At the slightest hint that its expected, Don Meredith can slip into his good ole boy schtick of Monday night football fame or he can blow-by-blow his celebrated on-the-air skirmishes with Howard Cosell.
But there is another Don Meredith who talks introspectively and almost without accent about acting, books, politics, the poet that exists inside long-time pal Willie Nelson, what it's like to handle fame, how it felt growing up gentle in Mt. Vernon, Tex.
When someone mentions the uniqueness of never having seen ABC-TV's Monday Night Football, Meredity jokes, "I've missed a lot of 'em, too."
He seems both compelled by the sports side of his life and fearful of being imprisoned by it. "I really enjoy this sports thing I'm doing," he says. "Sports has been a part of me since I was 7 years old . . . It's sort of like Pavlov gets me there. 'When fall comes around it's time to get to the stadium . . .'"
But then, in the next breath, Meredith says, "I think I would get tired [of some aspects of Monday Night Football] with or without the extra acting I do. There's tremendous amount of exaggeration. I once called it the traveling freak show . . . the dogs bark, and the caravan moves on . . . It's just not quite NATURAL. It's a funny way to make a living. I don't really have a JOB as such. And then there's the rest of the week. I have learned to utilize that time, but in the past I've felt strung out, as if out of sync the rest of the week."
Meredith's phrase, "sports thing," is an all-time understatement for the good-bad guy routine with sparring partner Cosell that won Meredith fame. About 45 million Americans see some portion of each Monday night telecast, and Meredith is the only expert commentator in any sport to win the Emmy Award.
Meredith heard the roar of the crowd all his life: high school basketball hero, SMU's football flash, "Dandy Dan," the Dallas Cowboys and inspiration for Peter Gent's quarterback in "North Dallas Forty." And, while most of yesterday's sports heros just fade away, Meredith has parlayed his distinct personality into stardom.
Coping with his father's fame hasn't all been easy for Meredith's son, Michael, 11. "He's very outgoing and very bright with a great personality, but he's had some problems. The most difficult thing is to try to help Michael understand. The preferential treatment means several different things. There is both intrusion and a tremendous amount of stroking. At times it's totally hard to comprehend. I neither search for it nor do I go out of my way to avoid it.
"Michael's now able to see the difference in terms of people who are pleasant and nice and those who for some reason try to put you down."
It is impossible to speak of put-downs without bringing up "Humble Howard." "Cosell's fascinating," says Meredith, who genuinely likes him. "We've been together for most of nine years." Someone commented that was longer than most marriages. "Yeah, it's gone through two of mine." (Meredith has three children by his first marriage).
In an hour's interview at the Watergate Hotel yesterday morning, Meredith - in crisply-laundered pale jeans stiched on one knee and sunglasses - danced through a number of moods.
When Meredith volunteered, "Oh, I think I'm shy," it brought an amused and incredulous "Oh, s-," from Irv Brodsky, ABC's manager of sports information. So Meredith immediately switched to the comic. Taking off his sunglasses for the photographer, he says, "My eyes are kinda red, blue and green aren't they?" then moves up close and says, "They're green with a blue ring around them." (They are). He rubs his eyes and talks of hangovers. "Actually, I was fairly good last night. I think maybe it was the garlic I threw in my eye."
Then it's his imaginary friend, Harley, "who's been with me for most of my 40 years. Harley was with me last night. He loves Washington, he does. Crazy devil." He real-life wife, Susan, also travels with him most of the time. "I affectionately refer to my wife as my street walker . . . I saw her walking down the street. She was working for Jonathan Logan in New York, she ran that fashion sort of thing . . ."
Then Meredith is back talking about being shy, being claustrophobic in crowds, "which is strange, since I've been in and out of crowds all my life."
But not in those early days at Mt. Vernon, 100 miles from Dallas, with its one picture show. "My dad had a dry goods store. He was what they called a 'creeky,' came from the other side of the creek over to Mt. Vernon. In many respects it was a lot longer voyage than I've ever taken. We all kinda grew up around the store. There was the square, right by route 67, with the old blinker, and you'd play 'Ford' and 'Chevrolet' - which was guessing which car was coming through next. Didn't have a helluva lot of Plymouths and Pontiacs.
"My mother is very gentle and my father is very gentle, and they have this tremendous humor. Just fabulous. We laughed a lot. My daddy could do a whole routine on someone just walking from here to there. Not a putdown thing as much as extraordinary observation."
Meredith was the "real darling" of Southern Methodist University, and even before that, when, "Mt. Vernon became the novelty hit - won the most prestigous basketball high school tournament of the state. We were the typical country school, nine kids total, and it was David and Goliath. We won and I set all the records for scoring. I became a hero while still in high school."
It was, therefore, a real "shock" being booed by the Dallas Cowboy fans as the quarterback who never quite brought them the championship. "The sports fan has probably the most vocal platform. The football fan spends quite a bit of money and time to get there and feels he has a right to boo you. My temperament is not that way. Our family - may be overdid it as far as the sensitivity but we were taught early. "You don't make fun of somebody . . . you don't pick on somebody." It sounds rather naive and all-Americanish, but that's the way I was raised."
Taxes also gave Meredith an abiding interest in country music, and he has added to that collection of sticky bathos with such numbers as "Scotch and Teardrops" and "Innocence is Bliss." "Writing songs is just something you kinda do in the night. F. Scott Fitzgerald talked about the really dark night of the soul . . . 4 o'clock in the morning. I got messin' around with Willie Nelson way back in 1958 and back then he was really writing music to slash your wrist to." He chuckles at such titles as "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down," then adds "I Gave Her the Ring and She Gave Me the Finger."
"Willie really is a poet. Nobody really accused Willie of singing too much for a long time. I always went for the poets. Roger Miller, now he's really off the wall. And my buddy Kris Kristofferson, . . . 'wearing yesterday's misfortunes like a smile,' now that's a poet touch."
Meredith is a "devout Hemingway fan. I love the crispness of his style. A couple of sentences, and I was already there, beginning to smell the dust coming up the road when he tanks went by."
Meredith enthuses about an upcoming made-for-TV movie role as Gary Thomas Rowe Jr., the FBI informer who testified that he was riding in the car with the Ku Klux Flansman who murdered Viola Liuzzo during the '60s Selma civil rights march days. "He was a terrible man and he wrote a terrible book, but he's interesting."
Meredith doesn't mind at all playing the guy in the black hat if it's a good role. But then he remembers why he's in town, tonight's Redskins-Dallas game, and is back wearing the white hat with the folksy humor. He knows that's what his fans want, like that memorable night in 1972 when the Oakland Raiders were walloping the Houston Oilers in the Astrodome. A fan bearing a remarkable resemblance to Archie Bunker, asleep in the stands, woke up to notice a camera panning the nearly empty stadium and slowly and deliberately made an obscene gesture for all the TV fans to behold. Without losing a beat, Meredith quipped, "Now there's a Houston fan who still thinks his team's No. 1."
Or the time he said of Fair Hooker (the Cleveland wide receiver), "Now there's a name. Fair Hooker. I ain't never met one yet."
And so Meredith exited with mock modesty, shyly shaking hands, eyes downcast, thanking the reporter for the interview. Then with a wink he says, "There is it. Instand Humbleness."