By Colleen Michele Jones, The Rivertowns Enterprise
“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.’”
Anyone who grew up in the last 40 years can practically recite Jim McKay’s iconic opening to the television broadcast that aired on most Saturday afternoons, picturing in their mind the accompanying video montage of sports feats and calamities.
As producer/director of “ABC’s Wide World of Sports” (WWS) from 1963 until he retired in 2008—almost half a century—Irvington’s Doug Wilson had a front-row seat to the political intrigues that played out during those years, perhaps never so dramatically as the kidnapping and murder of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists that unfolded live before viewers’ eyes during “WWS’s” broadcast of the 1972 Olympics in Munich.
In his first book, “The World Was Our Stage: Spanning the Globe with ABC Sports,” Wilson weaves together his personal experiences behind the camera, filming such legends as Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashes, and Evel Knievel against the backdrop of such global events as the Cuban missile crisis and Soviet-American tensions. The memoir was recently self-published by Wilson with help from Jody Cohan, an athlete, sportswriter, and friend.
Wilson, 78, grew up on Long Island in the ‘50s wanting to be a singer in the fashion of lounge lizard Perry Como. But after he got into the broadcast industry by chance and spent time behind the scenes on a soundstage, he never looked back.
“I got to work during the golden age of sports TV,” Wilson said during a recent interview with the Enterprise at the townhouse-style condo in the heart of the village that he shares with wife Betsy, who is ex-officio president of the Irvington Historical Society.
In a den off the foyer, lining two shelves, are 16 of the 17 Emmys Wilson earned throughout his television career (the 17th is at the couple’s weekend home in upstate New York). Wilson points to another memento of his years in sports: an original vinyl record of “Charge!” originally a Western cowboy song that would become the official theme song of American television coverage of the Olympics. Also on display are ice-skate blades, mounted on a plaque with a personal inscription, that belonged to former U.S. champion Peggy Fleming. Wilson calls Fleming, who, after retiring from the rink became a sports commentator, a close friend. (Fleming contributed the foreword to “The World Was Our Stage.”)
A graduate of Colgate University with a degree in English, Wilson was hired as a page for the NBC network straight our of college, going on to become an assistant producer at ABC, holding cue cards and getting production timing down to a science for a variety of shows, among them “The Dick Clark Show,” a variety show hosted by the iconic pop music personality that aired from 1958-60.
Mostly self-taught, Wilson became skilled at picking up camera angles, imagining how to frame scenes, and, most importantly, figuring out how to tell stories that resonated with viewers across the country.
When Wilson was hired by “Wide World of Sports,” it was a new show with a new approach, anchored by McKay, a trained journalist who’d started in the news business. The critically acclaimed show put ABC on the map.
“To us, sports were more than the playing, winning, and losing of athletic contests,” Wilson writes. “Sporting events were dramas. Live theater. And the only difference between a performance on stage and a clash on the field is that on stage, the script has already been written.”
Athletic competition at its highest level, Wilson said, is more than just that.
“It’s something unique to human nature. It’s people using their prowess to overcome a competitive adversary, and that brings emotions—both the highs and lows—to their highest point,” Wilson told the Enterprise. “But you know, after it’s over, what do people do? They embrace, or shake hands or admire each other’s performances.”
This roller coaster of coverage—120 sports in 58 countries across five different continents—took Wilson around the globe hundreds of times over, as well as up-close and personal with some of the greats. The sports he became most identified with, though, are gymnastics and ice skating.
Scott Hamilton, 1984 Olympic gold medalist in men’s figure skating, is one of dozens of luminaries who praise Wilson’s book, writing, “Doug Wilson’s sensitivity and his passion for ‘getting it right’ from the perspective of the athlete continue to define his amazing contributions to television. I love this book, and I couldn’t put it down.”
Wilson’s only regret about his globe-trotting career was the time it took away from his family, including his first wife, Debbie, who died of cancer in 1991. The couple, who lived in Irvington since 1964, raised three sons together: Ted, who lives in Ohio; Jamie, a Valhalla resident; and Peter, who makes his home in Tarrytown. Both Ted and Jamie followed their father into the broadcasting business, “so it couldn’t have been that bad,” Wilson said with a light laugh. Peter is a middle school science teacher in Rye Neck. Wilson also has three stepchildren with Betsy Griggs Wilson, to whom he has been married for 16 years as well as eight grandchildren between the two of them.
Though the “WWS” banner continues to be revived occasionally for Saturday afternoon sports programming on ABC, the show’s reign largely ended when ESPN took control of ABC Sports in 2006. What with so many cable channels and more “segmented, diverse coverage,” according to Wilson, sport television is vastly different from what it was at the height of his career.
Wilson’s official launch of his book coincided with Skate America, held in Detroit last weekend. At the figure-skating competition, a national qualifier before the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia, he ran into old friends and fans.
The attention, Wilson said, has been gratifying. It’s also allowed him to take a kind of retrospective look over his 45 years in sports TV and the many stories he has that go with that unique experience.
“You know, this is a whole new adventure,” Wilson said, grinning.
“The World Was Our Stage” may be ordered online ($13.50) at DougWilsonABCSports.com or amazon.com. Wilson will also be leading a book talk and signing at 4 p.m. this Sunday, Oct. 27, at the Irvington Public Library. The event, which is sponsored by the Irvington Historical Society, is free and open to the public.