Lindenhurst product Lauria a natural to play Lombardi

Undated photo of actor Dan Lauria, who grew

Undated photo of actor Dan Lauria, who grew up in Lindenhurst. (Credit: Handout)

Neil Best

Newsday columnist Neil Best Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned

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Dan Lauria will not be the first Italian-American actor who grew up in the metropolitan area to portray Vince Lombardi, among the most iconic New Yorkers of Italian descent.

Ernest Borgnine did it for a TV movie in 1973, and Robert DeNiro is scheduled to do so for a film due out in 2012.

But Lauria, recently announced as the lead in "Lombardi'' on Broadway this autumn, seems to be the most natural fit yet.

"I think there are two things Coach Lombardi would appreciate,'' Lauria said. "One is that I played and coached football. Two is that I'm Italian. I think that would have been very important to him."

The football part remains a cherished part of his life, even after a long career that includes his time as Jack Arnold, the grumpy father on the popular TV series "The Wonder Years.''

Lauria, 63, graduated from Lindenhurst High School in 1965, part of an era of athletic dominance for the school that included the Rutgers Trophy as Suffolk's best football team in both 1962 and '63.

"We just caught the Baby Boom era,'' he said. "We were No. 1 in League I in population, so we had more to pick and choose from. We also had those hard Italian and Irish guys.

"Yankton College in South Dakota wanted to give our whole team scholarships. Half of us couldn't read. I don't know why they wanted us.''

Lauria was a center and middle linebacker at Lindenhurst, and played the latter position at Southern Connecticut State.

After a stint as a Marine in the last years of the Vietnam War, he returned to Lindenhurst to teach and coach for one season. The results were predictable given his frames of reference: football and war.

"I was just like Lombardi,'' he said. "I think the kids were so afraid of me, because I didn't care. I took that year to kind of get back to Earth.''

Lauria had a chance to join Lindenhurst coach Bernie Wyatt on the Iowa staff in 1974, but he accepted a grant to Connecticut to pursue a masters in playwriting, launching a career in theater and acting.

Even as his work took him to the West Coast, he remained a Long Islander at heart - speaking at Lindenhurst events and remaining true to his childhood teams, the Giants and Yankees. ("Everyone gets disappointed when I say I'm not a Packers fan,'' he said.)

Lombardi was a Giants assistant during Lauria's early years as a fan. "Coach Lombardi was a god to anybody who played almost any sport,'' he said.

The biggest marketing challenge facing the play, which opens Oct. 21 at Circle in the Square, is to attract sports fans to live theater and live-theater fans to a sports-themed show.

One of the producers is Tony Ponturo, who during his years as a marketing executive with Anheuser-Busch was regarded as one of the most powerful people in sports. He acknowledged the task but said there are themes in Lombardi's life that should resonate even with non-sports fans.

As for drawing fans, it won't hurt that the NFL itself is a producer and will help in the marketing.

The initial script, based on David Maraniss' book, "When Pride Still Mattered,'' includes six characters: Lombardi, his wife, a reporter and three players - Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor and Dave Robinson.

It will kick off a busy time for Lombardi; in addition to the play and movie, HBO will debut a documentary on him in December.

Lauria has played coaches on several occasions, but this one brings special responsibilities.

"If we're successful the audience will walk out being passionate about whatever they want to do,'' he said. "That's what Lombardi did, definitely for all of us in sports, but I think it's universal.''

Rain hats for Derby Fans

Sam Flood, who produces the Kentucky Derby telecast, was waxing poetic yesterday about NBC’s plans, with goals that include illustrating a celebration of spring and reaching a diverse audience for the biggest annual sports event that attracts more women viewers than men.

Then someone mentioned the weather forecast, which includes lightning, thunder and monsoonal rains. Said the aptly named Flood: “We’ve got that Plan B in place.’’

He was speaking about replacing blimp shots with ones from an airplane, but there could be more changes than that.

Said director David Michael: “The potential for chaos is there,’’ given large animals running in mud and cameramen “holding pointers to the sky which are nothing more than high-tech lightning rods.’’

One safety net is the new lights at Churchill Downs, allowing for a delay if necessary.

“The track assures us the Kentucky Derby will be run on Saturday,’’ Michaels said. “That we know.’’

HBO, ESPN trade tweaks and tweets

All seven movies in the Tribeca/ESPN Sports Film Festival – three of them part of the “30 for 30” series - will be shown tomorrow at Tribeca Cinemas (see my blog for reviews).

It is another example of ESPN’s recent commitment to documentaries, a genre long ruled by HBO, which Monday won an Emmy for 2009’s “Assault in the Ring.’’

The arms race is good for viewers on two fronts: It means more quality programming, and it has led to entertaining trash talk from each side.

In the wake of the Emmy, HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg said this to USA Today:

“It’s like walking into a gallery and seeing a David as opposed to something I chipped out when I was 10.’’ He also vowed HBO would continue to “own this category."

ESPN's Bill Simmons, one of the forces behind "30 for 30," fired back with this tweet:

“Greenburg on ESPN docs: ‘They'll do what they'll do. We're always going to feel like we own this category.’ Yes, ages 55-90. You still do.”

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