Originally the hero of The Slap Maxwell Story was supposed to be a car dealer. "Hey, a guy's gotta be something," said Jay Tarses, the creator and producer of the new ABC show (Wednesday, 9:30 p.m. EST). But then Tarses started thinking. Both he and his star, Dabney Coleman, are avid sports fans. Back in 1983, for example, when they were taping Buffalo Bill, another Tarses creation, Coleman would stroll into Tarses's office, flash his trademark smirk and say, "Vern Stephens." To which Tarses would respond, "Ken Heintzelman." And so on.
"Sometimes our only conversation for 15 solid minutes was names of old ballplayers," says Coleman. "People tend to look at you a little strangely after that."
So Tarses decided to capitalize on their love of sports and make Slap a sportswriter, the first of that breed to appear on a weekly series since Jack Klugman brought Oscar Madison to life in The Odd Couple 17 years ago. We welcome Slap to the fraternity, especially because Coleman, as the 15-year-old sports editor of his high school newspaper in Corpus Christi, Texas, once cadged an interview out of Jack Dempsey.
Slap writes a column ("Slap Shots," naturally) for a small-to medium-sized newspaper called The Ledger, somewhere in the Southwest. Those are the only specifics we get. Yet anyone who has ever frequented a press box recognizes Slap, a baseball-when-the-grass-was-real kind of sportswriter, a guy who hunts and pecks on an old Olympia and sips cold coffee from a Styrofoam cup. Most of his columns are colorful and well written—Slap reminds us that his piece on Al Ka-line's last at bat "is still used in journalism schools"—with accuracy running a poor third. "T can back up everything I write half the time," he tells his editor, which is why it isn't unusual to find Slap in both legal and physical combat.
Art does not precisely imitate life in the case of Slap-Coleman. Coleman, after all, owns a house in fashionable Brentwood (Slap lives in a motel) and plays a top-notch game of tennis, a sport Slap surely considers a bit precious. But actor and character are much alike. Both are tough-minded, irascible souls who romanticize the old days.
"Trippi. Kazmaier. Skippy Minisi," says Coleman, relaxing in his backyard and sending a puff of cigar smoke heavenward. "How about this one? Frankie Sinkwich. Are you kidding me? Were those real names or what? They don't have names like that anymore."
Coleman can go on like that for hours, reciting, like some mad beat poet, a litany of names, teams and uniform numbers. "Thirty-five, 41, 17, 25," says Coleman. Which is? "The great Army back field—Blanchard, Davis, Arnold Tucker, Shorty McWilliams."
Coleman, 55, loves stances, too. Over the show's opening credits, Slap can be seen cradling a football and fending off tacklers in a classic 1940s pose. At home Coleman might jump to his feet and replicate Ted Williams at bat. Williams is Coleman's hero, and it is to the Kid that Slap sometimes soliloquizes. "They can brush you back, but they can't knock you down," says Slap, quoting Williams's words to him.
Although Tarses bows to Coleman's encyclopedic knowledge of sports, Tarses and producer Bob Brush write the scripts. That's fine with Coleman: "Jay and I think so much alike that he automatically knows how Slap would feel about certain players and what these feelings mean to the character."
In a town where an attachment to sports is often measured by how frequently one eats pasta with Tommy Lasorda, Coleman prefers to watch games at home. "I hate that glad-handing stuff," he says. "I'd feel like I was invading their privacy if I went into a locker room." His love for sports is visceral, and he translates that passion to the character.
This doesn't mean that The Slap Maxwell Story will be a commercial success. Ratings for the first five shows have put it as high as 18 and as low as 60 among the 75 or so programs Nielsen measures each week. Still, ABC has given Slap a vote of confidence by ordering a full season of 22 episodes. Like Buffalo Bill, it is a dark sitcom ("dramedy" is the new Hollywood word) with no laugh track to poke you in the ribs and no clean resolution at episode's end. But if you're comfortable with a sportswriter who spends more time peering into the abyss than into, say, the Mets' clubhouse, Slap's your guy.
"Here's a name," says Coleman, continuing his mantra. "Procopio Herrera. A pitcher who had a cup of coffee with the St. Louis Browns [Coleman's alltime favorite team]. Jay loves those kinds of guys. Maybe he can use him."
For Coleman and Slap alike, Williams was the greatest of all.