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After the Fall
Geoffrey Norman
May 20, 1991
CHET FORTE, ONCE TV's TOP SPORTS DIRECTOR, IS PICKING UP THE PIECES OF A LIFE RUINED BY COMPULSIVE GAMBLING
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May 20, 1991

After The Fall

CHET FORTE, ONCE TV's TOP SPORTS DIRECTOR, IS PICKING UP THE PIECES OF A LIFE RUINED BY COMPULSIVE GAMBLING

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"He was friends with everyone in production," MacPhail says from Atlanta, where he is now head of CNN Sports, "including a man named Tony Verna, who was working on something called instant replay. Chet didn't miss a thing."

Rozelle, of course, went on to become NFL commissioner and the archetypal sports czar—establishing his authority most decisively, perhaps, in 1963 when he suspended two stars, Alex Karras and Paul Hornung, for betting on football games. Dolph was a bettor and was known by his friends to be in deep to the bookies. When he became commissioner of the American Basketball Association in 1969, people in the New York sports world enjoyed saying that the mob at last had a league of its own. In the late 1970s, after the ABA and the NBA had merged and Dolph was a struggling independent TV sports producer, he visited Forte at his ABC office.

Unshaven and wearing a shabby trench coat, Dolph sat across from Forte's desk and explained, with his eyes on the floor, that he was desperate. Forte gave him a check for $5,000. Dolph, near tears, thanked him. "Here," he said, "let me give you a mortgage on my house."

"Jesus Christ," Forte remembers saying. "Just take the money, Jack. Pay me when you can." He knew he would never see the money again, and he never did. Dolph died in 1981, still deeply in debt from gambling.

Forte had been recruited to ABC in 1963 by another Columbia graduate, Arledge, who had become head of sports at what was then called "the third network in a 2½-network business." ABC had nowhere to go but up, and Arledge believed he could move the network that way, on the strength of a growing American obsession with sports and a new, dynamic way of bringing games into the living room, up close and personal. He built his own team and trained its members to see games the way he did. In a few years Forte was Arledge's favorite director.

Forte first showed his skills in broadcasts of NBA games. He knew basketball and could anticipate the action and make sure his cameramen were on top of it. "He called the fouls before the referees did, honest to god," one cameraman, Andy Armentani, remembers. But there was more to it than Forte's background as an athlete. He was consumed, a perfectionist who cared as much about the strength of the broadcast as the coaches did about the outcome of the game. Every game was a physical ordeal; he would shout and rant and curse to get the same kind of commitment from his crew as he himself gave. The tension in the truck became part of the ABC style. Everybody yelled, and nobody let up.

That spirit and Arledge's shrewd instinct for what viewers wanted—and his willingness to pay to get it—made ABC the top sports network by the late '60s. ABC did the Olympics and made it work, cutting seamlessly from one event to another, giving viewers the faces of the athletes and a feel for the stress of competition. In 1961 Arledge introduced Wide World of Sports. "The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat" became an American catch phrase. With Forte directing, ABC made TV sports fans feel intimate with Muhammad Ali and an abrasive announcer named Howard Cosell, who covered Ali's lights.

Then, in 1970, Arledge took what appeared at the time to be a desperate gamble. ABC was still extremely weak in prime time, and the other networks had all but locked up pro football, the sport that was most in tune with the hard-driving spirit of the times. Arledge bought the rights to broadcast one game a week, in prime time. And he made Forte producer-director of Monday Night Football.

The show depended on an unusual three-announcer format. Keith Jackson did play-by-play. Don Meredith, recently retired as quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, and Cosell provided color and commentary. Forte gave the show a look unlike that of any program on the other networks. Monday Night Football melded violence, technology and celebrity into a tight, compelling package that was perfect for its era. Forte had cameras everywhere—a dozen or more, when the other networks were getting by on three or four. Cameras searched the sidelines and the crowd for reaction shots. Forte constantly told his crew to "sell me something," and it became a challenge to find a great shot—of a coach or fan or cheerleader—that Forte would notice on one of the many monitors and then send out live.

The ABC van was like an emergency room, intense and slightly frightening if you weren't a part of it. One play during the first year of the show was emblematic. It was a simple handoff to a back who went off-tackle and was stopped for no gain. The kind of thing you would never notice in an ordinary broadcast. But Forte had his cameras keying on certain players, and he happened to have one camera on the back and another on the linebacker who tackled him. So, yelling first to his replay director, then to his technical director and then to Meredith in the booth, Forte managed between plays to split the screen and put the linebacker on one side, the back on the other, then follow them both, in slow motion, to the hole and merge the images at the moment of impact. What had been the pushing and shoving of a herd of men was now a solitary duel, and it was great television. Everyone in the van knew it, and for a second or two they yelled and pounded each other on the back, and then it was back to the next play. When the game was over, they were all drained.

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