By Barrett Seaman – Originally published in The Hudson Independent
Few people are lucky enough in life to have been “in at the beginning” of something bigger than themselves and meaningful to the rest of us. Irvington’s Doug Wilson is such a person: he began his career as a television producer just as ABC was launching its game-changing show, Wide World of Sports.
He worked shoulder-to-shoulder with the legendary Roone Arledge, who single-handedly re-shaped the way the world sees sports, and Jim McKay, for years the familiar face and voice not only for Wide World but for ABC’s long string of Olympic Games coverage. He knew Muhammad Ali when he was Cassius Marcellus Clay; he helped Evel Knievel stage some of his infamous motorcycle jumps; he sheltered Olympic gymnast Nadia Comaneci from a voracious press corps when she first came to the U.S. And he captured on camera the artistry of virtually all of the world-class figure skaters of the last 50 years—from Peggy Fleming to Dorothy Hamill and Katarina Witt.
In Wilson’s brief and pithy memoir, The World Was Our Stage, due out in October, he recalls his personal histories over the years with these and other sports stars in ways that reveal an almost child-like adulation of their skills and grit. For the most part, he refrains from “dishing” on luminaries, though he no doubt knew them well enough to serve up at least a few titillating details. But he also refrains from spelling out the enormous contributions he himself made as someone who figured out whole new ways to use a TV camera to communicate the sheer drama of sport.
It took Olympic skater Fleming, writing the introduction to Wilson’s book, to encapsulate his contribution: “Few people have ever conceived of covering the world of sports as Doug did through his eyes and ears, “ she wrote. “He did things differently from his directing contemporaries. He didn’t just video an event. He lived in the moment with the athlete, the camera crew, the audio team, and the entire production unit. He captured the fine details and the grand energies.”
To be sure, on its surface, The World Was Our Stage is a string of anecdotal encounters with personalities made famous in part by how Wilson and his colleagues at ABC Sports captured them on camera. Underlying these charming yarns, however, is a cautionary tale about the precipitous rise and the almost imperceptible fall of television as a cultural and economic force in American society. From the days when, as an ABC producer, he didn’t even have to ask if he could rent a helicopter to try out an interesting angle on the toboggan run at St. Moritz, to more recent times in which accountants play a role in determining how events were covered, Wilson’s book dramatizes the nostalgic nature of what he witnessed. He was indeed lucky enough to be there when.