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Robert Wuhl: The Storyteller

| By Mervyn Rothstein | From 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.

After seven years in Houston, he returned east, where he did stand-up comedy at the Improv in Manhattan. It was a great era for rising stars-Wuhl often shared the stage with Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David and Paul Reiser. The manager of the Improv was Chris Albrecht, who would later play a crucial role in Wuhl's career.

My role models were Woody Allen, Mike Nichols, Mel Brooks, Paul Mazursky, Wuhl says. I found that as a stand-up comic I didn't have to wait to be cast. I could present my own act and be seen, because I rarely got parts through auditions.

He began writing jokes for Rodney Dangerfield. I knocked on his door one day and started telling him jokes, and he hired me. Dangerfield took Wuhl to the West Coast to meet some people, and the young comedian moved out there within a year. It was 1979.

I was very fortunate, he says. I was noticed and got a part in a movie right away -- Newbomb Turk in Hollywood Knights. But of course, I didn't get another acting part for about five years.

He kept writing and auditioning, and after he failed to get the role in the movie Airplane! that went to Robert Hays, the movie's creators hired him to work on their Police Squad! television series, a sitcom that was canceled after six episodes.

The show's failure was really disheartening, he says. I thought we were doing good work. Maybe I should have been more mature at that point to know that it's not necessarily about that.

He continued to do stand-up comedy, wrote a few screenplays that he sold but which were never produced, and starred in HBO and Cinemax comedy specials. Then Barry Levinson hired him to play Robin Williams's noisy disc jockey colleague in Good Morning, Vietnam. That led to other parts, including the tobacco-chewing pitching coach in Bull Durham, a reporter in Batman, and sportswriter Al Stump in the Ty Cobb biopic, Cobb.

He also began a long association with Billy Crystal, writing for the comedian for three Grammy and four Oscar telecasts in the late '80s and early '90s, and picking up two Emmy Awards in the process. Then came Arli$$. It began as an idea for a sports version of Spinal Tap, the satirical mocumentary about a fictitious rock group, and took nearly five years to germinate. Michael Tollin (who became an executive producer of the show), took it to HBO, which suggested that Wuhl become involved.

We had our first meeting and we discussed the project, recalls Wuhl, and they said they wanted to do it event by event-a Spinal Tap of Wimbledon, a Spinal Tap of the Super Bowl. And I said, 'Guys, I've seen this. I've seen it on the Muppets. ' I said what I would be interested in doing is a six-part series that was a satire of the world of sports as told through the eyes of one person, and that should be a sports agent. This was 1991, and it hadn't been done. Money and sports were becoming bigger and bigger. And agents were just starting to be known on the sports pages as figures in themselves.

But as often as is the case in television, the time from conception to production was not swift. After writing a well-received pilot, Wuhl wrote two more episodes and then was asked for three more. It was 1993, and soon he was off to do Cobb. Once shooting was finished, he did four or five rewrites on the pilot, but he still hadn't gotten the green light from HBO.

Enter Chris Albrecht, the old manager of the Improv. He had become a vice president at HBO, eventually rising to the position of president for original programming. Chris was not into sports per se, says Wuhl. And he said, 'I don't know anything about sports, but I think this is funny.' So finally in 1995 we got that green light to do the pilot.

Critics and audiences loved the show, and the ratings have increased in each of the six years, Wuhl says, even though it has been in several time slots. Caryn James of The New York Times hailed it as snappy and cynical, though never mean-spirited, and it has a satisfying way of finding story endings that are humane without being forced.

The show has changed a lot over the six years, Wuhl says. It's become much darker because human nature is dark, and that's what's interesting. And anyway, we like to push the envelope. If you're going to keep moving artistically, you have to grow, you have to try and you have to risk failure, otherwise you're just repeating yourself and all you're doing is earning a paycheck.

'Arli$$' was always about money, he says. But it wasn't just about sports agents. There were several influences for me. One was Donald Trump's book The Art of the Deal; another was Mark McCormack's What They Don't Teach You at Harvard Business School. What interested me was how things work, and the game within the game.

