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October 21, 2009

Greek Tragedy: Q&A with Filmmaker Fritz Miller

Today's "State of the Arts" column features a short piece I wrote about "The Legend of Jimmy the Greek," a documentary directed by Charlotte-based filmmaker Fritz Mitchell, which premieres at the FlynnSpace this Tuesday along with "Muhammad and Larry" by legendary documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles — see 7D film critic Rick Kisonak's review here. The films were made as part of ESPN's ongoing "30 for 30" project, a series of 30 films by 30 directors covering under-reported or forgotten sports stories from the past three decades. And they are really, really good.

As anyone who follows my ramblings over on SolidState is likely aware, in addition to being 7D's "music guy," I'm also a "sports guy." So I've been following "30 for 30" almost religiously since it debuted on ESPN three weeks ago. (I should note I'm also a huge fan of the series' architect, the Sports Guy, Bill Simmons.) But what has impressed me most about "30 for 30" thus far — Mitchell's film very much included — is how accessible these stories are, even for the most casual sports fan.

For example, my girlfriend — whom SolidState readers know as Plus One — is a reluctant sports fan. She tries (hard) to take an interest, almost solely because I enjoy it so much. But "30 for 30" has been a different experience altogether. If anything, the series has resonated more with her than it has me.

She choked up as hockey legend Wayne Gretzky bade his tearful farewell to Edmonton during "Kings' Ransom." She cheered when football returned to Baltimore and redeemed the passion of — of all things — an amateur marching band in "The Band That Wouldn't Die." And she fumed at Donald Trump's manipulative arrogance in "Who Killed the USFL?" ("Wow," she remarked as the credits rolled. "So he's always been a d-bag, huh?" Yup.) These are not just great sports stories. They are great stories, period. 

Unfortunately, a 400-word column bit is hardly enough space to do the Greek's story justice — let alone the story behind making the film. So what follows is the transcript of an interview I conducted recently with Mitchell about the project, which I hope sheds a little more light on the man, the myth and the legend that was gambling icon Jimmy the Greek.

SEVEN DAYS: So, you had a personal connection to Jimmy the Greek, right?
FRITZ MILLER: Yeah. "The NFL Today" show was one of my first jobs in TV. I had done runner work on weekends, getting hot dogs and Cokes for announcers and stuff like that. But this was my first real job at CBS, in house, as a researcher on "NFL Today." That particular year, the original foursome was still together. Jayne Kennedy wasn't there yet. So it was Phyllis [George] Irv [Cross], Brent [Musburger] and Jimmy. So, yeah, I met him that year and worked on the show for maybe two years as a researcher, one year as the chief researcher, and then I started working on college football. So by the time Jimmy made his fateful remarks in 1988, I was still at CBS, but no longer working on the pre-game shows.

SD: The decision to narrate the film with an actor impersonating Jimmy the Greek was interesting. Kind of a risky choice, but it worked.
FM: It is very risky. I don't see a lot of documentaries that do that. You see the device in movies once in a while. For instance, in Sunset Boulevard, if you'll recall, William Holden starts out by … you know, you see him dead in a pool and he starts the story there. So it's a similar dramatic device.

I wanted to  give Jimmy a voice in the piece. He died in 1996 and there aren't really any tapes around, full-scale interviews with him where he talks about his life, the rise and the fall and all of the great stories that he would tell. There is a little evidence of it here and there. But most of the time when people interviewed him, what little scraps of footage there is, it is mostly, "Who do you like in the election?" "Who do you like in the Super Bowl?" "Describe what you do for a living." "Do you think that gambling is connected to the Mafia?" That kind of thing. But there wasn't a lot about his personal life on those tapes. Very little, if anything.

So the reason I wanted to do it was twofold. One, you'd get the sense of his bravado and braggadoccio, and his feel of making the big score on his bets and the rise out of Steubenville and the kind of life he grew up in.

The other reason was that, when you get to his downfall, you want to hear from him, you know? As you understand in the piece, he was told by CBS, "No, we don't want you to go on the air and apologize." And he really didn't want to do interviews with the press. So you don't really get a sense of how he felt about the whole thing, when it all came down. There are books, two books. There are a number of articles about Jimmy the Greek … But I think that having him tell his own story and having his friends and guys he worked with chime in and tell their view of it was a way to get some balance in the piece and have a narrative that was a little bit different.

