Jim Lampley’s return to the studio host’s chair for this month’s Winter Olympics in Italy marks his 13th Olympics Games as a broadcaster, setting a record that surpasses the legendary Jim McKay. But mentioning that fact to Lampley elicits a bellowing laugh. Although he has been a reporter and daytime host since the 1976 Games, he says he has been the prime time studio host for exactly one night: a Saturday in 1984 when he filled in for McKay.
But with 31 years as a sports broadcaster, Lampley has an impressive résumé that needs no asterisk. Known for a variety of on-camera roles, from sportscasting to local news, he has earned a reputation off-camera for diligence and outspokenness. And while he has no immediate plans to abandon his on-air career, he has been busy cultivating a growing role behind the scenes—in Hollywood.
Lampley’s forward manner almost ended his broadcasting career before it started. In 1974, as one of 400 applicants in an ABC Sports talent search for a college-football reporter, a young, brash Lampley blew his interview, which happened to be with Dick Ebersol, now chairman of NBC Sports & Olympics.
“I basically told them I thought the whole process was b.s.,” he says. Years later, Lampley saw the evaluation form: “Arrogant, antagonistic, alienating and abrasive” were among the words used to describe him.
However, he landed a role in program planning at ABC Sports. And when the on-air competition was re-opened, Lampley was asked to do a tryout interview with George Mira, a quarterback who, unbeknownst to ABC, was his boyhood hero. “I had the guy’s jersey in my closet,” he remembers. “I knew more about this guy than anyone alive.”
He landed the job and embarked on a 13-year climb at ABC, from sideline reporter to play-by-play analyst on college football, in addition to covering the Olympics and hosting Wide World of Sports.
But Lampley did not abandon his outspoken ways. He admits he was not always the easiest to work with and laughs when asked outright if he was a pain in the posterior.
“I was for a while,” he says. “I don’t think I am as much now.”
ABC President of Network Operations & Administration Alex Wallau, who worked as a broadcaster alongside him, says Lampley was just a product of the culture under then ABC Sports chief Roone Arledge.
“We were all highly competitive and aggressive,” Wallau recalls. “It was a bunch of type-A people running around the world covering sports. Not that Jim was a pussycat, but he was no worse than anyone else at that time.”
In 1986, Lampley’s combative personality ironically landed him in one of his best-known roles. When he failed to see eye-to-eye with the new ABC Sports chief, Dennis Swanson, Swanson exiled him to boxing, unaware that it was one of Lampley’s favorite sports.
When Lampley left ABC the next year, it wasn’t long before he landed his dream job: calling boxing on HBO. And with so much time between major boxing events, he also began a five-year stint in news, as an anchor for KCBS Los Angeles.
In 1992, after he left KCBS, Ebersol offered him a deal to do Olympics, football and some golf at NBC. Out of loyalty to HBO and with an already full plate, Lampley agreed only to do the Games. “I had this extremely interesting-looking career,” he says, “but the schedule just didn’t work.”
'SKIP LIGHTNING’ GOES HOLLYWOOD
Lampley began to expand his role at HBO, winning Emmys for his reports on Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel, but he wanted to do more hosting. When the network instead decided to bring in some other personalities, Lampley saw an opportunity.
“HBO wanted to add other stars to the charm bracelet,” he says, “so it was a good time to do something I had always wanted to, start a production company.”
Along with ex-wife and fellow broadcaster Bree Walker and partner Stephen Ricci, Lampley formed Crystal Springs Productions, in 1995, and began developing TV and film projects, including the 2000 mockumentary Welcome to Hollywood. He is now setting up a second company called Knockout Pictures and is working with the likes of veteran producer Bernie Brillstein and Ron Shelton, the writer/director of the sports movies Bull Durham and Tin Cup.
While Knockout’s primary focus will be sports movies, television is a major part of Lampley’s strategy. He is shopping two projects currently in development: The Skip Lightning Show, a Larry Sanders Show-type send-up of the sports and entertainment world with Lampley as the title character, and a boxing drama called Bobby Quintana originally developed at FX Networks.
“In terms of hours I work and what occupies my mind,” Lampley says, “this has become the dominant career, and broadcasting is sort of secondary.”
And he knows that, with all the NBC execs gathered at the Olympics this month, he’ll have plenty of potential buyers to pitch. “I’m headed off to Torino with a small laundry list of ideas to sell to NBC,” he laughs. “And they know it’s coming.”
For now, though, it is still sportscasting that pays the bills, and he hopes to extend his Olympic streak—so long as Ebersol lets him.
“I’m sure one day he will say, 'Lampley is white-haired and old and irrelevant, and we don’t need him any more,’” Lampley says. “Fortunately, that moment has not yet arrived.”