Her professional clothes were designed by "Omar of Omaha," she wrote 75 percent of her material, her nude photos were judged too good by Playboy (the magazine was going for laughs), and she performed as guest pianist with more than 100 of the Nation's symphony orchestras.
Her name was Phyllis Diller. She died last week in Brentwood at 95 and those at her bedside said she went out with a smile, thoroughly i keeping with her having been a very, very funny lady. If she hadn't created such a long and successful career starting at age 37, she probably would have died in St. Louis rather than the Los Angeles suburb.
I had lunch with Diller in the Gateway to the West not long after being named TV Guide regional manager of a large chunk of real estate that included St. Louis. Transportation in those days was of particular importance to entertainers and St. Louis' central location was a major career consideration. Diller had achieved her initial success doing stand-up at the Purple Onion while working days writing copy at a San Francisco radio station. That was in 1955 and it wasn't long before she was being seen on the shows of Jack Paar, Red Skelton and Jack Benny.
If memory serves, the luncheon was somewhere in the Gaslight Square area where Diller had held forth at the Crystal Palace, creative home of other talented people--among them song writers Fran Landesman and Tommy Wolf whose credits include "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most" from their "The Nervous Set."
The Diller luncheon included four other members of what was then called the press and I believe my invitation was decidedly more of an acknowledgement of my magazine's national stature rather than any impressive local strength. A difficult market for TV Guide in those days, St. Louis had but three stations, one a UHF. Diller's arrival from suburban Webster Groves was in a Rolls-Royce and she stayed in character complete with the cigarette holder, a crazy hat and clothes tastefully reduced in impact from her TV appearances. Her cackling voice and references to "Fang," her brilliant and oft-used comedic invention, were on target and her best line, one of many alluding to her attire, was: "You know you're old when someone compliments you on your alligator shoes, and you're barefoot."
My luncheon with Diller was oddly precient involving recognition on my part that her body, then 42, would have been appreciated by Playboy photographers. Nude photographs of her were submittd to the magazine two years later and I went to work for Hugh Hefner in 1968. Oddly enough, during my tenure with Playboy, I never became aware of the Diller photographs nor the "rejection" story until the facts were mentioned in her obituaries.
As many of us now know, Hefner began using photographs of celebrities older than the girls next door. That was more than 30 years ago; Terry Moore has been the oldest at 55 followed by Nancy Sinatra (54), Vicki LaMotta (51) and Farrah Fawcett (50). One has to wonder if Diller provided the original nudge some six years after the magazine's first issue with Marilyn Monroe on the cover. It seems a bit surreal to include Phyllis Diller and Marilyn Monroe in the same sentence but life can, indeed, be curious. Of more than passing interest are those Diller nude shots. At least one survives and is included in her 2005 autobiography, Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse.
Diller's greatest contribution to comedy probably was paving the way for a future generation of feminine big mouths including Roseanne Barr, Sarah Silverman and Joan Rivers who, come to think of it, is still being outragous while nearing 80. The latter's introduction to comedy was as a writer for Diller with the most valuable lesson learned being the mileage achieved from self-directed barbs.
While Diller could be described as a somewhat beguiling big mouth (her work was remarkably clean), such was not the case with Howard Cosell, the sports journalist who transformed an obnoxious one-of-a-kind persona into a much-copied norm for sports broadcasting.
Indeed, there was and continues to be but one Cosell who once said of himself: "Arrogant, pompous, obnoxious, vain, cruel, verbose, a showoff. I have been called all of these. Of course, I am."
Until Cosell became a household name in the mid-50s, sports broadcasters were largely a breed inventing their craft as they blathered along with home team announcers most often referred to as "homers." The term remains in use today largely because of the role played by ownerships, particularly baseball, in choosing broadcast teams. Vin Scully, now pushing 90, is a notable exception and before him such worthies as Graham McNamee and Ted Husing. It was McNamee, a budding opera singer, who invented play-by-play prior to Husing coming on board as a crossover from news and political conventions coverage. Arrogant, opinionated, even coarse, Husing could have been the role model for Cosell.
Cosell also was impressive with none of Scully's class and you either thought he was wonderful or an outrage. Assuming a "tell it like it is" approach, the one-time lawyer (he was admitted to the New York State Bar in 1941), began on ABC with pre- and post-game shows of the then brand new New York Mets.
While baseball was a springboard to fame for Cosell, it was boxing and "Monday Night Football" that cemented his relationship with fans. It was Cosell's defense of Muhammad Ali who, while still fighting under his birth name, Cassius Clay, refused to be inducted into the military. Cosell's four years U.S. Army service during World War II made his defense of Ali a lot easier.