In most of these ["30 for 30"] pieces, ESPN is looking for a different kind of angle to an old story. And in this case, I felt that Jimmy's story wasn't very well known. Most people over the age of 40 know that he was on an NFL pre-game show; perhaps they know he was a gambler or an odds maker. And most of them know that he'd gotten in trouble for saying something racial on TV that was stupid. That's about the extent of what they know. And people younger than that really don't know much about him at all. So the hope is that the device works to give you a feel of the guy.

SD: Well, I'm part of that younger demographic and only peripherally knew who he was, and even then mostly because of an old "Simpsons" episode.
FM: Right. You had heard of him, but only because it's a catchy name. But you probably didn't even know that he had said anything stupid and gotten fired, right?

SD: Well, I knew that he had said something racially insensitive. But I had never known the exact circumstances.
FM: Not many people do.

SD: Did you try to speak with the journalist who asked Jimmy the questions that led to those remarks?
FM: We did try. It was a guy from an NBC affiliate in Washington, D.C., named Ed Hotaling. We tried to interview him … and unfortunately his publicist told us he was incapacitated. He had been in a horrible accident and they didn't even know if he was going to be able to speak again. So he was unavailable. But it would have been an interesting angle to hear his take on it. Though it's been well documented in print that he felt Jimmy the Greek should not have been fired. So we tried, but it just didn't work out.

SD: What surprised you about the story as you were digging into it?
FM: I didn't know him that well. If I had known 25 years ago that I was  going to be doing a documentary on him, I would have paid a lot closer attention. But to answer your  question, the biggest surprise for me is that someone could make a living as a gambler. I mean, who grows up as a kid and says, in the middle of the tenth grade, "I'm gonna go out and become a gambler. And I'm not going to finish school. I'm not going to go to college. I am going to find a way to navigate through the waters of life and make a living — and a damn good one — as a gambler"? Don't you think that's unusual?

SD: Well that's one of the interesting things. Now, it's maybe unusual to meet someone who makes a living as a gambler, but not as unusual as when Jimmy did it. It seems like he legitimized it to a degree.

FM: Well, you have to remember that it was a different world back then. Jimmy lived through the jazz era and the the Depression. It was a much harder world. But it was also a more proper world to a certain extent. Jimmy probably hung around in groups with guys who all had catchy names, like "Slim Silvermeyer," you know? They had that kind of Bowery-boy feel … And in the film I really wanted to try and describe what that world was like. But in a 50-minute film, it just takes you too far off the beaten path. To get a sense of that bawdy lifestyle that he grew up in would have meant providing too much context that may not have been necessary to the story.

SD: Especially when the film gets to his fateful remarks, that's one thing that was clear to me, actually, that he was very much the product of a different time. Now, if he had made those remarks, say, 20 years later, do you think the fallout would have been as severe?
FM: Yes. On paper, his remarks … well, they jump out at you. But not as much as they do when they're on the screen, because of the look in his face and the sureness in his voice when he's telling that reporter off. I think when you look at those remarks, you have to say to yourself … I mean, you saw what happened to Don Imus and you've seen a number of people get in trouble for remarks over the years. So I think we know, if we have half a brain, we can't talk about that kind of stuff in that way. And when you start using words like "breeding," you're in hot water. You just can't say that.

SD: The parallel that immediately jumped to mind for me was Rush Limbaugh on ESPN a few years back talking about Donovan McNabb.
FM: You know what? Rush Limbaugh was making a comment about the media. He wasn't making a comment about black people. He was saying that the media was desirous of having a black quarterback be successful and he had thought that Donovan McNabb, albeit a good quarterback, was overrated because of the media wanting to put black people on a pedestal. So that's a lot different than Imus making nasty comments about basketball players, or Jimmy the Greek speaking the way he did in such an ignorant fashion. I think that's a hugely different context.

And remember, 1988 was not like it is today, where you have that 24/7 news coverage, where you can stick your finger in the water and get a sense of what everyone was feeling. CBS didn't fire Don Imus until, what, like, three days after he made the remarks, right? They had three days to sit there and listen to cable news and read all the editorial columns and listen to the outcry of black leaders and make their decision based on how they felt the country felt. And I don't think CBS had that luxury in Jimmy the Greek's time. That situation says as much about the media as it does anything else.

Just to give you a little context, Al Camapanis, the general manager of the Dodgers, had said on "Nightline" only nine months earlier that blacks didn't have the faculties to manage a baseball team, and he was fired. So, in other words, Jimmy the Greek should have known better.

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