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Bud Greenspan is the producer, the director and the writer of Cappy Productions, a six-person outfit that makes sports documentaries for television. Except that he keeps a pipe stuck in his mouth instead of a lollipop, he could double for Telly Savalas. Almost everyone in TV sports knows that the 47-year-old Greenspan is very good at what he does, but neither his resemblance to one of television's biggest stars nor the excellence of his films has prompted the networks to use his work very often. "We are the makers of the best sports shows never seen on television," he says.
Not quite never. In 1972 his production of Jesse Owens Returns to Berlin appeared on ABC-TV and received excellent reviews and three Emmy Award nominations. Owens came about because Greenspan noticed a six-line story in a newspaper about the famous Olympian's return to Berlin and thought it could be the basis for a show with far more depth than the usual sports documentary. He was right. The one-hour film perfectly captured Owens and the pressure he was under while winning four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics. The best thing about it was its integrity. There was no embellishment; the story was kept so pure and simple that it seemed to tell itself. When Owens ended, the viewer had a sense of having watched something close to genuine art.
Where have Greenspan's shows been since 1972? Nowhere. The Glory of Their Times, his adaptation of Lawrence Ritter's acclaimed book about the early days of baseball and the game's sociological impact, can be seen only in Greenspan's office in New York City. "It's not the type of show that would suit the jock fan on a Saturday afternoon at 4:30," he says. "It is a program that a family should look at together to sense the fabric of our history in relation to sport." Except for Greenspan's close friends, nobody has seen A Couple of Days in the Life of Charley Boswell. That is a shame because Charley Boswell took seven months to make and tells the story of the blind golfer with restrained pathos and good humor.
Greenspan currently is working on nine one-hour shows about the Olympic Games. The BBC, CTV in Canada and five major networks in other parts of the world have bought the series. But that doesn't mean it will ever get on the air in the U.S.
Greenspan is one of a handful of independent sports documentarians in this country, and fingers fall off that hand with startling regularity because it is a very frustrating business. The reasons his shows are not telecast are obvious: the networks have large sports departments whose existence and immense budgets must be justified. Thus, they produce their own shows and put them on the air, no matter how shallow they may be. The networks also prefer to run either live events or such things as Celebrity Distance Spitting. These shows are safer because they tend to draw audiences of fairly predictable size and give the telecasters the added advantage of maintaining control over the talent and expenses.
"It took three years to get Owens on the air and seven years to get it on one of the three big networks," says Greenspan. " General Electric bought it originally for $150,000, pending network acceptance within 18 months. When they couldn't clear the time on one of the big networks, I got the show back and sold it to Hughes Sports Network for $75,000. It played on 180 stations and the advertiser was General Electric. Then ABC picked it up. It has now played in 108 countries and been seen by a billion people. It has grossed more than $250,000, but that isn't much when you figure out the time and the agony involved."
Greenspan started out in broadcasting at the age of 17. Two years later he became sports director at station WHN in New York, then the nation's most powerful radio sports outlet. " Clem McCarthy worked for me when he was 65 and called me sir," Greenspan says. "I approved Curt Gowdy's first job, and Marty Glickman, Red Barber, Vin Scully and a lot of others worked for me."
His Olympic project was bought by the BBC for $100,000 and by Australian TV for $250,000. CTV and 20th Century-Fox have invested slightly more than $500,000 to underwrite production costs. Greenspan has already examined more than 2.5 million feet of Olympic film and visited 13 countries. This week he is in Finland talking to President Urho Kekkonen about one of his teammates on the 1924 Finnish national team, Paavo Nurmi. Greenspan has somehow found film of all of Nurmi's 14 Olympic races. They are just a small part of Cappy Productions' library of Olympic movies, now perhaps the most extensive in the world. Greenspan has collected so much good footage that he can afford to use one hour of it to make a segment entitled An Olympic Symphony. In it the athletes will be shown performing to Beethoven and Verdi, instead of the usual narration.
Greenspan is not bitter about the failure of his shows to appear on the networks, but he certainly is frustrated. He says, "When the BBC told us they would buy the series on the Olympics, they also said, 'We are buying it because you can do things we are unable to do and there isn't much sense in our fooling around and trying to do it on our own.' " The U.S. networks would do well to stop fooling around and give Greenspan a good hard look.