Interview With Doug Wilson
When in the first few moments of our phone conversation Doug Wilson serenaded me with a rousing version of "O Canada", I just knew I was in for a wonderful time and I don't think I had any CONCEPT of just how wonderful a time I'd have. His 50 year journey in sports saw him as the producer and director of ABC's iconic Wide World Of Sports and in that journey he worked with Dick Button, Peggy Fleming, O.J. Simpson, David Letterman, Frank Gifford, Julie Moran, Terry Gannon and Jim McKay. He travelled to all corners of the sport presenting every sport imaginable and started his lifelong love affair with figure skating in 1964 when he covered his first U.S. Championships and watched Peggy Fleming take come the crown. He went on to be in attendance for almost every U.S. Championships from 1964 through to 2008. "I've been so blessed, Ryan," he told me. "Figure skating was at the core of it all. It was the number one for me." Doug has been honored by the Director's Guild Of America with its Lifetime Achievement Award in Sports and won 17 Emmy Awards for his tremendous work and was inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall Of Fame in 2003. "When I got the envelope in the mail in 2003, I thought it was a fundraiser," laughed Doug. "I was dumbfounded and overwhelmed and I called Dick Button and do you know what he said?... 'My, they're really going to extremes.'" Sharing his compelling and inspiring story in his new book "The World Was Our Stage" (which is required Skate Guard reading because I said so), Doug is not only a legend but a wonderfully warm, humble and entertaining person. He was SO kind to take time out of his busy stage and book schedule to talk with me about his book, amazing life, love of figure skating and experiences. This one deserves a Pinot Grigio. Go ahead, treat yourself. The Olympics are coming! You're allowed a big girl glass. I said so. Enjoy!:
Q: In your new book "The World Was Our Stage", you talk about your amazing 50 year journey with ABC's Wide World Of Sports. You were with Wide World Of Sports for almost the show's entire run from 1961 to 1998 and you were there to witness and present so many of figure skating's greatest moments. What did you love most about producing and directing this program and bringing skating into the homes and hearts of billions?
A: Well first of all, I was a theatre guy. I was a jack of all tracks, master of none jock as a kid - a good wrestler, played soccer but I really wanted to be a singer, actor and performer. I got a job as a production assistant at ABC. The first two years I was doing all kinds of other shows and then that developed into my role with Wide World Of Sports. The key to the show was in the opening phrase that we all heard - and I believe Johnny Esaw used to use it too: "Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport... the thrill of victory... and the agony of defeat... the human drama of athletic competition... This is ABC's Wide World of Sports!" The show was really about the human drama of athletic competition. The show wasn't just a sports show. It was a show that told stories; it was sports theatre. Having been an active athlete and had those experiences, it was the perfect marriage for me. Once u realize that sense of theatre of presenting sport, you look at it like this: on Broadway the script's already been written, it was OUR job to follow the plot lines. What sport is ultimate theatre? Figure skating. Ultimate sports theatre. It's got everything every other sport has plus artistry plus a touch of soap opera built in. To me, with Wide World Of Sports I was in heaven.
Q: You obviously worked very closely with Olympic Gold Medallists Dick Button and Peggy Fleming in producing Wide World Of Sports. Why do you feel they were your best choice as figure skating commentators for ABC and what do you respect and enjoy most about them as people?
A: Individually speaking, Dick Button became the iconic voice of figure skating in a very real sense. I mean, he has the credentials (being a North American Champion, the last North American man to win European Championships, 7 times national champion, 5 world titles, 2 Olympic gold medals)... then you have his passion for artistry of the sport... then he's brilliant! He's got a law degree, is so articulate and has this wonderful sense of humor. He's a real Renaissance guy. Dick agonized over everything he said on the show and didn't want to walk away from any show not feeling he had analyzed anything to the best of his ability. He agonized over that... being sure he was saying what he meant. But who could be better? Peggy Fleming is a national treasure of the United States Of America. She is iconic. People love Peggy Fleming. I remember when Tom Collins convinced her to do one more tour. He begged her to do it and she did and I went down to watch the first rehearsal and Peggy went out on ice and she comes over the boards and looks at me and says: "They're all skating so fast!" This is what happened. She was the headliner of the show, people came in and a spotlight in went down lighting center ice and there was no announcement... she just came out and skated into the light and the place went nuts. That's the kind of effect she had. She just skated balletically and artistically, no triple jumps, none of that stuff... and they just loved it. She has great feeling for the sport and really cares a lot about it and was so articulate. Then you have Jim McKay - nobody better! Then later on, Terry Gannon who is a brilliant, brilliant guy. The king of take 1's. And back to Peggy... she is beautiful! That didn't hurt.
