He stood in the wings backstage at New York's Plymouth Theater, the very prototype of the angular, impeccably tailored English gentleman, smiling dauntlessly despite the lingering ravages of insuperable dyspepsia. In seconds, Peter Cook and his partner in comedy, the diminutive but comparably dapper Dudley Moore, would reduce another Broadway audience to helpless laughter with their two-man review, Good Evening, a series of sketches that may yet restore meaning to the word irreverence.
But Cook, at this ordinarily tense moment, was thinking not so much of the boffos his wit would soon elicit from the customers as he was of a dream come true the day before. A fortnight earlier he had been visited in his sleep by a vision, and after tossing restlessly with the burdens of clairvoyance, he awoke sharply at his usual hour, one p.m., sat bolt upright and announced to what we must assume was an otherwise unoccupied sleeping chamber: " Dolphins, 17-0 at the half!"
Cook is not one to invest his dreams with Freudian gobbledygook; he prefers to take them at face value. Should he dream, for example, of being pursued down a deserted mine shaft by fierce African tribesmen, he might spend the next day prudently avoiding large apertures and black men attired in leopard skins. On one previous occasion he had dreamed that a long shot named You Can Fly had won a horse race in England. He was only momentarily dismayed that afternoon when he could find no horse of this name listed under "Y" in the racing form. Under "U," however, there was U-Can-Fly. Cook wagered �10 on his nose. U-Can-Fly won in a breeze, paying 10 to 1.
With this history of somnambulistic soothsaying, he could scarcely ignore the pre-Super Bowl visitation, so he collared Assistant Stage Manager Tom Urban, a betting nemesis, and with minimal difficulty cajoled him into giving 10-to-1 odds on the halftime score. They watched the game together on television at Urban's New Jersey digs. Urban sat in stunned silence as the Dolphins speedily accumulated the requisite 17 points. But then the Vikings mounted an offensive that carried to the shadow of the Miami goalpost. Fourth and a yard on the six! A cinch first down. Then a touchdown that would shatter the myth of Cook's supernatural powers. When on the next play Oscar Reed fumbled away the Vikings' opportunity, Urban gasped in disbelief, showing the pallor of one who has just seen another man's dream come true. Cook matter-of-factly collected his bet, dismissing the entire affair as merely a further demonstration of his complicity with the unseen, "The Great," as he put it, "Sportsman in the Sky."
Inwardly, he gloated. And at the theater the following evening, still vibrating from the effects of the postgame celebration, he appeared for his curtain call arrayed in a sweat shirt on which was emblazoned: PROPERTY OF MIAMI DOLPHINS. Maybe for the first time, this deft comedian heard a smattering of boos.
Cook's intense involvement with American sports is a continuing puzzlement to his countrymen, particularly Moore, who thinks Csonka is a U.S. substitute for coffee. But Cook, the Cambridge-educated son of a British diplomat, cheers shamelessly for such colonials as Paul Warfield, Tug McGraw and Joe Frazier.
"Actors and athletes have always had a great affinity for one another," Cook explains. "Actors, athletes and crooks. Criminals get along famously with people in our businesses. I think it is because they recognize in us fellow thieves. As entertainers, you see, we are also in the business of stealing the public's money. We are paid so disproportionately."
Disregarding any identification with the underworld, there is considerable truth in Cook's argument. In this country, the theater and the arena have long housed many of the same performers. Dating to John L. Sullivan, whose portrayal of Captain Harcourt in The Man from Boston
made up in bluster what it lacked in refined technique, athletes have been drawn magnetically to the stage. Sullivan's successor as heavyweight champion of the world, Gentleman Jim Corbett, was an actor of considerable subtlety. His performance in George Bernard Shaw's Cashel Byron's Profession was, in his opinion at least, a triumph as great as any he achieved in the ring. Indeed, Corbett was a natural for the part, since Cashel Byron's profession was prizefighting. No matter. "I want to reach the point," said Corbett of his theatrical career, "where people will turn around and say, 'There goes Jim Corbett, the actor,' not 'There goes Jim Corbett, the prizefighter.' " Bob Fitzsimmons, who flattened the aspiring thespian with his renowned solar plexus punch, is the only person known to have regarded Gentleman Jim in quite this light.
Sullivan and Corbett were merely the first in a distinguished line of jock-actors whose number includes Johnny Weissmuller, Buster Crabbe, Johnny Mack Brown, the Maxies—Baer and Rosen-bloom—Woody Strode and such contemporary artists as Jim Brown, Fred Williamson and Joe Namath. This excludes athletes such as Frankie Albert, Tom Harmon, Blanchard and Davis, Elroy Hirsch and Jackie Robinson, who starred, regrettably, in their own quickie cinematic biographies.
There has been traffic as well in the reverse direction. Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Gene Autry and Danny Thomas have all been investors in big-league sports franchises. And every actor, crooner and stand-up comic, with the possible exception of Mason Reese, has fronted his own celebrity golf classic.