Throughout a 30-plus-year career as a sportscaster, HowardCosell developed a reputation as someone who would "tell it like it is." HomeBox 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 ofhis career, in the late 1970s, was one of the most famous people in the United States, HowardCosell: Telling It Like It Is isn't afraid to shy away from Cosell'scontroversial or bombastic side.
That bombast was there even early in his career. Thedocumentary devotes a good deal of time to Cosell's rise from host of a show starringLittle Leaguers to the country's pre-eminent boxing announcer.
Robert Lipsyte of The New York Times recalls Cosellusing his tape recorder "like a battering ram" to "slug his way into thegroup" while covering the New York Mets' inaugural season for WABC radio.
It also offers insights into Cosell's early lifegrowing up as a Jewish kid in Brooklyn, and how that influenced the attitudes he broughtwith him into the booth.
For example, the documentary explains how thediscrimination Cosell experienced in his own life -- both as a Jewish kid in theneighborhood 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 Muslimname following his conversion to Islam, and he also stood up for the fighter when herefused to be drafted to fight in Vietnam. He also railed against baseball'sreluctance to hire black managers in the 1960s.
"I don't think he had the answers, but heunderstood the problem and he asked questions that gave a young athlete like myself enoughspace to say what I felt," recalled 1968 Olympic gold medalist Tommie Smith,explaining why he sought out Cosell for an interview following his famous "BlackPower" salute on the medal stand.
It also points out the irony behind the offhand commentthat almost unmade Cosell -- his early 1980s description of Washington Redskins widereceiver Alvin Garrett as a "little monkey" -- noting that it wasn't thefirst time he used the description and playing a highlight of Cosell using the same phraseto 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 Aliand comedian Billy Crystal -- reveal the mixed emotions people had about Cosell.
But the two most revealing interview subjects were hislongtime ABC colleagues, Frank Gifford and Al Michaels, who seem to still have somefondness for the man even after he trashed them in his memoir.
"He was the omniscient, all-knowing, all-seeing eye ofthe viewer," Michaels reflected. "He really carved out a role that had notexisted in this business and I'm not sure even exists to this day."
Howard Cosell: Telling It Like It Is bows on HBOMonday, Nov. 1, at 8 p.m.