What is Roy Firestone, the ESPN interviewer extraordinaire, going to do with Roy Firestone? He's so multitalented that he's almost a victim of his own versatility. Will he jump to a major network as a sports comedian? As a serious interviewer, perhaps? Talk show host? An essayist? Or will he be condemned forever to the narrow confines of cable TV?
Firestone, 33, would love to have his own network gig. But the TV sports industry generally shuns straight comedy and long interviews, and so far has shied away from him. "I think the perception at the networks is 'Will the real Roy Firestone please stand up?' " he says. "But the fact is, they're all the real me. I have a lot of different sides that are screaming to get out."
He's not kidding. Although cable viewers know him as a sober sort, Firestone is a periodic guest on the nightly talk shows, such as Late Night with David Letterman and The Late Show with Joan Rivers, on which he does a series of brilliant sports celebrity impersonations ("Howard Cosell on His Wedding Night" is a classic). He often appears on Larry King's and Bob Costas's national radio shows, mixing humor with sports commentary. And his seven-year-old SportsLook show on ESPN is the longest-running series on cable. It's also the only issues-oriented sports journalism show on TV now that the networks have shirked their responsibilities in this regard.
Firestone's interviews are a blend of the curious, the candid and the caring. He's forever trying to explore his guests' feelings as well as his own. And there's something about his manner and line of questioning that makes guests think, "I can let down my defenses with this guy."
SportsLook, which is independently produced, appears on ESPN five days a week, with each program repeated three times a day. On the show Firestone conducts a 20-minute interview and delivers an essay or commentary. He has interviewed more than 1,200 people on SportsLook, including nearly every major sports figure. Let other interviewers ask the stock, one-dimensional questions: "Ralph, how did it feel out there today?" Firestone has the capacity—and, equally important, the time—to explore such issues as love, death, happiness, fame and, yes, fun.
Some viewers are put off by the Freudian flavor of Firestone's questions, but his depth is refreshing. Regrettably, most sportscasters nowadays either are afraid to say what they think for fear of offending the station, the sponsor or the head coach, or are incapable of asking reflective questions. What we get is nice, prepared pabulum. "There isn't true dialogue in sports broadcasting anymore," says Firestone. "I want to get to the essence of what turns somebody on about what they do or who they are."
A case in point was his eye-opening, two-part interview with John McEnroe last month. For the first time on the tube we saw a different McEnroe. Here was a fairly likable guy who talked about his fears, weighed the demands of tennis against the needs of his wife and child and admitted he still has some growing up to do. "I open up to people I feel I can trust," McEnroe told Firestone, in effect paying him a compliment.
Says King, "He's excellent because he cares for the person as much as for the sport. There's a value to the individual he's sitting there with. It's not just Pete Rose, ballplayer. It's Pete Rose." Rose, incidentally, was asked by Firestone what would have become of him had he been born female. He thought for a long while and said, "I would have been an ugly woman—and I would have had a lot of kids."
But as anyone who has caught his humor knows, the real Roy Firestone may not be an interviewer. He might still be the 15-year-old kid who did warmup comedy routines at various hotels in Miami Beach for Johnny Cash, Mel Torme, Patti Page and George Kirby. Then again, he might be the essayist who, after leaving Miami and before going into cable, won four local Emmys at KCBS-TV in Los Angeles.
"Part of my problem with the networks is they don't know what to make of me," Firestone says. Well, we've got a good idea. Like Costas, he's one of the new breed of TV announcertainers. And like Costas, he's just unusual enough to make TV adapt to him rather than the other way around.
Firestone's interview style brought out a thoughtful and rarely seen side of McEnroe.