Cosell transformed sports reporting and nothing could have been of greater reportorial contrast than the work of Jerome Herman ("Dizzy") Dean whose approach was more than bizarre. Baseball was his game (he remains the last National League pitcher to win 30 games) and his base runners "slud" into third base while sometimes "returning to their respectable bases." Inclined to mount evidence that good pitchers must be of stout heart, Dizzy suggested that one possessed "testicle fortitude."
Until Cosell came along with an intellectual approach, sports broadcast reporting was heavy on cliches and light on stories behind the stories. His feuds, particularly with New York sports columnists Dick Young and Jimmy Cannon, were classics. Cannon once suggested: "This is a guy who changed his name, put on a toupee and tried to convince the world that he tells it like it is; If Howard Cosell were a sport, he'd be the roller derby."
In a very real sense, Cosell legitimatized the sports loud mouth and probably helped open the door, if briefly, for Rush Limbaugh. ESPN hired the master of hate radio to contribute his limited football knowledge to "Sunday Night Countdown." That was in the fall of 2003 with Limbaugh lasting less than a month by making racist remarks about Philadelphia Eagles' quarterback Donovan McNabb.
Sports broadcasting's big mouths are many these days with demands made by cable's 24/7 the biggest factor. A lot of time has to be chewed up and the need for panels of experts results in an obvious contrast to sports anchors on 30-minute newscasts. About as colorful as network sports broadcasters are allowed to be can be found on golf coverage now the province of CBS, NBC and the Golf Channel. Johnny Miller of NBC is often peevish while CBS' Gary McCord is consistently amusing as he makes light of a sport that takes itself too seriously. McCord, still barred from The Masters for nearly 20 years following his description of the 17th green as appearing to be "bikini waxed," is the same guy who split his pants while bending over a putt at the 1984 Fed Ex St. Jude Classic. Unfortunately, he was without underwear and, after brief embarrassment, bought fellow pro Peter Jacobson's rain pants for $20. McCord and David Feherty of Golf Channel are the sport's best.
Such ESPN cable carpers as Tony Kornheiser, Colin Cowherd ("The Herd") and "Mike & Mike in the Morning" have shown promise as certified blowhards. The best of the bunch may be Samuel A. Smith whose boorishness is decidedly of the Cosell School. A writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer since 1994, Smith had his column yanked in 2007. Arbitration ensued and he was reinstated while forced to remove political views from his website and cable news shows. Called "a self-promoting, race-based gasbag" by the New York Post, Smith does radio shows for stations in New York and Los Angeles. National exposure comes in the form of ESPN's "First Take" with Skip Bayless who can be counted upon to run counter to most of Smith's opinions. Smith has referred to himself as "a cross between Bill O'Reilly and Larry King" and has been known to change his mind as often as Mitt Romney. The NBA is his special province and he was a special commentator on the Michael Jackson memorial funeral service.
Smith may very well be Cosell's heir apparent yet there have been times when I was convinced any mantle assumption would be by Jay Mariotti whose loud mouth career has been stalled by a series of misadventures climaxed by being charged with stalking and assaulting his ex-girlfriend. His 2010 court appearance (he pleaded no contest, got five years probation) was highlighted by the charge that he allegedly demanded "as a high profile sports writer and general celebrity" that the ex-girl friend get plastic surgery. A writer of 17 years for the Chicago Sun-Times, Mariotti was employed by ESPN at the time of his arrest in Los Angeles. His work there included "Around the Horn" while occasionally hosting "Pardon the Interruption." He has been without work for three years.
Boistrous and obnoxious, Mariotti was so offensive to Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert that the Pulitzer winner challenged Mariotti's inclination to write sensationalist columns while working at his paper.
This just in. Jim Rome, who left ESPN for a CBS radio gig in January, will go CBS Sports Network all the way when he finalizes a deal to do "Rome," a 30-minute daily cable TV show on the network that debuted in April. Rome may be recalled as a guy who works his name into his show titles as in "Rome is Burning."
Rome may be recalled for an in-studio interview conducted early in his career with NFL quarterback Jim Everett. Convinced that Everett was a bit shy when confronted by NFL tacklers, Rome began calling him "Chris," a reference to female tennis star Chris Evert. Everett eventually took Rome to the floor while on the air. A desk that had separated them, was overturned.
Word is that Rome, once again, will make certain his interviews will be conducted over a very sturdy desk.
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