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Play it again: compelling ESPN special marks 50th anniversary of "The Greatest Game Ever Played"

Frank Gifford breaks away in 1958 Giants-Colts championship game.

Fifty years later the hyperbole still fits. And Saturday's exceptional two-hour ESPN special (8 p.m. central) vividly makes the sale.

Grandly dubbed "The Greatest Game Ever Played," 1958's Baltimore Colts-New York Giants championship game gave the NFL its stripes in times when baseball still reigned as the king of sports while college football outpaced the pro game.

Some of its key participants are deceased, most notably Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas, who died in 2002. And the Giants' late, great offensive and defensive coordinators, Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry, would go on to become giants in their own right.

But ESPN gets the most out of 11 veterans of that game, pairing them with current-day Giants and Colts players and coaches in a way that never seems forced or contrived.

Frank Gifford, the Giants' star running back, reminisces with Colts defensive end Gino Marchetti and incumbent Giants coach Tom Coughlin. Colts coach Tony Dungy sits with Unitas' favorite receiver, Raymond Berry. Another Baltimore Hall of Famer, flanker/halfback Lenny Moore, is paired with bruising Giants running back Brandon Jacobs. And old-school Colts lineman Art Donovan is as garrulous as ever while jawing with newly retired Giants defender Michael Strahan, now a Fox broadcaster.

Donovan recalls getting 58 stitches in his mug during a typically brutal game. So why not wear a facemask? "You were a sissy if you used one," he retorts.

As for his playing weight, "I was fat when I was born," Donovan says. "I was 17 pounds. I was out of shape from the beginning."

Also included are Baltimore-born filmmaker Barry Levinson and famed photographer Neil Leifer, who as a teenager took the game's most evocative and enduring photo.

ESPN additionally came up with the very good idea of interviewing surviving members of the Baltimore Colts marching band, which provided the halftime entertainment at Yankee Stadium. Their rendition of the Colts' fight song became upstart Baltimore's national anthem. So much so that Levinson had an organist play it at a wedding scene in Diner, the 1982 film that made him one of Hollywood's A-list producers and directors.

Frank Gifford and Gino Marchetti remember the way it was.

NBC's black-and-white telecast of the game is no longer with us. But ESPN has stitched together and colorized most of the game's big plays from existing film footage.

The muted colorization befits a cold, overcast Dec. 28th in a not-so-grand looking Yankee Stadium, where the grass was dead and much of the field was made up of infield dirt. There the two teams battled it out, kicking up dust and slipping on unsure footing in a game marked by both recurring fumbles and precision plays.

You'll quickly notice a few stark differences from the game then and now. There were no soccer-style kickers then. The Giants' Pat Summerall, who talks about the game with Colts placekicker Adam Vinatieri, joined all booters of his day in kicking straight ahead off his toe. Goal posts were positioned at the front, not the back, of the end zone. And the posts themselves were wooden and almost laughably short.

Many pro players from that era also worked day jobs to make ends meet. Donovan fittingly was a liquor salesman. Unitas and Marchetti were both employed by Bethlehem Steel.

But Gifford, one of the pro game's first glamour boys, bridged the past to the present by spending his off-duty hours as a film, commercial and radio personality. He also was involved in a very big way in "The Greatest Game Ever Played," fumbling twice, scoring a touchdown and coming up just inches short -- or so the referees ruled -- of a first down that would have allowed the Giants to run out the clock.

Gifford long has insisted he made that first down. ESPN painstakingly revisits the scene and, upon further review, makes a decisive and seemingly inarguable call. But you can still dispute whether the Giants should have punted on fourth down or gone for the clincher with the ball in the vicinity of their own 43-yard line.

What I've tried not to do here is to give away too much. Most football fans of a certain vintage know the outcome, but maybe not as many of the particulars as they think. Yours truly remembers watching it as a 10-year-old kid in Racine, Wis. It left quite an impression. But for me, "The Greatest Game Ever Played" will always be the subsequent 1967 "Ice Bowl" championship between the victorious Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys.

