Close your eyes and imagine a sportswriter.
Now tell me that the image in your head isn’t that of a schlubby, middle-aged white guy -- someone who looks a lot like Oscar Madison from “The Odd Couple.” Oscar was, of course, played by Jack Klugman, RIP, who died on Christmas Eve at age 90. (The equally schlubby Walter Matthau held down the role in the Broadway play on which the TV show was based.)
“The Odd Couple” ended its network run in 1975, yet the archetype -- the sportswriter as everyman -- has survived, more or less frozen in time.
For the sake of contrast, look at how the rest of Hollywood’s metaphorical newsroom has changed. Journalists have been portrayed as crusading heroes, unwitting dupes and deceitful schemers. They have taken the form of arrogant elitists and blue-collar populists, jaded journeymen and sexy, young idealists. They have been men; they have been women. They have brought down presidents, exonerated inmates and uncovered vast environmental conspiracies. They have been black and white. They have been punched in the nose by Bruce Willis’s wife.
Non-sports journalists are flexible cultural figures that can be bent to embody whatever attitudes a writer or director wishes. But the fictional sportswriter is, almost irreducibly, the white, disheveled mess of an everyman. In short, Oscar Madison.
For those who weren’t around for “The Odd Couple’s” original run during the first half of the 1970s, or missed it later in syndication -- I logged a lot of episodes during Yankee rain delays in the early 1980s -- let’s review some of Oscar’s defining characteristics: Oscar dresses badly. Oscar eats badly. Oscar smokes cigars. Oscar bowls. Oscar gambles. Oscar has an ulcer. Oscar chases airline stewardesses. Oscar wears a dirty Mets cap. Backwards.
When he can find his typewriter beneath the heap of junk on his desk, Oscar covers sports for a fictional newspaper called the New York Herald. That is, when he isn’t out of work and writing for anyone who will publish him, including a fictional girlie magazine called “Harem.”
Now think of the different iterations of Oscar we’ve seen since the final, first-run episode of “The Odd Couple” (in which Oscar’s roommate, the uptight photographer Felix Unger, remarries his ex-wife and moves out, leaving Oscar alone again).
The first one that comes to mind is, of course, Ray -- a classic everyman name! -- of his namesake sitcom, “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Ray is the New York Yankees beat writer for Newsday, a job that he is somehow able to perform without ever leaving his Long Island home, unless he’s going to meet his buddies for pizza at Nemo’s.
Ray may still be married, but it’s sometimes hard to understand why. He doesn’t cook. He doesn’t clean. He can barely dress himself. He can’t be trusted to shop for even the most basic household item. When he is unable to find a blank tape to record the Super Bowl, he uses his wedding video.
Oscar can also be found beyond the world of the TV sitcom. Richard Ford’s great Bascombe trilogy of novels -- “The Sportswriter,” “Independence Day” and “The Lay of the Land” -- is built around an Oscar, Frank Bascombe, a divorced, middle-aged man who lives in a New Jersey suburb and writes for a magazine that resembles Sports Illustrated.
Why has this archetype endured? Oscar could have been a lawyer or an accountant or a teacher. But he was a sportswriter. Oscar’s profession allowed for plenty of cameos from such sports celebrities as Billie Jean King, Bobby Riggs and Deacon Jones, not to mention Howard Cosell. More to the point, though, it was an efficient way to distinguish Oscar from his fastidious, effeminate, codedly gay roommate. What could be “straighter” than a professionalized sports fan -- someone who travels in a sweaty macho world without acquiring any of its glamour or sexiness or too much of its money?
After Oscar, “sportswriter” became shorthand in the grammar of television for “obviously not homosexual,” a synonym for “stereotypical middle-class, white, heterosexual male.” If the script called for an average, straight, white guy, an emblematic everyman, then the character was a sportswriter.
In September 2004, a sitcom called “Listen Up!” debuted on CBS. The main character, named Tony Kleinman, was loosely based on former Washington Post columnist and current ESPN gasbag Tony Kornheiser. Here, it seemed, was an effort to at least update the archetype, to transform the lowly sportswriter into a “sports-media personality.” Unlike Ray, Tony actually went to work sometimes.
At bottom, Tony -- played by the short, fat and balding Jason Alexander -- was really just another slovenly everyman wandering into a bewildered middle age, forever exasperating his wife and annoying his children. An Oscar -- or an Oscar in the making, anyway. The show lasted only 22 episodes. That’s OK. If nothing else, it proved that even in the age of ESPN, Oscar will always be able to find work.
(Jonathan Mahler is a sports columnist for Bloomberg View. He is the author of the best-selling “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning,” “The Challenge,” and “Death Comes to Happy Valley.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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