The New York TV news star was once among the most familiar figures in our lives. But as local TV news ebbed, their prominence ebbed along with it. What happened to these New York TV icons? Today, a visit with Warner Wolf.
"Let's go to the videotape."
"Boo of the week."
And lest we forget:
"C'mon, man. Gimme a break."
Few newsmen are remembered for one phrase, let alone four (or three and a half, if "Boo" doesn't quite qualify). There is, however, an exception — a shame, because there is much more to Warner Wolf's life and career than a few lines, indelible or otherwise.
At 82, Wolf is semiretired and living quietly (if not quite peacefully — more on that below) in Naples, Florida. He still contributes to the Monday edition of WOR/710 AM's "Len Berman and Michael Riedel in the Morning."
"The great thing about radio," he explains, "is that as long you still have your voice, you can go on."
That voice — a fast clip with sharp edges which once exuded whimsy, exhilaration and authority — was made for radio. But the Warner Wolf we remember was made for TV. Over a 25-year stretch, this Washington, D.C. native was the best known sports anchor in New York, and among the best known in the country. Though long gone from TV, he still is the best known sportscaster.
We spoke recently by phone from his home in Florida.
Your parents worked in vaudeville and had an association with the Three Stooges?
My cousins were Mousie [Paul] Garner and Dick Hakins, and the three, including my father, Jack, made up a group called the Gentlemaniacs.. [Wolf's mother, Rosemary, a 'chorus girl,' was also with the group]. But when [the Stooges] went into the movies, their manager, Ted Healy, took them on and they went on to play all the big theaters in New York and London, including the Palladium, with Fanny Brice.
You must've traveled a lot as a kid.
No travel. They got out of show business in 1935, and I was born in '37. They could see the writing on the wall. My father went into the liquor wholesale business in Washington, D.C., where he worked until he passed in 1965. He was only 56 — died of colon cancer.
What was your life like growing up in D.C.?
It was exercise everyday, playing ball after school or in the summer, mostly softball — I was always centerfield [because] I could jump on the ball, but not much of a hitter — and we didn't have a television set until 1947 when I was almost 10 years old, but radio was huge in my life.
Radio was far more formative than TV?
I listened to every radio show there was and most of them were serials [and] my father and I used to listen to Friday night fights, too. They were always from either Madison Square Garden or St. Nicholas Arena [on West 66th Street, which closed in 1962]. We'd sit in two chairs in front of the radio and score the rounds — amazing how many times we came out pretty close. That was my first real interest in sports.
What was your first job after college (American University)?
I had to finish my military obligation or otherwise you might not get hired because [businesses] wouldn't hire you until you had fufilled it, [so] I enlisted in the Army reserves. [Afterward] the general manager from [Pikeville, Kentucky, radio station WLSI] calls me up and says, 'I have just two questions — do you drink or have you ever been to jail?' So I drove to Pikeville, Kentucky.
What was that like?
I was the newsman, the weatherman, the sports guy, played top 40 country and western — oh, that was a big show — and if someone died you had to give details about the funeral. It was called running the board.
After stops in West Virginia and Silver Spring, Maryland, you joined D.C. radio powerhouse WTOP in the early '60s?
John Hayes, owner of the station who had been the ambassador to Switzerland, called me in and said, 'Young man, we're gonna start something new here — all-talk radio — and what would you think if I put you in a studio where you could answer the telephone on air with people asking you sports questions?' That was the biggest break I think I ever had.
How'd this work?
Sometimes I used to answer the question before they finished asking it! Someone [said] "He's got a book [with the answers]." I said "book?" You couldn't look it up anywhere. Either you knew it or you didn't. [Sure] I got stumped, but we had only baseball and football — there was no hockey or basketball [in D.C.] then — so it was fairly easy if you knew your stuff.
When did you break into TV?
The Washington Post Company owned both the radio and TV station [then WTOP, now WUSA], and at the end of '68, the GM of the TV station said he wanted to put me on [the 6 and 11 p.m. broadcasts]. … I had no thoughts about TV — enjoyed the radio, didn't have to get dressed up — [but] he said you can continue to say exactly what you've been saying on radio.
And "let's go to the videotape!" was born.
I didn't have normal cues like everyone else, so you had to write down your cue on your script. So the director — in this instance, Ernie Bauer — would know when to roll. One night, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had gone up against Nate Thurman and at the [highlights] cue, there was no tape — you could only see my face. So finally out of frustration, I say into the camera, "Hey Ernie, let's go to the videotape!" Boom! He rolls it and after the show, Ernie comes up and says, "Gimme that cue again and use it for all your tapes." And from that day on …
After a particularly successful run in Washington, ABC Sports came calling. But it was a rocky start there?
