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Robert Wuhl: The Storyteller

Mervyn Rothstein
From the Print Edition:
Air Sick, Jul/Aug 02

If you're a fan of Arli$$, the HBO comedy series, you know that Robert Wuhl plays an always greedy, sometimes sleazy, forever cynical and often cigar-smoking business agent in the high-priced world of professional sports. The show, which Wuhl created, writes for and stars in, was set to begin its seventh season in June, making it the longest-running original series in the cable channel's history.

What you might not know is that in real life, Wuhl appears as wired and intense as Arliss Michaels, the agent he portrays on the show. His voice is rapid-fire, his face rubbery and expressive, his mind constantly probing and questioning, his opinions -- whether on sports, cigars or television -- unhesitatingly fearless.

Baseball to me is the game, Wuhl says, over coffee at an Upper East Side hotel. The actor-writer is a lifelong baseball fan who acquired his love of the game from his father, Sonny, who once had a tryout as on outfielder with the New York Yankees' Newark Bears farm team. I'm into the game within the game; the constant battle between the pitcher and the batter. And as Thomas Boswell of The Washington Post said, 'Baseball is a game of generalists.' As opposed to football, which is a game of specialists. In baseball, you have to be able to do everything: hit, run, field. Football has specialists coming in on every play.

And the Baseball Hall of Fame? It's a totally full-of-shit thing, he continues. The goal of the Hall of Fame is to keep people out, not put people in. There are so many outfielders, for example, and so few catchers. So many first basemen and so few shortstops. That's not the way baseball works. You have to have somebody in every position. My criterion is simple: If you are the best person in that position in your league in the time you played, you should be in the Hall of Fame.

Keeping Pete Rose out because of his gambling? Let's not forget that Ty Cobb was a racist, says Wuhl. He was a wife beater. He was a Klansman. He was a horrible human being. And he was the first person they put in the Hall of Fame.

Wuhl is equally opinionated about cigars. Some people like Cohibas, but I find a Cohiba Esplendido a very overrated cigar. To me it's like sucking on a piece of wood, says the 50-year-old actor, a onetime cigar smoker who resumed the pastime six years ago when I decided they were right for Arliss. He finds it relaxing and favors Montecristo No. 2s, but also enjoys Sancho Panzas, Romeo y Julietas, Bahias and Arturo Fuentes, especially the Hemingway.

When it comes to television and movies and storytelling, Wuhl says that much of it, well, sucks. Storytelling is in very rare supply these days, he says. Storytelling in American films is truly dreadful.

Storytelling, making movies, he says, is what he has always wanted to do. And to be able to combine it with his love of sports and his love of acting -- well, he says, I've got the best gig in America.


Wuhl was born in Newark, New Jersey, grew up in nearby Union, and attended the Univer-sity of Houston, because they accepted me. It was there that he first combined his love of the arts and sports, doing publicity for the athletics department while taking acting and theater classes in the drama department. It was very bizarre, he says, because as you can imagine, those two worlds didn't really mix at all in the late '60s and early '70s.

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