George Michael, famed D.C. sportscaster, dies of cancer

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 25, 2009; A01

George Michael, 70, a high-rated and hyperanimated Washington sportscaster whose extensive use of game highlights from across the country on his nationally syndicated show has now become the norm in the industry, died Thursday at Sibley Memorial Hospital. He had chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

Mr. Michael was a popular rock-and-roll DJ in Philadelphia and New York before making a successful transition to television, where his boisterous style and unremitting hustle made him one of the dominant personalities in Washington for years. He represented sports as entertainment, with what some regarded as a team-friendly approach, especially to the hometown Redskins.

Washington Post sportswriter Gary Pomerantz once wrote that Mr. Michael -- who once called himself "King George" as a Philly rock jock -- was the "P.T. Barnum of Washington-area sportscasters, hip with the lip, the Daddyo of the video."

Mr. Michael worked at WRC (Channel 4), an NBC-owned-and-operated station, from 1980 to 2008. With his bronzed face, receding golden hair and brilliant teeth, he was one of the most immediately recognizable figures on local television, joining news anchors Doreen Gentzler and Jim Vance and weatherman Bob Ryan to form the area's dominant local TV news team in 1989.

During Mr. Michael's prime, local sportscasters were far more influential than now, and he held a spirited ratings battle with popular WUSA anchor Glenn Brenner. After Brenner died in 1992 from a brain tumor, Mr. Michael was the No. 1 TV sports voice in the city.

Over the years, Mr. Michael not only held his own at the anchor desk but also created and produced the long-running shows "Redskins Report" and "Full Court Press," featuring guests such as former Redskins Hall of Fame quarterback Sonny Jurgensen and local print sports reporters including Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser of The Washington Post. The Post duo's success on Mr. Michael's shows helped them land starring roles in "Pardon the Interruption," a half-hour national sports opinion show that has appeared on ESPN since 2001.

Starting in 1980, Mr. Michael oversaw a trendsetting show that made liberal use of action highlights from games in addition to interviews and other reports. "The George Michael Sports Machine," as it was eventually called, was syndicated to almost 200 stations at its peak. The show, one of the first to recognize the growing appeal of NASCAR, was unique on non-cable television, and it would be years before the cable network ESPN would render it obsolete.

"George wasn't the first to make videotape the king -- Warner Wolf did it before him -- but his rise at Channel 4 coincided with better technology to provide the highlights, the greatest sports boom in U.S. history and a profitable local news operation willing to spend time and money on its sports segments," said Norman Chad, a syndicated columnist and The Post's former sports television critic. "It's amazing to think 'The George Michael Sports Machine' somehow survived ESPN. It was like the corner mini-mart continuing to sell milk, bread and eggs after Wal-Mart moved into town."

Longtime Washington sportscaster Frank Herzog said that before Mr. Michael arrived, local sports newscasts primarily used video from games they showed.

"Suddenly, he gets the satellite dishes and gets games from all over the country. So he's showing wild video that we could not get our hands on," Herzog said. "He was willing to gamble on sports that were not mainstream sports, so he made professional wrestling famous. He brought NASCAR to Washington, where it had been ignored. Rodeo, bull riding, even the terrier races at the International Horse Show. He changed the way we looked at sports."

Mr. Michael was criticized during his career for getting too close to the subjects he covered -- wearing Redskins paraphernalia while covering the Super Bowl during the 1982 season and sitting on the team's float during the victory parade. In a 2002 Post interview for a profile of Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, he said, "He's a good man. I'll tear you apart if you trash him."

Mr. Michael bristled at suggestions he was anything but objective. "How can you say that?" he once said. "There's two sides to you, a reporter and a fan. I am a journalist first. Hey, putting on that Redskins hat was entertainment."

George Michael Gimpel was born March 24, 1939, and grew up in St. Louis, where his father was a butcher. They were not close, Mr. Michael once told The Post, and grew further apart after his mother died when he was a teenager. He described himself as the poorest kid in high school and with the worst grades. He eventually grew apart from his siblings and spoke bitterly about his early life.

George Gimpel, he said decades later, was "long dead. I don't enjoy ever thinking about him."

He was attending Saint Louis University in the early 1960s when he became a record promoter, where he had the thankless task of trying to get Midwest radio stations to play Motown records. He then worked for a series of stations throughout the Midwest, later telling a St. Louis reporter, "I had deflatable furniture and a red Nash Rambler. I didn't stay put very long."

He was a rock-and-roll disc jockey in Philadelphia before being offered a job in 1974 as a radio personality on WABC in New York. He was making great money, about $65,000 annually, but his personal life unraveled. His first wife, Patricia, left him and their children, he said, telling The Post, "She ran away to Mexico with an 18-year-old." Alimony payments left him constantly on the "verge of bankruptcy," he said.

He later married Pat Lackman, a writer who became a key partner in her husband's on-air career. She survives, along with two children from his first marriage, Brad and Michelle. A full list of survivors could not be confirmed.

In New York, Mr. Michael became a leading radio broadcaster and moved hesitatingly at first into sports, which he felt had less money in it than spinning records. He became a play-by-play announcer for the New York Islanders and appeared on Howard Cosell's "Speaking of Sports" radio show. During this period, he was an understudy to Wolf, one of the first sportscasters to use videotape extensively. Wolf had dominated the Washington market for years but left in 1976 for New York.

Wolf later told The Post, "I guess working with me here in New York, George did pick up some things from me. I guess his mannerisms are like mine. But please make it clear that I don't hold it against him." (Wolf later returned to Washington after Brenner's death, only to be thrashed by Mr. Michael in the ratings. On Thursday, Wolf called attempting to compete against his onetime understudy "a huge mistake.")

By the late 1970s, Mr. Michael said he thought his career was fading in New York and turned down an offer by the New York Mets to replace Lindsey Nelson as the team's play-by-play man. He accepted an offer at WRC, which was then looking to revive itself from the bottom of the ratings.

"I thought to myself, 'NBC? All they do is lose,' " Mr. Michael told The Post. "It was kind of scary, but I figured, 'They are rated last. What do I have to lose?' "

Mr. Michael's admirers called him a ferociously hard worker with a perfectionist streak. Profiles over the years conveyed a man who boasted a healthy ego but at times lacked thick skin. He was demanding with his entire staff, from producers to interns. If he could be tough backstage, he conveyed great ease onscreen, with an ability to turn the barest of scripts -- a box score, for example -- into vivid, ad-libbed stories about action on the field.

Over the years, Mr. Michael acquired great wealth and status. Within a few years of his arrival in Washington, he was wearing Gucci belts, sporting a diamond pinkie ring and driving a Jaguar. With a national reputation, he said other stations attempted to lure him away ("We're talking megabucks") but he declined to leave. He said he would never abandon his large farm in upper Montgomery County, where he raised thoroughbred horses and at one time had several pet burros.

To leave, he said, "I'd have to give up my burros."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company