Q: You just returned from Boston and the 2014 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships. What, in your opinion, were the most fascinating moments and memories that came out of this event?
A: Jeremy Abbott's short program. Oh yeah. Jeepers creepers! Jason Brown's free skate and always, always Davis and White. They're just magical. I'm sure there's going to a great North American showdown at the Olympics. You never know what will happen. As Dick Button says, "Ice is a very slippery thing". I was very surprised at how good Castelli and Shnapir are... really good. As for the ladies, Gracie Gold is going to be marvelous but I want to talk about Polina Edmunds. What I think is going to happen in Sochi is when that little girl gets out there, she's going to surprise everyone. I think the Russian fans are going to go nuts for her! Number one - she's young. Number two - she has the look of a Russian ballerina. She looks just like a Russian ballerina would look. And Number three - her first name's Russian. She's going to one of the most popular athletes for the Russian audience. She's young and hasn't quite reached that maturity/womanhood stage but they're just going to love her. The other big moment from Boston was when they did the presentation with all the Olympic Gold Medallists. I stood there with my wife and I said "how blessed can a person be to say I'm friends with all those people?" They're all extraordinary great people. I had that moment of thanks.
Q: How challenging was marketing figure skating to audiences that previously weren't familiar with the sport? What kind of obstacles and roadblacks did you come across in that respect?
A: The sport is a great sport. What we did with the TV show was bring it to them. I'd like to give some credit to the way we showed it and the way it was discussed on air - with Dick, Peggy, Jim, Terry and Carol Heiss in the beginning, the sport sold itself. We were the conduit. I personally think - and a lot of people might be surprised when I say this - that figure skaters are greater athletes than the guys that are playing for the NFL. Think about it. They have every quality that someone who's a linebacker for New York Giants have - strength, ability, speed, timing, focus, grace under pressure, balance - a great skater has to have all of these. Once they've got that, then they have to become artists. I don't think NFL players have to communicate artistry to the 50,000 people in the arena. Figure skating goes up and down in popularity for a variety of reasons. It will never not be popular on some level. It is what it is. It's wonderful.
Q: You really globe trotted for so many years in your position. What was your favourite place that you travelled and what was your least?
A: St. Moritz became a very important part of my personal life as you can read in the book. I was over there in 1967 as Associate Director to cover The Cresta Run. I tried it and became addicted it. I rode over the Christmas holidays and am going back to do my own man show which is a reflection of my book. It's so hard to pick a place but that place became part of my life. I don't recall ever being in a place where I was saying to myself "I gotta get out of here, I'm awful". We were always there to cover a special event of some kind. Secondly, with Wide World Of Sports, we were treated so, so well. The doors were open and everyone was wonderful. I learned in travelling that the will to win is not really any different in Jackie Stewart racing in Monaco as it is with wrist wrestling guy in Petaluma. There's always magic in the air. Going to Bucharest to cover Nadia Comaneci.... that was an adventure! I consider her one of the greatest athletes of all time. She always come to mind... the first perfect 10 in the Olympics. Then I think of Dick Button saying "just because a child can play the minute waltz in a minute doesn't mean they're a great pianist." Her greatness was in my opinion what happened AFTERWARDS when she came back as a woman to dominate. It's like Michelle Kwan. Michelle gave me an autographed photo to give to my granddaughter Kira. "Why is MK a great champion?" I asked. She answered, "because she skates so well". I responded that "Michelle is a great champion because of how she conducted herself in victory and defeat." Those are the kind of stories from around the world that stand out.
