Ted Turner is 78, and age and illness have slowed the man once known as “The Mouth of the South” and “Captain Outrageous.” But he still some of the old gleam in his eye.
He flashed it on Tuesday night upon receiving the New York Yacht Club Medal, then reminding members of the venerable private club in Manhattan that it initially wanted no part of him in the early 1970s.
“The first time I was put up for membership here I was turned down, but I came back,” he said, smiling. “I wanted to defend the America’s Cup and I couldn’t do that if I wasn’t a member of the Yacht Club, so I had to join, and I’m glad I did.”
The feeling clearly was mutual as the current membership of a club that has included Franklin Roosevelt, John Jacob Astor, Jay Gould, Ted Kennedy, August Belmont, Walter Cronkite and various Vanderbilts honored Turner.
The occasion not only was the medal presentation but also a screening of an NBC documentary, “Courageous,” that chronicles Turner’s victory in the 1977 America’s Cup in a boat by that name.
It premieres at 2:30 p.m. on June 17, after NBC’s coverage of the first race of this year’s America’s Cup Final in Bermuda.
Before the event, Turner was asked whether he can believe it has been 40 years since his victory. “No, it seems like yesterday,” he said in an interview with Newsday. “But it was.”
Turner still is in touch with members of the crew, seven of whom were in attendance on Tuesday, and he recently was aboard Courageous itself. But his days as a sailing captain are behind him.
“I get out on the water, but I’m fishing,” he said. “I’m a fly fisherman. Sailing was a lot of work. I’m almost 80. The 11-or 12-man crew, that’s a big group to get together every weekend to go sailing, so it is a real challenge. I admire the people that are doing it, but I couldn’t do it. Nobody in their late 70s is out there on those boats anyway. They’re all younger because it takes a lot of physical exertion.”
That was no problem in 1977 for Turner, already famous as the owner of the Atlanta Braves and not yet even more famous for founding CNN and otherwise revolutionizing modern media.
At 38 he was brash, confident and extraordinarily accessible and quotable, providing a gold mine of material for the documentary makers, led by producer Matt Allen and editor Phil Parrish, who grew up in Commack.
“We’re really, really lucky that Ted Turner was such an outsized personality that so many people covered the 1977 America’s Cup,” Allen said. “There are a lot of fun bits in here that I think bring him to life.”
Supervising producer Mark Levy said the film, which runs one hour with commercials, is part of NBC Sports Films’ effort to create documentaries around events NBC televises, which made the America’s Cup a natural.
Levy said getting Turner aboard was not difficult. “There wasn’t a lot of arm-twisting that went into retelling what is for some of us at a certain age, obviously, a classic story,” he said.
The producers kept the technical talk that is a big part of sailing to a minimum and emphasized Turner’s personality. They also opted to focus more on old footage of him rather than a more recent interview.
“Throughout the film 90 percent of the Ted Turner is archival,” Allen said. “It puts you back in time with the vibrant man who was, who motivated and changed the world and shaped the things around him as much as the world was trying to shape him.”
The primary sporting focus is not the ’77 final, in which Courageous made quick work of the Australians, but rather the competition for the right to defend the Cup among Courageous, Enterprise and Independence.
Turner would land on the cover of Sports Illustrated that July, under the headline, “Terrible Ted Takes Command,” and go on to be the last amateur to captain a Cup winner.
The New York Yacht Club lost the Cup in 1983 to an Australian boat. This month Oracle Team USA will defend it, representing Golden Gate Yacht Club in the catamarans that have replaced the traditional sailing yachts of Turner’s day.
Turner is not a fan of the change.
“I’m a traditionalist,” he said. “Catamarans have a place in racing. I have nothing against catamarans . . . But I feel that the America’s Cup started in mono-hulls and match racing, and that’s what it was. But that’s just me. Everybody’s entitled to their own opinions. I’m not hurting anybody.”
Turner said he still follows the Braves but was not happy to see them leave Turner Field after 20 years for a new park in the suburbs this season.
“I didn’t want a new stadium and I sure didn’t want them to move out of Atlanta,” he said. “It was a great location. It was centrally located. We did really well there.”
Turner pioneered the modern businesses of both news and sports television. Asked if he could have anticipated 40 years ago how it all would unfold, he said, “I wouldn’t have been surprised.”
He said he still follows politics. Does he believe the role of 24-hour cable news channels has been good or bad for the process?
“I think the more information people have the better off they are, generally,” he said, “and cable news has brought a lot more information to a lot more people.”