Publish date:

Playing Him Like He Was In new films John Turturro and Jon Voight get under the wig of Howard Cosell

Actor Jon Voight is hazy on the exact date (sometime in the late
1970s, he surmises) and setting of the interview, but his memory
of the way Howard Cosell interrogated him remains as sharp as
the sportscaster's tongue. "I went to a Catholic school, and
Howard as a young fellow had been the brunt of many attacks by
the Catholic boys in his neighborhood," says Voight, who plays
Cosell in the film Ali, which opens on Christmas Day. "So he
asks me during this interview, 'Did you pick on the Jewish boys
in your neighborhood?' I was taken aback by the question, so I
told him, 'No, Howard, I didn't. But I would have made an
exception with you.'"

Actor John Turturro has his memories of Cosell too, mostly
consisting of his father yelling at the television after a
Cosell rant on Monday Night Football. "A lot of times my dad
would say, 'He doesn't know what the hell he's talking about,'"
recalls Turturro, who plays Cosell in the TNT movie Monday Night
Mayhem, which premieres on Jan. 14 and chronicles the Cosell
years, 1971 to '83, on MNF. "Howard did get under your skin, but
more than anything, he got you involved."

Over the past year Turturro, 44, and Voight, 62, have become
Cosellologists, probing the life and times of the Irrepressible
One, who died in 1995 at 77. Turturro visited the Museum of
Television & Radio in his native New York City to view footage
of Cosell and would walk around listening to Cosell's voice on
cassette tapes. Voight immersed himself in Cosell's two
autobiographies and watched countless hours of his interviews
with Muhammad Ali (played in the film by Will Smith). "He says
in one of his books [Cosell by Cosell] that 'I am, of course, an
incurable needler,'" says Voight. "He was provoking people. It
was his fun."

Both actors perform superbly as Cosell. As the central figure of
Monday Night Mayhem, Turturro delves more deeply into Cosell's
psyche, examining the insecurities that Cosell attempted to mask
with bravado. Voight's Cosell is an ensemble player in Ali's
world, popping up intermittently to orally spar with the boxer.
To get the juices flowing for the dynamic repartee between
Cosell and Ali, Voight and Smith would taunt each other in
character on the set before their scenes together.

Turturro and Voight considered it vital to capture the Cosell
look, including his sloping posture and, of course, the toupee.
"I'd put on these prosthetics, and with each prosthetic I'd get
a little closer to Cosell," says Voight. "Finally when I put
that wig on, that was the crown. I walked around every day in
the posture of Howard Cosell, and I said to my son, 'I think I'm
cementing osteoporosis with every step.'"

Then there's the voice: the polysyllabic pronouncements
delivered in bombastic style. "You develop it like a muscle,"
says Turturro. "He had a big voice, and it's a different
placement than mine. His voice is up there [he mimics Cosell].
You have to sort of score it like a musician."

Neither actor wants to say he nailed the part, but each is proud
of his performance--and rightly so. "I think I did a good job in
evoking him, but I don't think you can really capture Howard,"
says Voight. "He's an animal who was uncontainable."


COLOR PHOTO: GREGORY HEISLER/TNT Turturro (with Kevin Anderson [left] as Frank Gifford and Brad Beyer [right] as Don Meredith) and Voight (with Smith) capture the essence of the Humble One (top left) in two very different roles.