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Tuesday, January 8, 2002
Updated: January 14, 11:37 AM ET
John Turturro

Special to Page 2

John Turturro is an actor's actor. Ask Matt Damon, ask Harvey Keitel, ask Denzel -- they'll tell you. He's a director's actor, too. Spike Lee and the Coen brothers never go anywhere without him.

John Turturro
Even as a kid, actor John Turturro mimicked the broadcasting style of Howard Cosell.
From Heinz in "Five Corners" to Pino in "Do the Right Thing" to Joey Knish in "Rounders" and Jesus Quintana in "The Big Lebowski," Turturro has turned out one rock-solid performance after another, each time showing us something salt-of-the-earth familiar and out-of-this-world fantastic.

Next week, Turturro stars as Howard Cosell in "Monday Night Mayhem," a TNT movie about the history of Monday Night Football. Page 2's Eric Neel wondered how the actor got ready to play the most famous and most obnoxious mouth in the history of sports television, so he peppered him with 10 Burning Questions. Turturro's a smart guy, full of stories and insights -- 10 questions weren't nearly enough.

1. Page 2: You really nailed Cosell's voice and rhythms in this movie. How did you do it?

John Turturro: Growing up, just about everybody I knew would imitate Howard. I could do him fairly well as a kid, but imitation is more of a sketch, you tend to exaggerate, you keep it on one rhythm or whatever, and you only have to last a few minutes.

Monday Night Mayhem
TNT's original movie, "Monday Night Mayhem," premieres at 9 p.m. ET Monday.
To do a performance is different. You have to kind of work on the outer and the inner things at the same time. You have to figure out what drives somebody. The more I delved into Cosell, the more I found he was a guy whose weapon was his mind, and I thought that's something that can drive someone, and that helped me find the voice.

I always try to make a list of what I have in common, and what I don't have in common, with someone I'm playing. I concentrate on the things I don't have in common, and use the things I do.

With Howard, there were obviously physical things and vocal things we shared, but finding out all these other things about him that I didn't know -- how he was raised, his law background, his passion for civil rights -- helped me get a feel for him ... that and watching old tapes from the museum of broadcasting.

Once you got into Howard, was it hard to get out? Did you bring him home with you?

Turturro: No, I was too tired. This was a shooting monster. With a television movie, you have less time, so you're shooting a lot. Some days I worked 24 hours straight. I had a big makeup job. Had to shave my head. The eyebrows -- I had to do the eyebrows hair by hair. You'd think with modern techniques it would be faster, but it isn't.

Howard Cosell
Cosell "was able to heighten sports and make it more dramatic."
2. Is it true that when you were growing up your dad wasn't too crazy about Cosell?

Turturro: Well, whose dad was, right?! My dad yelled at him when he came on the screen. I guess people weren't used to seeing this kind of ethnic, Jewish guy telling everybody that he knew better than them, and taking no prisoners with his approach.

Is that what you liked about him -- that he took no prisoners?

Turturro: Yeah, definitely. I loved it. You know, people said they hated him, but I don't really think they did hate him. I just think he stimulated them. He was able to heighten sports and make it more dramatic. He elevated it to the level of Greek myth or something.

Do you think he really felt sports were that important, or was he just pretending?

Turturro: I think he was doing a little bit of both. Later on, I think he did get bored with sports, but when he had a real issue, like Curt Flood, or Ali, or the Olympics, then he went to town.

3. Were you a big sports fan growing up?

Joey Knish
Turturro played opposite Matt Damon as "Joey Knish" in the poker movie "Rounders."
Turturro: Yeah, my father really liked boxing, and so I got into that. I used to collect fight films. Jim Jacobs used to sell old fight films in Ring magazine and I'd get those. Sometimes I'd narrate them as Cosell, while my father and I played them on the projector.

I really was introduced to Howard through "Wide World of Sports" and the Olympics, though. I followed his whole career. I was interested in all the fights he did.

Were you a fan of other announcers when you were a kid?

Turturro: I liked Marv Albert doing the Knicks, especially on the radio. I still like Marv now. I remember Bill Russell doing basketball -- he was fun. I liked Marty Glickman, too.

Do you think anyone working today compares to Cosell?

Marv Albert
Is Turturro a big fan of Marv Albert? Yesssss!
Turturro: There are guys who are good. Costas is good. But there's so much product now that it would be hard to have the effect that Howard had. Howard kind of broke down the doors. Even he, I don't think, would not have the same effect now that he did then.

I think there are people who are definitely influenced by him. Al Michaels is a good announcer. I actually think Keith Jackson is a terrific announcer. I always loved him on "Monday Night Football." I never understood why they got rid of him.

I don't think the other guys are on the level of Howard. Costas has a way with words, and he's a terrific interviewer, but there's no one who dramatizes sports like Howard.

The funny thing, though, was that sometimes Howard was kind of ill-informed about a lot of sports. That was kind of the bizarre thing about him. I don't think to this day that he was as much of an expert on boxing as everyone thought he was. I remember I used to watch Ali fight, and the other guy would land some punches and Howard was like (in Cosell's voice), "Ah, they haven't touched Muhammad!" I was like, "Come on, the guy landed blows." You know, Howard could be prejudicial in his reporting.