Still, the Colts-Giants thriller is the one that ushered in the modern-day NFL. Some might say it's to blame for that. Not really, though. The pro game would have grown to mega-proportions anyway, complete with its attendant egos and off-field dramas. Fifty years ago, though, the game had a roughneck charm and gristle, with most of its stars content to let their on-the-field play do the talking.

The stoic Unitas, for one, never seemed to celebrate anything. Watch him walk away after . . . well, here's what that historic Neil Leifer picture still tells us -- with no further commentary needed:


Jay's prime-time gain could be Conan's late-night loss

Jay Leno with NBC head Jeff Zucker; Conan O'Brien with hat in hand.

Jay Leno playfully jabbed at his network and Conan O'Brien manfully fell on his sword during their late night NBC talk shows Tuesday.

All kidding and laughable seriousness aside, Conan may well be the one who's getting screwed.

The Peacock's blockbuster deal to keep Leno, officially announced Tuesday, will give him an unprecedented Monday-Friday 9 p.m. (central) slot next fall while O'Brien moves West to take over the Tonight Show a few months earlier on June 1st.

Funny how Tonight suddenly seems like a consolation prize while Leno's "comedy/talk show," in NBC's words, keeps him No. 1 in the network's pecking order.

"As you may have heard, there were rumblings that I was leaving NBC and going to ABC. Those were nothing but rumors started by a disgruntled employee -- me," Leno told viewers Tuesday night, recycling a joke from an earlier press conference.

"I've known about this for a while. I've talked a lot about this with Jay," O'Brien told his Late Night audience. "I am absolutely thrilled that Jay is staying at NBC. He has been my lead-in on this program for 16 seasons. He is a fantastic lead-in."

There are key differences, of course, and none of them appear to be in O'Brien's favor.

For one, he'll be relocating from New York to L.A. to do the Tonight Show. That puts him in the same zip code as The Jay Leno Show (NBC's tentative title), which will still originate from its same studio while a new place is built for O'Brien.

Close proximity seriously escalates the competition for big-name guests, which has been muted with their respective shows on opposite coasts. Not that Leno didn't get his pick of the litter anyway. And to thrive in prime-time, he'll need much, much more than ventriloquist Jimmy Skeezicks or contortionist Bella Curve after dispensing with the nightly monologue and carryover bits such as "Jaywalking" and "Headlines."

O'Brien obviously can't book the same big-name guest on the same night Leno does. But he also doesn't want to be perceived as an obvious second choice. So exactly how does the Tonight Show save face now that NBC's principal promotional platform has shifted to prime-time? I wouldn't want to be in the middle of those booking discussions.

NBC obviously wants Leno's show to be a hit, as well as a beneficial lead-in to late night local newscasts such as NBC5's in D-FW. But if it is -- and that's anything but a certainty -- does it deflate viewer interest in another late night talk show on the same network? Nobody really has that answer. But the prospect of Leno sucking the air out the show he once hosted is no laughing matter.

Jeff Zucker, president and CEO of NBC Universal says in a news release that changing times demand "a new paradigm. For the past few years, we've been vocal about two things. Transforming broadcast television for today's media landscape, and keeping Jay at NBC. In this one announcement we have done both. It's great for NBC, for our viewers, and for our advertisers."

For the past few years NBC has been last among the Big Four broadcast networks in both total viewers and advertiser-coveted 18-to-49-year-olds. And the GE-owned network's 9 p.m. performance has dimmed to a flicker after the still relatively recent bright years of Law & Order, Law & Order: SVU and ER, which will have its series finale on March 12th.

It's also true, as NBC keeps emphasizing, that paying Leno in excess of $30 million a year is far cheaper than spending $2 million to $3 million an episode -- and sometimes more -- for a successful scripted drama series. And in summer months, the workaholic Leno will give the Peacock mostly first-run programming at the 9 p.m. hour while rivals largely make due with repeats or -- in Fox's case -- local news hours.

