HOW RANDOM: LOVED OR HATED, ‘ARLI$$’ RECALLS THE B.S. OF THE TRUMP DEAL ALL THESE YEARS LATER
By Tom Hoffarth
Robert Wuhl wasn’t making a true confession over a plate of eggs benedict and a side of oatmeal at John O’Groats Restaurant. But, yes, since it was brought up, it can now be told: Donald Trump inspired the comedic framework of his HBO show, “Arli$$.”
“If you remember the opening credits, and I say, ‘My name is Arliss Michaels, I represent athletes, these are my stories,’ and this book spins into the picture,” Wuhl says.
The book is a mocked-up cover of Wuhl, as Arliss Michaels, titled The Art of the Sport Super Agent.
“This is around 1995,” Wuhl continues between bites, looking at Mike Tollin, sitting next to him and working on a stack of pancakes at the Westside diner.
“I had read [Trump’s book] The Art of the Deal [from 1987] and I thought — remember, this? — I said, ‘This is total, 100 percent bullshit. You gotta read this, Mike. He’s saying stuff that I don’t believe a fuckin’ word of it. He’s telling you what happened, but I want to see what really happened.'” We can use this, as Arliss the sports agent telling you what happens, and then we prove he’s full of shit and show what really happened.”
And now there’s Trump, in the White House, dealing with much bigger issues.
“Who would have figured that?” says Wuhl.
HBO had a big-deal, seven-season, 80-episode run of Arli$$ from 1996 to 2002, feeding off the hypocritical irony of the sports world of that era, augmented with hundreds of cameo appearances by the biggest athletes of the day.
It comes back into focus more than 15 years because, after figuring out a way to re-introduce it to a new era of bingewatching and maybe as a reminder this was going on long before HBO’s “Ballers” and “Entourage,” the entire series is now available on HBO Go and HBO Now.
Our Q&A with Wuhl and Tollin appears in The Hollywood Reporter at this link.
Some more of it, of course, ended up on the cutting room floor.
Stuff like this:
WUHL: Let me tell you a Kobe Bryant story. So he’s just signed this $44 million contract out of high school. He’s doing our show, shooting in a gym. I read where he grew up in Italy and spoke Italian. I did something where he spoke in Italian, I thought it would be cute. As we’re doing it, I see a woman standing off to the side. Don’t know her, so I asked. I was told, “That’s his social worker.” “What do you mean social worker? Well, he’s underage. He’s 17. I said, “He just signed a $44 million contract! Where do I get a social worker like that?”
I think the best cameo we got, unexpectedly, was when we found out that (6-foot-6, 335-pound NFL offensive lineman) Lincoln Kennedy was a drama minor in college (University of Washington). You never wanted to give these guys much to carry the plot development. They were there to add texture. There’s a scene with Lincoln going to his mother’s funeral. I talked to him and send him a copy of ‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,’ so he could watch the scene with Dick Shawn … ‘Mama, I’m commin’ to get ya!” He was so good at doing the scene that way.
THE GUEST STARS
WUHL: We had six Oscar winners or nominees who did the show. James Colburn did his last role before he died (in 2002) … The episode was called “The Immortal,” and it was based on this story about Joe DiMaggio. When the 1989 earthquake hit in San Francisco, DiMaggio was told he wasn’t allowed to go back to his home there. He told them that he had all his MVP trophies in there and needed to get them. They finally let him in, and he comes out with two golf bags. They’re filled with cash that he supposedly got from autograph signings. DiMaggio, you know, then was known as “Mr. Coffee” (for his endorsements), and so made Colburn’s nickname “Sir Pops-A-Lot,” the king of popcorn. He played a character like DiMaggio and Ted Williams. We called him “Slaughterhouse” Sid Perelli. So for his story, we create this fire at his house, and he and I are fighting through this tsunami of popcorn going off everywhere as we try to rescue his belongings. James was very sick already. We had to wait two months before we finished the episode. If you watch it now, you see in him in that final scene, and he’s 45 pounds thinner. That was the last thing he shot. He died a short time after that.