Marv Albert
Cosell wasn't too objective about Muhammad Ali.
But when he had an issue, he could really run with it, and in the end, the combination of his ego, his insecurity, his intelligence -- it was special.

4. What do you think Howard would think of Dennis Miller?

Turturro: He'd probably be pretty critical. I think Howard really had a thing with Don Meredith because Don kind of created his own character, like Howard did. That first year they had a really great give-and-take. Frank Gifford was good too when he came along, but it was a different kind of thing, more of a guy thing.

5. A lot of your movies involve sports or games.

Turturro: I've covered poker, bowling and a little bit of basketball. I've never done the basketball film I'd like to do though.

Spike Lee
Spike Lee and Turturro are working on a movie about banned NBA star Jack Molinas.
What film is that?

Turturro: I've had it for years, Spike and I, we've come close. It's a kind of big film. It's called "Prince Jack," and it's about Jack Molinas (a one-time NBA All-Star banned in 1954 for conspiring to fix games). It's a really good script. It's a wonderful, epic story about an athlete, and a guy who had it all -- brains, ability and talent, and basically went down the wrong path. It really explores, in an interesting way, the athletic personality.

6. What is it about the athletic personality, and about sports in general, that you find interesting?

Turturro: Well, I just played basketball this morning, and for me, I think they're games first, but they're games that sometimes can reveal things. To watch someone in movement, unconscious movement, can be very stimulating and revealing, whether they win or not.

It's great to watch someone get the most out of what they can do, whether they're a beautiful performer or just a really gritty performer. It's something to behold. Athletes are like gods to a lot of people. It's become exaggerated, but there's something about watching, not just the competition but sometimes the competition from within, and when you really see it, it's great.

Monday Night Mayhem
Turturro's brother, Nicholas, plays MNF producer Chet Forte.
As much as I love basketball, though, I rarely watch any more, unless the team is a great passing team. I liked to watch the old Knicks -- they were just a lot of great shooters and great passers, they weren't as dominant physically as guys are now.

I almost think the game now needs a bigger court and a higher basket. I do.

But when the game is played well, it's just beautiful.

7. Do you play in a regular game?

Turturro: Yeah, we play three-on-three mostly. We don't play full court.

Do you play with your brother, Nicholas?

Jesus Quintana
Turturro lit up the lanes as "Jesus Quintana" in the Coen Brothers' "The Big Lebowski."
Turturro: I play sometimes with my brother. We haven't played in a while. He's a good athlete. He's a little out of shape right now, but he's a good athlete. He's a real good baseball player.

It's interesting, Nicholas and I talk about it, I don't love basketball at the level that I play. I love to watch a team that moves and passes well, or I love to watch a player like Jason Kidd, who sees things so well. I used to love to watch the games between the Lakers and the Celtics -- those were great.

8. Like a lot of the characters you've played over the years, Cosell thought of himself as an outsider. What makes roles like that appealing to you?

Turturro: There have been times where I've played more of a straight guy, or whatever, but even those people have been in conflict. To me, that's the nature of acting. Some actors, you know, they're always the guy with the answer. Others are in conflict with the mainstream in some way. I play a lot of different ethnic roles, and sometimes those guys are in that situation, on the outside, trying to fit into the mainstream. Herbie Stempel was in "Quiz Show"; Cosell, too, to a certain extent, but he was successful. If I can, I like to keep it balanced. I'll do one outcast role and then do something different. I just did a funny role in a new Adam Sandler movie where I play this very suave Hispanic butler, for example.

Jason Kidd
A pure passer like Jason Kidd is a joy for Turturro.
9. There's a whole generation of football fans who don't really know anything about Cosell. How would you explain to them why he was important for sports and for television?

Turturro: Well, I think he was important for sports because he mixed politics and sports. He brought race relations to the forefront, and he was not afraid to explore that.

There are a lot of people who try to be tough interviewers -- there's that particularly obnoxious guy on NBC, the guy who does those interviews right after the game? Oh, God, if I was a player, I wouldn't talk to him. He's always saying, "So how'd you feel? You missed two crucial foul shots!" That guy, I wouldn't want to talk to him.

Anyway, I think there are a lot of people who've taken Howard's aggressive, prosecutorial interview technique, or they've tried to, but they've gotten it wrong. It doesn't have the same thing. I mean he was lawyerly, right? That's the way it was, it was part of Howard.

10. When we were kids, we all wanted one of those bright yellow ABC jackets.

Turturro: Yeah, sure! We all did.

Did you get to keep yours?

Turturro: No, I didn't get to keep it, but I got some pictures in it. Yeah, we all wanted that, didn't we? I have to say, it was really fun. It was sort of like a fantasy. When you're a kid, you do this stuff, and then all of a sudden, I'm in one of these booths, playing Howard Cosell. So, on that level alone, it was great.

Did it just knock you out to realize you were there in the booth doing Howard the way you'd done as a kid?

Turturro: Yeah, you know, my father's not around now, he's passed away, but I was thinking he'd get such a kick out of seeing me play Howard. Yeah, it was a goof.