In writing sessions, it's always about, What does Arliss want? The greatest compliment I get is from people, especially women, who say, 'I don't like sports at all, but I love the show.'

What began to change the show, he says, was the last episode of the first season, in which Ken Howard played Rocky Fromaggio, a Mickey Mantleñlike character. He was Arliss's boyhood idol, and he turns out to be this incredible lush whom Arliss tries to help.

That episode, he says, led to many more issue-oriented programs that delved into the dark realities of the world of sports, and the world itself -- programs involving domestic abuse, Alzheimer's disease, abortion, breast cancer. These shows, he says, are among his favorites.

There was one in which Arliss is trying to get one of his early clients into the Baseball Hall of Fame, and the guy is accused of beating his wife. And one in which Ed Asner plays a baseball announcer who's suffering from Alzheimer's -- my father-in-law went through that.

I would ask sports agents if they had ever had to arrange an abortion for a woman one of their athletes had gotten pregnant. And every agent said yes. So we did a show about that. And last year, there was the episode with Andrea Marcovicci, who plays Arliss's old flame, and I discover that she's lost a breast, and Arliss freaks out over it and walks out on her. When we were planning the show, the writers said that at that moment, when the episode was aired, I would be the most hated man in America. I said, 'It's honest.'

Arli$$ is known for its sports-star guest cameos, by everyone from Shaquille O'Neal, Roger Clemens and Tony Siragusa to Picabo Street and Billie Jean King. But Wuhl says that the cameos are really peripheral. It started in the first show, when we had a scene with a team owner and I couldn't get the actor I wanted, so I said, What about Jerry Jones [the owner of the Dallas Cowboys], and he said yes. What the athletes do is add a little texture. But it's never been about the jocks.

The show has just seven writers, including Wuhl, although he refuses to take a writer's credit. A minimum of 11 episodes have been scheduled for the new season.

Once shooting begins, a typical weekday finds Wuhl up at 5 a.m., being picked up at 6 and getting to the set by 6:30. We're shooting till about 8 or 9 p.m., he says. Every off second I have I'm either working with writers or in the editing room. I get home about 10 p.m., and I watch the dailies from the day before till about 11:30, making notes on every take, every word, so I'm prepared when I go into the editing room. Then I go to bed, say hi to my wife, say goodbye to my wife, and then I'm up at 5. That's Monday through Friday. On Saturday I edit from about 9 to 6, and on Sunday I'm usually with the writers doing a rewrite on an upcoming episode.

Production continues until about the end of June or early July, followed by post-production, editing and mixing and everything else, until late August or Labor Day, pretty much until two or three weeks before the broadcast season ends.

Wuhl is of course thrilled with the series' success, but he is quick to share credit with many: HBO, for allowing the show such freedom; the writers and co-producers; and fellow cast members Sandra Oh (who plays Rita, his assistant), Jim Turner (Kirby, his junior partner) and Michael Boatman (Stanley, his financial officer).

In the two months or so he has off each year before script work begins again, Wuhl and his wife, Barbara-they've been married 19 years-leave their Westwood, California, home and spend time in their New York apartment or abroad, often in Paris. They have no children, but we do have a dog, who lives very well, and travels everywhere with us. My dog has been to Paris five times.

Wuhl knows that Arli$$, like all TV shows, eventually will end. Each year, in fact, is a cliffhanger. Unlike many of Arliss's clients, with their multimillion-dollar, multiyear deals, the show has never had a long-term contract. There have been only one-year agreements, and part of each fall is hostage to the suspense and uncertainty of waiting for the HBO referees' decision on the series' future.

It's excruciating, he says. I've always thought every year is the last year. And of course, one year it will be.

But Wuhl says he knows for certain what he wants to do next. I want to continue telling stories, he says. And smoking good cigars.

Mervyn Rothstein is an editor for The New York Times.