Actor Jon Voight is hazy on the exact date (sometime in the late 1970s, he surmises) and setting of the interview, but his memory of the way Howard Cosell interrogated him remains as sharp as the sportscaster's tongue. "I went to a Catholic school, and Howard as a young fellow had been the brunt of many attacks by the Catholic boys in his neighborhood," says Voight, who plays Cosell in the film Ali, which opens on Christmas Day. "So he asks me during this interview, 'Did you pick on the Jewish boys in your neighborhood?' 1 was taken aback by the question, so I told him, 'No, Howard, I didn't. But I would have made an exception with you.' "
Actor John Turturro has his memories of Cosell too, mostly consisting of his father yelling at the television after a Cosell rant on Monday Night Football. "A lot of times my dad would say, 'He doesn't know what the hell he's talking about,' " recalls Turturro, who plays Cosell in the TNT movie Monday Night Mayhem, which premieres on Jan. 14 and chronicles the Cosell years, 1971 to '83, on MNF. "Howard did get under your skin, but more than anything, he got you involved."
Over the past year Turturro, 44, and Voight, 62, have become Cosellologists, probing the life and times of the Irrepressible One, who died in 1995 at 77. Turturro visited the Museum of Television & Radio in his native New York City to view footage of Cosell and would walk around listening to Cosell's voice on cassette tapes. Voight immersed himself in Cosell's two autobiographies and watched countless hours of his interviews with Muhammad Ali (played in the film by Will Smith). "He says in one of his books [Cosell by Cosell] that 'I am, of course, an incurable needier,' " says Voight. "He was provoking people. It was his fun."
Both actors perform superbly as Cosell. As the central figure of Monday Night Mayhem, Turturro delves more deeply into Cosell's psyche, examining the insecurities that Cosell attempted to mask with bravado. Voight's Cosell is an ensemble player in Ali's world, popping up intermittently to orally spar with the boxer. To get the juices flowing for the dynamic repartee between Cosell and Ali, Voight and Smith would taunt each other in character on the set before their scenes together.
Turturro and Voight considered it vital to capture the Cosell look, including his sloping posture and, of course, the toupee. "I'd put on these prosthetics, and with each prosthetic I'd get a little closer to Cosell," says Voight. "Finally when I put that wig on, that was the crown. I walked around every day in the posture of Howard Cosell, and I said to my son, 'I think I'm cementing osteoporosis with every step.' "
Then there's the voice: the polysyllabic pronouncements delivered in bombastic style. "You develop it like a muscle," says Turturro. "He had a big voice, and it's a different placement than mine. His voice is up there [he mimics Cosell]. You have to sort of score it like a musician."
Neither actor wants to say he nailed the part, but each is proud of his performance—and rightly so. "I think I did a good job in evoking him, but I don't think you can really capture Howard," says Voight. "He's an animal who was uncontainable."