In addition to the Q-and-A posted today, we have more with Chris Marlowe on his life as an actor, his first job in TV and more…
Chris Marlowe proudly comes from an acting family – his father, Hugh, a longtime dramatic lead; his mother K.T. Stevens, with a shining resume, and his grandfather, Sam Wood, a prolific director nominated for three Academy Awards.
Before Marlowe came to a point in his post-playing days when his career took off in the sportscasting field, his first taste of what TV broadcast work could be like came when ABC hired him to call the 1978 NCAA indoor volleyball championship.
He knew the two teams – UCLA and Pepperdine.
But he wasn’t sure he knew much about the play-by-play man, other than …
“I graduated from San Diego State (1974) and was on the national team that was trying to get to the ’76 Olympics, but we didn’t qualify. I came back to the U.S. and was working at a restaurant, still working out at UCLA, and I knew their coach, Al Scates, who had been doing color on NCAA championship matches when the Bruins weren’t involved. This time, his team mated it, so they asked him if he knew anyone who could do the TV jobt. He recommended me – ‘I know a former national team player with a big mouth and a loud voice,’ he told them. I interviewed for the job and got it.
“I find out the play-by-play man on this assignment is Bruce Jenner.
“He just had his success in the Olympics in the decathlon, he’s all over the Wheaties box, and ABC had put him on track and field coverage. But this was the first time they wanted him to branch out as an announcer. This was his first play by play event outside his sport. So that’s always a challenge.
“And I’m doing my first event ever, which was also a challenge. Suffice to say, we were a little nerve-jangled when we prepared to tape our on-camera intro at 6:45 when the match was going to start at 7:30 p.m.
“We had this huge crowd assembled around us – maybe people now don’t remember how big a celebrity Bruce Jenner was at that time, but there had to be about 500 people huddled around us as we’re trying to tape this opening. It started bad and went south quickly. They wanted him to do a 30-second open by himself, talk about these two teams that know each other very well, just 30 minutes apart … but he just had difficulty putting the words together. We’re doing take after take.
“Now it’s 7:20 and the officials are looking at us. And because he kept flubbing the intro, Bruce wasn’t even at the point yet where he got to the line where he was introducing me as the analyst. He finally gets a good take, and I knew I couldn’t screw it up once he threw it to me.
“I’m wearing that yellow Wide World of Sports blazer and I think I did pretty good. So we got through it and then rushed to do the match.”
Q: Did you ever run into Jenner again on any TV assignments?
A: I don’t believe I ever saw him again. Later on, thought, I did date one of his ex-wifes for a short time – Linda Thompson, who also had been married to Elvis Presley. We met at a party, we hit it off talking for hours, I asked her out, I drove up to her gated enclave in my Mustang, we went to dinner. And I realized I was way out of her league. What an interesting experience.
Q: That first chance at TV sportscasting came at a time when acting was also a choice to pursue, continuing the family business. How did that all fit together?
A: I was caught at that time between acting and broadcasting, and as cool as broadcasting was, I had been getting some good parts – a year on a soap opera (“Love Of Life” in 1978), some guest stars (“Love Boat,” “Bosom Buddies,” “A Man Called Sloan”).
I also did a pilot called “Highcliffe Manor,” a Norman Lear production that I thought was something that could really hit. It was quirky and had a great cast, but we were up against “Mork & Mindy” in our time slot (in the early ‘80s). This was a role I auditioned for, and it was between me and John Wayne’s son, Patrick. A couple of days after I found out that I didn’t get the job, my mom is having a party at her house and my agent comes over and says, ‘You’ve got the job.’ ‘How?’ ‘They couldn’t make a deal with Patrick Wayne. It’s your job for $4,000 a week with a guarantee of six episodes.’ That really sounded pretty good in 1978. This could have been a game changer for me as an actor. I had this character named “Bram,” as in Bram Stoker, the head of a corporation who gets blown up in an experiment, and they retrieve all his body parts and they’re trying to put me back together. So I don’t have a leg or an arm, I’m digging up graves to find body parts … maybe it was even a little too kooky for that time.
With acting, no matter what you’ve done, you have to audition and read. I could have played “Othello” and they’re still having me read for the part of a boyfriend on “The Love Boat.”
I read four times for the part of David Addison in “Moonlighting” before they gave it to Bruce Willis. I really was in the mix. So maybe if they hired me, I’d probably would not have got into sports broadcasting today. I’d be making another ‘Die Hard’ movie instead of being in Long Beach this weekend.
It all came down to after playing in the 1984 Olympics, I met with my agent and he put it blunt: ‘What do you want to do, sportscasting or acting? You can’t do both.’ Eventually all that factored in. That was a time when I was always auditioning for parts but nothing I really wanted. So a sports announcer job for me seemed to be more natural. I was playing the role of myself, which I really enjoyed. I liked playing Chris Marlowe. And if someone wanted me for a job I just had to send them a tape of what I already did.
Q: It worked for you in the movie “Side Out.” You got to play yourself.
A: That was a very watchable movie, and still is. I remember my agent getting me to the guys making the movie, who were really big beach volleyball fans, and they wanted me there calling the action. They said, ‘We love your stuff. Can you do a call?’ I start ad-libbing five minutes of play by play and they hired me. One of my agents negotiated $12,000 for eight days work – what a great deal, because four or five of those days I didn’t even work or just followed Courtney Thorne-Smith around.
Q: You’ve listed “Pride of the Yankees” as one of your favorite movies of all time. But the fact that your grandfather, Sam Wood, directed it makes perfect sense.