We were fortunate to have him in that episode, with Lindsay Crouse. We had Joe Bologna, Eileen Brennan, Michael Clark Duncan. I think we had more than 60 Emmy winners – Ed Asner alone won half of them I think. Ken Howard we had for two shows, two different characters, one inspired by Mickey Mantle and another by Bobby Knight.
TOLLIN: You remember was also had Les Mooves playing himself in an episode …
WUHL: We even had a half dozen Grammy winners, like Glen Frey …
Another story: Hands down, the biggest pain in the ass was Bruce Hornsby. Before the season started, we get a call from his manager, who says Bruce is a fan of the show, he’d would love to do it. Great, but what can we do? We already had come up with a storyline about a gay ballplayer. At the time, Elton John owned a soccer team, so the thought was: What if a flamboyant gay rock star buys a baseball team and starts having an affair with one of Arliss’ clients on that team? And then client wants to come out.
Now, the storylines always had layers. It wasn’t always so much about what the clients wanted. There was also: What does Arliss really want? What’s the personal gain? The story we came up with was how Arliss and Kirby had a garage band back in college and Arliss always dreamed of having a gold record. So he gets an idea for putting all his athletes for a ‘We Are The World’ thing — he knows it will sell, Arliss will play piano on it, and he’ll get the gold record. Unbeknownst to Arliss, Kirby invites Bruce Hornsby to be in the band, and Arliss will get bumped.
We usually shoot four or five days per episode, and Hornsby was coming in on the final day. During the whole episode, we’re talking about him coming. He’s there on the last day and could not have been a bigger pain in the ass. I tap-danced more in that one day than I did in seven seasons. We couldn’t fire him because I shot everything else. But all he kept saying was, “My fans know that I don’t do these ‘We Are The World’-type stuff.” To which (E Street Band drummer) Max Weinberg says, when I relayed this story to him: “Why didn’t he just call the fan and ask if it was OK’?” All I needed was to get enough of him on film. We got it. And he was pissed off that we sabotaged him … And by the way, I still like his music.
WUHL: The thing very important to the show as far as I was concerned: Everyone is duplicitous. There is no “voice of reason” shit. They’re duplicitous because they want something. Otherwise you walk into sappyland. Arliss was running a business. We had an episode where a scab ballplayer who once saved Arliss’ life as he was caught in a fire in his car. The player asks Arliss to represent him. But Arliss already reps Roger Clemens, Tom Glavine … every big union guy. The writers say, “Oh, Arliss can represent him.” I said: “No he can’t. It’s not real. He won’t give up all these clients for a scab player making minimum salary.” He does, however, get him an agent in the end – turns out to be Shelly Berman.
My dad once ran a business. And it’s not even just about a sports agent. It was an agent in general. Agents by nature are parasitic. They take a percentage of what someone else does. It’s no different in a sports agent, theatrical agent, travel agent, real estate agent … they need a sale to make money. But Arliss had a very unique clientele that was predominantly very young, quite wealthy … and very needy.
THE RESSUE OF THE EPISODES
TOLLIN: There was a ‘Best Of’ DVD that came out (in 2003) but …
WUHL: It was a mistake. The episodes are kind of random. Collectors don’t want that stuff. They want everything.
TOLLIN: Totally unrelated, we had a challenge in that in so many of the episodes had what we called “needle drops” – popular songs were added, and we needed to license them. Back then, there was no licensing issues with digital, because there was no digital. So once we decided to do streaming, we didn’t have the rights, so we decided to go back, strip out music, put in stock music over the needle-drops, and HBO finally said, “Let’s do it.” It’s an expensive and time consuming proposition. It took about a year.
WUHL: To their credit, they did go out and pay for a lot of great songs originally – including the Dusty Springfield opening, “I Only Want to be With You.” We also realized there was a problem, which I didn’t realize at the time: Arliss had a habit of breaking into song occasionally, and start singing on camera.
TOLLIN: It was one of those things were you can’t stop him but only hope to contain him.
WUHL: I was told I did that 30 times in the series, and they cleared every one of them.
TOLLIN: Just the song rights, not the performance rights.
WUHL: Thank God.