What mostly will be missing from NBC are scripted dramas for grownups. Once home to acclaimed series such as Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, L.A. Law, Homicide: Life on the Street, Miami Vice, the Law & Order franchise and ER, NBC clearly is going in the direction of "alternative" unscripted hours and a small smattering of sitcoms.

Putting Leno in prime-time five nights a week is the chanciest alternative of all. But for now at least, the Peacock is crowing about "the greatest all-star comedy lineup in the history of television."

NBC is including Jimmy Fallon in that mix. Already in training via a batch of video blogs that began Monday, the former Saturday Night Live star will succeed O'Brien as Late Night host on March 2nd, with a new house band, The Roots, in place.

That will give Conan ample time to head West and ramp up for whatever might hit him. Maybe it'll just be a shaving cream pie rather than egg on his face. However it turns out, he's still Leno's followup act. Until Tuesday's surprise announcement, we all thought he'd outgrown that.

Redneck scrapper: Dallas-born Christian Kane fights for TNT's new Leverage

Christian Kane touts TNT's Leverage during Dallas stop. Photo: Ed Bark

Born in Dallas but mostly bred in Oklahoma, actor Christian Kane seems a bit unsuited for his Ritz-Carlton suite.

The former high school wrestler is finishing off a second bottle of Bud Light and has a small chaw between his cheek and gum when we meet on a mid-weekday afternoon to talk about his new TNT series Leverage among other things.

"In Oklahoma, man, it's a prerequisite," he says of the marble-sized ball of snuff that eventually finds a home at the bottom of his longneck. "I've broken the habit a couple of times, but it's just a redneck thing, man."

On the other hand, Kane says he watches the Food Network "24 hours a day" because cooking is "my biggest passion."

"I love the presentation on the plate and all that stuff," he says. "I definitely want to do some sort of cooking show, and I'm working on it right now."

The Kane house specialty would be his "Rattlesnake Steak," which he describes as a bleu cheese, jalapeno, bacon-stuffed filet mignon. He also makes a mean "purple pizza" whose sauce consists of "a lot of garlic and two cans of crushed black olives."

All of this makes him at the very least a Renaissance Redneck who also plays lead guitar in a southern rock band called Kane and proudly does all of his own fistfighting stunts as "retrieval specialist" Eliot Spencer on Leverage. The tongue-in-cheek action series had a sneak preview Sunday night, drawing a respectable 5 million viewers nationally on TNT. It now will air on Tuesdays at 9 p.m. (central), beginning Dec. 9th.

Kane, 34, bounced around a lot as a kid before his family moved from Odessa to Oklahoma when he was in eighth grade.

"I always knew I wanted to be an actor," he says. "My dad was in the oil business and I went to five different elementary schools. And it's tough to make friends, so the movies became my best friend."

Still, he dabbled in art history at the University of Oklahoma before impulsively packing up his truck and heading West. Here's his short-form narrative:

"I drove to Laguna and slept on the beach with a gun on my lap. Then I started making my way to Los Angeles and meeting people, which is pretty hard when you don't have any money. I went out there and I busted my ass and learned as much about the business as I could.

"I walked into a management company and said, 'Hey, I'll make deliveries for you if you send me out on auditions.' They laughed at me, and one month later I had my own series (the short-lived Fame L.A., in which he appeared in three episodes). So it's really a Cinderella story. It's a lotta luck, too. I can't even say I'm deserving of what I've got. It's really being in the right place at the right time. Woody Allen said it best. Ninety percent of life is showin' up."

After Fame L.A. came 1999's Rescue 77, one of innumerable TV series produced by the late Aaron Spelling, who himself journeyed from Dallas to Hollywood in the 1950s with little money in hand. The hits he left behind include The Love Boat, Charlie's Angels and Dynasty

"I miss him a lot, man," Kane says of Spelling. "He was very nice to me. I always got in trouble on the set, so I'd have to go to his office. And he was like, 'We're not gonna do that anymore, are we?' I'd say no, and he'd say 'Great!' and he'd get up and give me a hug."