A: It was the favorite movie my grandfather did because I was a huge baseball fan, a huge Yankees fan. My grandfather, who was nominated three times for an Academy Award, was a huge sports fan. He also did the “Monte Stratton Story” and some other sports movies. He did many great ones with the Marx Brothers, Clark Gable and Cecil B. DeMille were pall bearers at his funeral. It’s a really fun background to have with them. I’ve met so many people who knew my parents or my grandfather in the business. Now both my daughters want to be in this film business. My oldest (Mackenzie, who played volleyball at Chapman College) is working for William Morris Agency in Beverly Hills and my youngest (Grace) is a sophomore at USC in the film and TV writing department. Film will always be in our blood.
Q: You’re coming up on 11 years doing TV play-by-play for the Denver Nuggets. There was a point when you were in the mix to become a Lakers broadcaster during the post-Chick Hearn era. What do you remember about that time?
A: I applied for the Lakers radio job when that all happened. I had a pretty good CD of a call I did of a Lakers-San Antonio playoff game where I had a tape recorder and got up in the booth with Lou Riggs as my color man. I didn’t think without any NBA experience I could jump to the TV position, so I had tried for the radio job and I don’t know if I got very far or not. So onward and upward from there. In 2004 I got a call from Chip Engelland, who was then a Nuggets assistant, who told me about a new cable outlet called Altitude TV that Stan Kroenke was starting up, and they needed a play-by-play man for the Nuggets. Kiki Vandeweghe was the Nuggets general manager and I contacted him. He wrote back: “Great to hear from you. I’ll see what I can do about getting another Pali guy in here.” (Marlowe, Vandeweghe and Engelland are all graduates of Palisades High). I got all the people who I thought could help me do a recommendation: Tom Feuer from Prime Sports, Bill Walton was the most effusive backer I ever had, even (NBC Sports president) Dick Ebersol to make a call. They wanted someone who wasn’t so much known in the NBA but a broadcaster who could move to Denver and grow with the network, and it’s been a great relationship with them. Things worked out very well. I’m about to sign another five-year deal with them.
Q: How has calling the beach game changed for you and the partners you have had over the years?
A: Early on, I was working with broadcasters who may not have known a volleyball from a pineapple. I always knew more than anyone I ever worked with until I got paired up with Karch Kiraly.
Paul Sunderland and I were on equal footing, but he had not played as much on the beach as I did. I never worked with anyone who knew more than I did until I worked with Karch – how he trained, his strategy, I found it fascinating. I find that today as well working with Kevin Wong, a different opinion about how things work and some good insights. Early on, I would work with everyone and anyone that were put onto the play-by-play role and coach them up as quickly as I could. Like with Verne Lundquist, John Tesh, Bill Fleming, Tim Ryan. When I started with Prime Ticket, the first partners I had on play-by-play was Lynn Shackleford, who knew a little about the game, and then Keith Erickson, who actually played some. But then one time, Keith got so sunburned doing an event – they put us on the beach with no protecting and he got third-degree burns – that he had enough.
That opened up the play-by-play spot and when Paul moved into the color spot – and that really clicked. We were old friends, played together on the national team for years, and our chemistry was fantastic. Those early day so the ‘80s and ‘90s was so special. Sometimes I’ll go to YouTube and punch up a match – Fresno, 1990 or Hermosa 1992 just to see those again.
It was smart to move to play-by-play because there is always someone else coming up who can fill the analyst role. Once I started doing that, I realized I could be good at it, I’m smart and quick, good with numbers and could set up the analyst. My bosses at Prime Ticket started letting do basketball – I also played that – and that led to me doing more things like boxing, gymnastics, swimming, water polo … even windsurfing. I’ve done about 25 sports at this point. I’m proud of my career. I’m not sure if there’s any other broadcaster who’s done Acapulco cliff diving with Greg Louganis, the XFL with Brian Bosworth and the World Series of Poker.
Q: Volleyball magazine once listed you and Sunderland as No. 10 on their list of the most important figures in the sport of volleyball during its first 100 years (1895-1995). If they expanded the dates to include today, do you think you’d still be on that list?
A: I don’t know about that (laughing). That was a wonderful thing. Paul and I had a really high profile. Paul has gone on to do other things like the Lakers, and I’ve done other things, but now I’m back with the AVP. At that time, that was really cool.
Q: Where do you see the sport in the next 10-to-20 years, and will your broadcasting career going over that same period? Could there be some parallel trajectory there?
A: I love the sport of volleyball and always will. I enjoy indoors and I can still do some of that. Since NBC is back with the AVP, that’s great for me. I’ll continue to do it as long as NBC is involved. Certain the next two years, and NBC has the next two Olympics so I hope to keep involved. It’s all still good. The addition of Kevin Wong who is just out of volleyball keeps it fresh. I’m kind of an older play-by-play man but I look young and I feel young and having a relatively young analyst helps. In terms of working for Altitude and the Nuggets, I’d love to continue with them. I’m negotiating a new five year contract with them so hope to complete that and go on from there. I love my life right now. Things are working well. I don’t know anyone who has the rare combination of doing NBA play-by-play and then four or five months gets to go to the beach and travel the world. I think I’ve got the best of both worlds and keep it going as long as I can.
Q: Why not set the 2024 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles as a goal?
A: Aw, that would be special – a return to the place where I played in the Olympic Games there (in ’84 winning gold with the U.S. indoor team). That’s 40 years … wow. I hope to go onto Tokyo (2020) and that would be really cool if L.A. had it.