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04/02/2010

Jim Murray on John Forsythe

April 2, 2010 |  2:39 pm

Forsythe

One of the benefits of working for The Times is having easy access to the paper's archives, and we mine them regularly when researching news obituaries. I'm always thrilled to find an article on the latest subject written by Jim Murray, the late Pulitzer Prize-winning sports columnist. Because actor John Forsythe, who died Thursday at 92, had a few sports connections, Murray found occasion to write about him. After the jump you'll find a column Murray wrote in 1990.

-- Claire Noland

Photo: John Forsythe at Dodger Stadium in 1982. Credit: Reed Saxon / Associated Press

Sunday June 3, 1990

Dodger Voice Found More Stylish Roles

By JIM MURRAY,

"Luck," the late, great Branch Rickey used to say, "is the residue of design."

No one was ever quite sure what he--or it--meant. But a career, it is well known, is a residue of luck. And success occurs only when--and if--talent meets opportunity.

The world of sports is a seductress on a grand scale. No one has yet figured out what would have happened had Ronald Reagan elected to stay in the broadcast booth, doing Chicago Cubs' games.

Would he today be Harry Caray? Would the Cold War still be on? What if he had never come West with the team to Catalina and had never fallen under the eye of Hollywood? Would he have been able to keep going till he was not only Warner Bros.' leading man but America's leading man?

What of the ones who did not escape? What if Howard Cosell had not become involved as counsel for Little League and became the host for Knothole Gang broadcasts? Would he have become a renowned labor lawyer or a gadfly in Congress?

And what if the Dodgers hadn't been so lousy in the late '30s and early '40s? Would America have been deprived of one of its most celebrated and beloved actors?

The circumstances are interesting.

Larry MacPhail had taken over the team in those days and brought in Branch Rickey to move it up. It was a rollicking collection of misfits and mess-ups known fondly in the press as "the Flatbush Follies" or "the Daffy Dodgers."

They ran the bases with the careless elan of stampeding cattle, and once when a team promoter recommended a contest to send someone from Brooklyn to a secluded romantic place no one had ever been before, Casey Stengel suggested third base.

It was the famous time when the New York Giants' Manager, Bill Terry--to his ultimate regret--cracked, "Is Brooklyn still in the league?"

It was--but barely. The pitching staff had a Max Butcher. The infield and outfield had their own butchers. The team had a permanent lock on the second division.

First baseman Buddy Hassett could sing like a thrush. Unfortunately, he hit like one, too. He had so little power a Brooklyn Eagle sportswriter wrote, "They kept Hassett around to sing 'When Irish Eyes Are Smiling' at the team banquets--and to pop out with the bases loaded at the team rallies."

Into this rollicking setup in 1938 came a young sophomore from the University of North Carolina. Even then he had this caressing, mellifluous voice, dark wavy hair and drop-dead good looks that would make him a show business staple for half a century.

But he got the job as public address announcer for the Dodgers not entirely because of his dulcet baritone and Shakespearean diction--and family friendship with the MacPhails--but mostly because the resident radio broadcaster, Red Barber, refused to participate in some of the bizarre promotions of the day.

One of them had Jesse Owens racing against a horse around the bases. Others had Babe Didrikson hitting golf balls out of Ebbets Field with nine-irons.

None of this bothered the young collegian. For him, it was heady stuff. A dedicated baseball fan--he can still name you the lineup, batting averages and mothers' maiden names of the entire 1931 Philadelphia Athletics--it was rubbing elbows with the gods.

He got $10 a day and got to sit in a dugout with the greatest cast of characters of the day. One of them was Babe Ruth, hired that year as part of the promotional effort to hype the box office, and the youngster out of college remembers his first great disillusionment with the grand old game.

"Babe would sit on the bench and smoke a cigar and belch and tell stories about how he would drink a quart of booze and eat 10 or 12 hot dogs and still go out and bat .390. I didn't think ballplayers even smoked or went out with girls. He destroyed all my illusions."

While he had no qualms about announcing the MacPhail capers on field, the take-home pay proved a little harder to put up with. He began to shop around for other jobs and found himself cast in radio soap operas.

He still thought his future would be in baseball and he hankered to get into the broadcast booth. But the Dodgers were too well fixed there with the incomparable Red Barber, the competent Connie Desmond and the soon-to-appear Vin Scully.

So John Forsythe became an actor.

"I had about as much chance of cracking that lineup as the team's," he says.

None of this pleased his father, a Wall Street broker. He equated both professions with selling hot watches on street corners or telling fortunes for a living.

"You're not an actor," he told his son. "You don't even look like an actor."

"How do actors look?" his son asked.

"Oh, they all wear their hats tipped on the side of their heads and their overcoats tossed over their shoulders, and they have this deep resonant voice and smoke cigarettes with long holders."

John Forsythe never managed to pass for a Barrymore, but he became one of America's, indeed the world's, most familiar leading men. He once did a television series, "Charlie's Angels," in which only his voice appeared--and everyone knew whose it was.

He became the embodiment of suavity and gentility. Witty, urbane, good-humored, civilized, gallant. Someone once said, if San Francisco were a man, it'd be John Forsythe.

He's one of television's and filmdom's 10 most recognizable personalities. His image is positive.

"My father always told me, if you wanted to be taken for a gentleman, first you you had to look like a gentleman. I remember going to Actor's Studio. Brando and Montgomery Clift and all those were in torn T-shirts and I had my button-down collars. They called me the Brooks Brothers Bohemian."

No one would ever take John Forsythe for anything but a gentleman. Does his Ebbets Field past ever come up? How did that ever fit him to play Blake Carrington?

"It was valuable experience," he says. "You learn to handle yourself in front of crowds, you learn to project, you learn to adjust."

Of course, if he had stuck with the club, he could be second man in the booth today. He could be Ross Porter.

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