Kane says his troublemaking didn't amount to much more than always wanting to wear his hair different. "I was never difficult. Listen, every day on a set is a gift. The thing that most people forget in this business is that there's no reason to yell at anybody. There are 85 people on a set, and their sole job is to make you look good. So there's never a time to be pissed off."

Kane in character as Leverage's resident tough guy.

He bounced around after Rescue 77, playing Angelina Jolie's fiance in 2002's Life or Something Like It and getting cut up for real during a fight scene in the following year's Second Hand Lions. He had to grow a mustache to cover up the scar.

"Somebody threw a right when they were supposed to throw a left," Kane says. And it split my lip wide open."

It didn't curb his taste for faking his own fights, which he does without a stunt double in all 13 first-season episodes of Leverage.

"I'm not claiming to be a bad ass or anything, but I know what to do," Kane says, pointing to his background as a high school wrestler and occasional dabbler in martial arts. "In the case of Leverage, all of the fighting is a choreographed dance. And if you actually look at it, it's a very beautiful thing."

Before Leverage, Kane played Lindsay McDonald in 21 episodes of Angel (opposite his off-screen best friend David Boreanaz) and Jack Chase on CBS' Close to Home. The latter proved to be a throwaway part as the husband of prosecutor Annabeth Chase (series star Jennifer Finnegan). So Kane asked that his character be written out at the end of Season 1. The producers obliged with a fatal car wreck.

"I was upset because I was supposed to be a construction worker and a guitar player," Kane says. "And in the 10 of 22 episodes I was in, I didn't don a hard hat or a guitar. So there were a lot of promises that were made to me that didn't work out because the show needed to go in another direction. I felt I was underused, but that's just how it goes. You accept the good with the bad."

Leverage, with Timothy Hutton as the marquee star, gives Kane "the coolest character I've ever had," he says. "I really feel like I've been studying 10 years to play this role. And TNT's the place for me, man. Their motto is 'We know drama.' They're not putting any of this reality bullshit on. I can't stand this reality crap. It's killin' Hollywood."

By that he means shows such as Survivor, America's Top Model and even America's Top Chef. But give him a cooking show and maybe he'll eat some of those words.

"That's my next goal," Kane says. "Me in the kitchen with maybe some other guests."

Meanwhile, Leverage will do.

"You work 9 to 5 and there's some fat cat up there that's doing illegal crap and they're protected by the law. What we're doing on this show is fighting for the person that's watching us," he says.

"I think if somebody looks at it that way they'll really sit back and enjoy the series. It's very smart television, but you don't have to be a rocket scientist to enjoy it. It really is a working man's show."

Brokaw passes Meet the Press baton to Gregory

David Gregory officially became the 10th permanent moderator of Meet the Press Sunday, with Tom Brokaw passing the baton after ending his interim tenure by interviewing president-elect Barack Obama.

Gregory, 38, and Brokaw, 68, found themselves on this unlikely path after the sudden death last June of Tim Russert, who had moderated Meet the Press since 1991.

"I'm not Tim, but along with this great team, I can just work real hard to make Tim proud," Gregory told Brokaw, who noted that his first Meet the Press appearance was "at the height" of Watergate in 1973.

"But now it's time for me to move on," Brokaw said before ushering in Gregory.

News of Gregory's selection leaked earlier in the week, but NBC News officials had declined to comment on the selection.

Gregory, who begins his Meet the Press tenure next Sunday (Dec. 14), will be the youngest moderator in the program's 61-year history. Russert was 41 when he took the position, succeeding Garrick Utley. Chris Wallace, now competing with Meet the Press on his Fox News Sunday program, was 39 when he began moderating Meet the Press on May 10, 1987. His short time with the program ended on Dec. 4, 1988.

