Abzug. The laugh is pure Elmer Fudd. But the voice could only be that of Howard Cosell, 55 and still as arrogant, outrageous and atrabilious as ever. Hear him, for example, hyping his newly premiering variety hour on ABC, Saturday Night Live with Howard Co-sell. “You know what’s going to make this show?” he asks rhetorically in a promo-presentation film for Madison Avenue. “Me—the born superstar. They didn’t give me looks, but they gave me an absolute monopoly on brains and talent.” (He neglected to mention that the programming poobah at competing NBC gives the series four weeks.)
It is utterly useless by now to speculate on whether Cosell’s fearfully familiar routines are a put-on; that is like trying to capture an image in a house of mirrors. Howard’s carefully nurtured fractiousness, his desire to inspire love and his determination to arouse hate have rendered him a sort of electronic Hamlet, never sure where his reality ends and his peculiar public madness begins. Yet Cosell can also be soft-spoken, serious and, yes, apprehensive. As fleetingly as those qualities emerge in a complex personality who has earned millions by being obnoxious at great sporting events all over the world, they more accurately reflect Cosell’s attitude toward his new TV venture than does his promo-film braggadocio.
But Howard is also something more than just the man whom Johnny Carson called “a legend in his own mind.” His National Football League telecasts have changed the meaning of Monday night in America, and he could theoretically have similar social impact on Saturday. Those who kiss off the chances of the show (as indeed most advertising and ratings experts already have) should note that a variety host need not be ingratiating or suave. Instructively, the Ed Sullivan Theater, from which the Cosell extravaganza will originate, memorializes the formative and longest-running headliner in TV variety history. Observes Howard: “The Sullivan show is the easiest one to compare ours to, but we also want the bite of the old Jack Paar Show or Mike Wallace’s Night Beat.”
Conceived by Cosell and his high-rolling boss at ABC Sports, Roone Arledge, the show will incorporate the technological enterprise of Wide World of Sports (e.g., split-screen interviews, satellite coverage of breaking events) with vestiges of vaudeville (comic Alan King is consultant to the show) plus, they all hope, journalism. The producers are a little pretentious and vague about what sort of news-breaks they plan to explode—could it be Patty Hearst surrendering live onstage? In any case, Cosell assures, “Roone and I don’t want to make horse’s asses out of ourselves,” and Arledge, a 13-Emmy champ who has yet to back a loser, believes that “the attraction of this show will lie in its unpredictability.”
Whether the viewing public has stomach for all that unpredictability is moot, but the lineup penciled in for the first two shows is certainly varied: the Bay City Rollers, Britain’s new bubble-gum rock sensations, from the London Palladium; Jimmy Connors in his singing debut, a duet with Paul Anka; from Vegas, Siegfried & Roy doing their magic tricks with animals (Sullivan lives!); Barbara Walters (“a terrific lady”); pre-fight interviews with Joe Frazier and a casual acquaintance of Howard’s named Muhammad Ali. “And, who knows,” cracks Cosell, “I might have Warren Beatty in my dressing room, giving me a shampoo.”
There will be many, many more high-rent celebs, according to Howard: very, very dear friends such as Bob Hope, Liza Minnelli, Frank Sinatra, Bill Cosby (Cosell’s style in this precarious field is reminiscent of the old Mike Nichols-Elaine May routine—”a very, very old, very, very dear friend…Al Schweitzer!”). But if it all sounds like plain-and-fancy name-dropping, Howard, at least, knows the names he’s been around.
He never really expected to be. Born Howard William Cohen in Winston-Salem, N.C., the son of Polish immigrants, Howard grew up in Brooklyn, where, his mother recalls, he began talking at nine months. He had an early yen for reporting but, like a good Jewish boy, he followed his parents’ wishes, graduating in law from New York University at 20, having made Phi Beta Kappa and the editorship of the Law Review along the way. He waged World War II as an officer at the New York Port of Embarkation in Brooklyn, then married Edith (Emi)Abrams, the wealthy daughter of a stern Presbyterian industrialist, and settled down to practice law. In 1953 he drew up a Little League charter for an American Legion post, and ABC radio asked him if he could produce a panel of youngsters to interview athletes for a new series. Howard did his work so well that the network eventually offered him $250 to do 10 five-minute broadcasts a week. He told Emi: “My disposition demands the immediacy of translation of effort into result!” Meaning adios law, hello Muhammad Ali.
Cosell was the first sportscaster—black or white—to call Cassius Clay “Muhammad Ali,” and that led to a remarkable symbiotic relationship of Howard’s perfervid prose and Ali’s precocious poetry. The two have maintained a sparring, love-hate match to the finish that somehow symbolizes most of Cosell’s encounters with his fellow man. Dandy Don Meredith, the former NFL quarterback who lasted four years with him on Monday Night Football, says: “I really do like Howard. He can be a lot of fun, and terribly entertaining, and even informative.” On the other hand, ex-ballplayer-broadcaster Joe Garagiola says, “I consider Cosell a flunk-out lawyer. If he had breakfast, lunch and dinner with everybody he says he does, he’d weigh 673 pounds.” Perhaps an ABC executive best encapsulates America’s scrambled feelings about Howard Co-sell. “You’re not an insufferable egotist, Howard,” the exec said. “You’re a sufferable egotist.”
The network pays him $250,000, not counting the take from his 20-week, no-cut variety show contract. His books, Cosell and Like It Is, sold 200,000 copies—just in hardback. Yet, for all his success and his swagger, Cosell is a square in his milieu of randy, semitough roustabouts. He and his beloved Emi have a home on five wooded acres in Pound Ridge, N.Y., a comfortable pied-à-terre in Manhattan and a summer house in Westhampton Beach on Long Island. Howard dotes on his daughters—Jill, who lives in Darien, Conn. with her husband and Howard’s three grandchildren, and Hilary, who recently graduated from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism.
Still, Howard is not content to consecrate his manic energies and pretensions solely to family and the province of sport, where he considers himself a cerebral knight-errant in an intellectual and moral wasteland. He once seriously contemplated challenging James Buckley for his U.S. Senate seat in 1976, but now says, “Not at my age.” Hence show biz. “Realistically, I know it’s going to be difficult,” Howard concedes privately. “But we wanted to give it a whirl. Life is not the dugout.”
In other words, the sort he uses on the air, the host of Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell might say: this could be, ladies and gentlemen, and I mean this sincerely, the most extraordinary phantasmagoria in the recent chronicle of entertainment; or—and I say this because it must be said—it could very well prove to be an insult to the American intelligence and an abomination to the American eye.