[ABC Sports chief] Roone Arledge wanted me to do the 1976 Winter Olympics in February, but WTOP said look, we'll let him go do the Olympics but we want him to come back here and finish up the May sweeps, and ABC said OK. [After the Olympics] I started on Saturday's "Prudential College Football Scoreboard" [and following a game with Ohio State University], I said the "Boo of the Week" goes to [Ohio State coach] Woody Hayes for kicking a field goal in the fourth when he should have run the ball. Arledge calls after and says you can't give Woody Hayes the 'Boo of the Week!' because sponsor Prudential Insurance complained...I came home afterward and told my wife [Sue], I don't think this is going to work out.
You were prescient: It did not. You almost went back to D.C.?
I also did "Monday Night Baseball" and [WABC/7's] 6 and 11 p.m. news but was absent most of the time from those because of travel or baseball. Then, I was suddenly taken off all the network shows and I was ready [to go back but instead] stayed with Ch. 7. We then started to roll [and] became the No. 1 station in New York, mainly because we had Bill Beutel and Roger Grimsby.
Then it gets really crazy.
In 1980, my contract was up and … I wanted double. The head of the [ABC stations group] said that was more than Frank Gifford makes! At the time, I thought of a Joe DiMaggio line, when he held out and the [Yanks] told him, "That's more than Lou Gehrig makes," to which DiMaggio replied, "Well, Mr. Gehrig should've asked for more. He's underpaid." [Wolf was making $200,000 a year, and sought a renewal that would pay him $400,000 in the first year of a new contract, and $450,000 in the second.]
Meanwhile, WCBS/2 had offered you a contract?
I remember Arledge called me up and said "We can work this out." and I told him I'd already given my word to Ch. 2. They [ABC] took me to court, and the judge said "This isn't servitude. You can't keep the man at the station forever if the contract is over," and ruled that I was free to go work at [Ch. 2]. That lawsuit [American Broadcasting Companies Inc., appellant, vs. Warner Wolf et al, filed in 1980] is still taught in law schools.
So it was all about the money and nothing more?
It was about the money. I always thought you shouldn't overvalue yourself, but you shouldn't undervalue yourself either. Ch. 7 also had ten months to renew my deal and stonewalled me every time I approached them. But there was no pressure to leave. I was really looking forward to working with Jim Jensen [Ch. 2's veteran anchor who died in 1999 at the age of 73.]
The run at Ch. 2 but a big success, but then it ends abruptly in 1992 and you return to Washington. Why?
It was a huge mistake. I'd been gone 17 years [and] half the audience didn't know who I was. Worse, I replaced a guy who had died of a brain hemorrhage [Glenn Brenner]. He was very popular. It was a bad three years on my part and I was responsible.
Had you felt any pressure to leave Ch. 2 in the first place?
As a matter of fact, Jim Jensen was to me bigger than life. We hit it off and, boy, did we have good times, on the air and off. He'd been a minor league pitcher, and he liked sports and I really liked him. It was a really enjoyable time there.
How did it end at WUSA?
They said things aren't working out and we want to end the contract early. I didn't fight it. I understood. After I got fired, Dan Rather called me at home and said, "There are only two kinds of people in this business — those who have been fired and those who will be fired." … As fate would have it, [Ch. 2] had fired a lot of on-air people [in a 1996 cost-saving move]. I called up [Peter Lund, CBS president/CEO] and said, "You think the station would be interested?" He said yes, and I got back on the air in early 1997.
The second run at Ch. 2 would last until 2004, then you got fired this time. Who to blame?
Unfair? I would say disappointing, yeah. I had asked to stay one more year so I could have been at Ch. 2 an even 20 years combined. But [the station] wanted to go in a new direction. I don't wanna get into it. But I got to work at ESPN Radio and [then] WABC/77 was sold, and [the new owner] put on "Imus in the Morning," and I did sports at 'Imus'.
How did you and Imus get along because that long run did in fact end with a lawsuit?
I worked for the man for a total of 20 years. There are good days and bad days when you work that long for someone. My beef was really not with him but with the station which offered me a one-year contract [and] suddenly rescinded it a few days later. I hired a lawyer [and] WABC offered a settlement of the new contract — I felt if they were offering half, they were admitting they were wrong. We went to court and lost — my mistake. Half of something is better than all of nothing.
I've got to ask about the Incident — your 2019 arrest for allegedly vandalizing the sign in the gated community whether you live because you didn't like the word "plantation" in the sign?
Well, let's get this straight, I do not believe in tearing down monuments. If you tear down history, you don't learn from it. [But] no, it had nothing to do with race. What bothered me was that I had to see the word "plantation." I don't live on a plantation! I hit a point where I decided it was wrong, and I took down the 10 letters from each side of the sign, then gave them back because I didn't want to be charged [with theft] but was charged with criminal mischief, spent part of a day in jail. It was quite an experience [but] the good news is that the charges have been entirely expunged from the record.
Let's end with the Meaning of It All question. What did your remarkable career mean?
Thank God for the opportunity to live the life I have had in the greatest country in the world and if I put a smile on a few people's faces, then all is well.