Gregory, who joined NBC News in 1995, quickly rose to become the network's White House correspondent during George W. Bush's presidency.

NBC News, in a statement released Sunday, said Gregory will continue as a contributor and substitute host on Today, where he's regularly participated in cooking segments. He'll also continue as a contributor to MSNBC, the network said.

Gregory, in his joint appearance with Brokaw Sunday, said that Russert had always counseled him to "be respectful, but ask the tough questions and think of the smart followup and hold 'em accountable" when interviewing newsmakers.

ABC's competing This Week with George Stephanopoulos lost no time Sunday in announcing prominent interview subjects for the next two Sundays. Stephanopoulos told viewers he'll be talking to John McCain on Dec. 14th and vice-president Joe Biden on the following Sunday.

Apologies to Chris Matthews, but that's playing hardball.

TNT's "high-octane" Leverage not quite a gas, gas, gas

Timothy Hutton leads his merry band of robbin' hoods.

Premiering: Sunday, Dec. 7th at 9 p.m. (central) before moving to regular Tuesday, 9 p.m. slot on Dec. 9th
Starring: Timothy Hutton, Beth Riesgraf, Christian Kane, Aldis Hodge, Gina Bellman
Produced by: Dean Devlin, John Rogers, Chris Downey

Don't believe any of this for a second. That might optimize your enjoyment of TNT's new Leverage, which in longer form is The A-Team meets Mission: Impossible meets Ocean's Eleven, Twelve, Thirteen or how many more of 'em they make.

Timothy Hutton, a best supporting actor Oscar-winner at 21 for 1981's Ordinary People, is now the elder statesman maestro of four attitude-infested wrongdoers who say things like, "My money's not in my account. That makes me cry inside my special anger place."

That's a bit more elegant than "I pity the fool." But you'll get the drift -- and the grift. The far-fetched capers pulled off by this oddball quintet require everything falling into the right place in ways that make anything but any sense. So perhaps you might find yourself sighing inside your special what-a-crock place.

It's OK. Because surely they can't expect you to buy into a scene -- in Tuesday's second episode -- that finds a prototypically crooked congressman caught red-handed by a gaggle of mike-wielding TV news types led by a CNN correspondent.

"How long have you been involved in this smuggling?" the CNN news woman demands.

"Oh crap," says the congressman.

Then another reporter leans into her cell phone to tell a producer back home, "We're gonna lead with crap."

Actually, that last part is pretty believable. But don't hold that against Leverage, which tries its level best to be totally preposterous. In that context it can be passably entertaining.

Hutton plays the semi-dissipated Nathan Ford, a former insurance investigator whose efforts yielded millions for his previous employer. But then that same employer for some reason let Ford's young son die after denying his medical insurance claims.

A thus embittered Ford has dedicated himself to a life of brooding and boozing until an aeronautics exec persuades him in Sunday's premiere to recover plane designs that supposedly were stolen by a rival company. But Ford needs more horsepower. So he quickly puts together a team of specialists, all of whom have been happily conning and robbing people on their own. Let's meet 'em:

Eliot Spencer (Dallas native Christian Kane) is a "retrieval specialist" who can whip a gang of henchmen with his bare hands whenever necessary.

Single-named Parker (Beth Riesgraf) is a Looney Tuner who's also incredibly agile and especially good at rappelling for no really good reason other than to create an action visual.

Alec Hardison (Aldis Hodge) is a technology whiz mastering in computer fraud and chip-on-the-shoulder quips.

And Sophie Deveraux (Gina Bellman) is a grifter who speaks six languages and is, in Ford's words, "the finest actress you've ever seen -- when she's breaking the law."

They of course agree to team up just this once. But gee, working together was lots cooler than everyone thought. And by Episode 2, Ford has designed a super-duper HQ for his team, which then sets out to undermine a despicable Iraqi war contracting firm whose illegal profiteering stops at nothing. That includes the attempted murder of a U.S. soldier who's now stuck in rehab at a hospital whose money is running out.