Q: Who are your three favourite skaters of all time and why?
A: You're a rascal! If I tell you about my favourites, how do you think the others will feel? If I told you my favourite skaters, there would a whole bunch of other skaters who wouldn't speak to me for a while. I'll put it this way. My favourite skater knows who my favourite skater is.
Q: What's one thing about you most people don't know?
A: How scared I've been. I do my show and do readings with my book and I'm in front of an audience but I still always get so nervous. Bob Hope was asked at 92 about going up there and telling jokes and he said he still got nervous going up there then. It's a nice compliment to have people feel I'm comfortable, relaxed and doing my job as a communicator or performer but it's like this... it's not easy. I was almost never completely happy when I left a TV truck. People would say "great job" but I always knew what I missed. There was always that. People at home didn't know I missed but I did. The only way I could try to do justice to these skaters was to go to those practice sessions and pre-block and study what they did. When I was directing, I would see let's say Michelle Kwan's magnificent spiral and look at the whole picture. The skater speaks with the whole body. In Michelle's case the emotion that went into that spiral just glowed right out of her face every time. If I didn't know when that spiral was gonna happen or when there were little subtle times someone would have a moment with a simple foot moment that I wouldn't have known how to present that. A lot of figure skating coverage you see on TV is what I call it zone coverage. Skating is ebbs and flows and moves and sways. It's such a marvellous emotion filled sport but lot of people film it doing zone coverage. It's very nice but to me, I want to know that if skater is going to start diagonally across the ice. I want to know what they're going to do ahead of time and know that skater's going to move right into camera. The only way to know all of this is ahead of time and to go there and watch them, write it down and have that system.
Q: What did you learn the most about yourself looking back and writing this book that you didn't expect?
A: You're really getting home runs here and making me analyze. I became increasingly aware of how fortunate I've been. It continues in the aftermath of the writing book in connections with people responding to it. The connection in the concourse in Boston - people came up and said these wonderful things. All of these skating fans had such different favourites. Many people commented on the "Leading Ladies" part of the book. Many people didn't realize that Elaine Zayak became a World Champion and only has half a foot. Elaine is SUCH a great lady and a nice person! The book has had me welled up almost on a daily basis to be thankful for what life has given to me. I've been surrounded by great people in the TV business and athletics. I've been in the right place at the right time and had a great time. I've had this extraordinary voyage. Also, I think about how Jim McKay focused on the history... and I was also a witness to history. In China in 1980, I was there for the first visit of U.S. skaters in China. It was grey, with no cars... bicycles and piles of cabbage on the sidewalk... the whole experience was incredible. To go again in the 90's and find a KFC sign dominating the main street and vitality, cars, people and commerce thriving... it was just extraordinary. Then to have been in Munich in 1972 - going from euphoria to halcyon 6-7-8 days before tragedy and terrorism became part of our lives. Who do I thank for this gift? To be able to call Scott Hamilton, Brian Orser, Dorothy Hamill, Linda Fratianne, Brian Boitano, Carol Heiss Jenkins, Peggy Fleming, Dick Button all friends. Jeepers creepers! I can't imagine anyone having been more blessed than I've been.
"The World Was Our Stage" is available by on Doug's website at http://www.dougwilsonabcsports.com. Get your copy today! No, really... today. You heard what I said! Don't make me come down there! Was this your cup of tea? Well, don't just stand there! In order for this blog to reach a wider audience, I could sure use a little help. All you have to do is "LIKE" the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard for instant access to all of the new blog articles, features and interviews as they are made available. I also share daily updates and headlines from the skating world, videos and much more that's not here on the blog, so if you love figure skating as much I do, it would really be rude not to get on that inside edge! You can also follow all of the fun along on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SkateGuardBlog. If you know someone who loves skating, tell them! It's all about getting a dialogue going on! Fabulous skating is too fabulous to keep secret. Am I right or am I right?