Cardboard crooks and implausible schemes abound before justice is done and Ford says needlessly, "Anybody who wants to walk away can do it right now."

Leverage is likely to have a hop in its step after Sunday night's Nielsen ratings come out. That's because its warmup act is TNT's The Librarian: Curse of the Judas Chalice, latest in the popular fantasy-action series of movies starring Noah Wyle of ER fame as mild-mannered bookworm Flynn Carsen.

Leverage and Librarian are from the same producer, Dean Devlin. So he stands to win big twice without taxing anyone's brain circuitry. Maybe that's genius.


HBO's House of Saddam could use a fixer-upper

A house is not a home: Saddam with second wife Samira.

Blend The Sopranos with The Godfather, add mustaches all around and out comes HBO's four-hour, two-night House of Saddam.

Except that it's disappointingly and surprisingly bloodless, both as a drama and in depicting the mass carnage inflicted by the late Saddam Hussein.

Oddly scheduled during the holiday season, House of Saddam begins on Sunday, Dec. 7th at 8 p.m. (central) and concludes a week later at the same hour. Those who stay the course might find the opening two hours appreciably more interesting than the concluding Hour 4, which abruptly sends Saddam on the lam and then drearily winds down to his eventual capture by U.S forces.

Saddam is played by Israeli actor Igal Naor (Munich), who certainly looks the part. Alternately chortling and glowering, his formative Saddam -- the story begins in 1979 -- is bedeviled by both a domineering mother and amoral older son, Uday (Philip Arditti), who in time becomes the headstrong, violence- and drug-addicted Sonny Corleone of the piece.

Younger son Qusay (Mounir Margoum) is far quieter, more cerebral and easily envisioned as Michael Corleone. But he'll do his father's bidding when push comes to shove, which it always does.

Saddam as Vito Corleone gives way to Saddam as Tony Soprano when it comes to matters of the flesh. Wife Sajida (Shohreh Aghadashloo, House of Sand), the mother of Saddam's two sons and two daughters, has grown accustomed to her creature comforts.

But he's become bored with her in bed, and divorce is an easy proposition when you're an all-powerful dictator. So Saddam humilates Sajida by taking a second wife, the blonde and much younger Samira Shahbandar (Christine Stephen-Daly). He then arranges the execution of Sajida's brother, whom he's convinced is a traitor. When she tearily upbraids him, he coldly retorts, "Sajida, go shopping."

Saddam also enjoys swimming pools, as did Tony. But near the end, he spends some quality time conversing with a little boy, as did Vito.

Both President Bushes play themselves in news footage. Still, don't expect much depth when it comes to either Saddam's invasion of Kuwait or the U.S. invasion of Iraq after George W. warns of "military conflict, commenced at a time of our choosing."

Weapons of mass destruction also seem almost beside the point in this BBC co-production. And the mass graves that a fugitive Saddam left behind are mentioned only in passing via a smidgen of news footage.

The filmmakers obviously have a big story to tell, and wanted to concentrate on the inner sanctum aspects of Saddam's rule. Still, House of Saddam winds up feeling far emptier than it should have. It's also almost comically soap opera-ish on occasion, with Saddam raging, "What are we, barbarians!?" after Uday beats one of the old man's gofers to death while in another of his drunken rages.

Uday never learns, though. "Hasta la vista, baby," he later tells his hated brother-in-law, Hussein Kamel (Amr Waked), while putting a gun to his face. It's impossible to take this scene seriously. Nor does it help that the actor who plays Uday looks very much like a young Tim Curry.

In the end, as most everyone knows, Saddam was pulled out of his hiding hole and eventually executed on Dec. 30, 2006. House of Saddam spends way too much time getting him into that hole and then no time at all on his incarceration, trial and hanging. All of which makes these four hours add up to surprisingly little during a holiday season when other cheerier pursuits are far more enticing anyway.