Steve Sabol grew up in Philadelphia during the days of ducktails and souped-up '51 Mercurys and Dancin' in the Streets. And, as much as he loved the era (he was still wearing a ducktail in the '70s, even dyeing his hair in hopes of the blue-black comicbook look), on Saturday afternoons during his teens when "American Bandstand" came on at 4 o'clock, Steve Sabol turned the channel past Dick Clark's pretty face to the documentary series, "Victory at Sea." He realized it was a classic and came to believe, in the ensuing years, that there is nothing more dramatic than war. He has spent his last 15 years recording wars of a lesser sort -- the battles of professional football -- as the creative mind for NFL Films.
So when he was offered a chance two years ago to produce the documentary "Man's Greatest Adventure, the Journey to the Moon" (which airs on Channel 26 for the third and last time tomorrow at 7 p.m. approx.), he knew it was perfect for him, and for his style. He reveled in it, in nights alone in the mixing studio of NFL Films, blending the separate tracks of sound to recreate history, his own "Victory at Sea." And there was one night in particular, the night when on the screen before him Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon.
There was not a sound in the studio, other than Armstrong's breathing, Armstrong's own voice, which Sabol had at the touch of his hand.
"I'll step off the limb now," Armstrong said.
Sabol found himself poised.
"That's one small step for man . . ."
Sabol pushed forward a lever with the track of sound, the beginnings of Alexander Borodin's theme from "Prince Igor," the arrangement of the Theme from "Carmen" done by a chorus.
". . . and one giant leap for mankind."
Sabol zoomed the chorus, the women's voices joining the men's, rising until it filled his ears. A chill came over him. And, moments later, the screen chilled him again, when Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planted the American flag, the red stripes the only stark color on the screen.
"I ran it over and over, maybe 20 times," he said, "making sure it was just right, the sound. When to bring in the chorus. Before Armstrong said anything? Or after he said, 'That's one small step'? Or after the whole thing?
"But I knew it was right. I got a chill every time."
Steve Sabol says a lot of the stories about him are exaggerated.
He went to school at Colorado College. He went there to have fun and play football. He had fun, but it was playing little football. He was a 170-pound fullback with no speed and little ability, facts which he ignored. He decided all he needed was publicity. He bought newspaper advertisements, T-shirts, brochures, buttons and color postcards; the theme was "Sudden Death Sabol, the Prince of Pigskin Pageantry now at the Pinnacle of his Power." He made up a new home town: Coaltown Township, Pa. "The coach looked at me like I was a side dish he hadn't ordered," Sabol has said.
His sophomore year, he changed his home town to Possum Trot, Miss. Didn't matter. He still didn't play. Nevertheless, in the program of the last game that season, there appeared a full-page ad which read: "Coach Jerry Carle congratulates Sudden Death Sabol on a fantastic season." Everyone was impressed except Jerry Carle.
During the summer before his junior year, he decided Carle might be right. So Sudden Death never gave his jaws a rest, and gained 40 pounds. The result was a big year for the fullback from Possum Trot, beginning with an ad in the Colorado Springs newspaper which read: "The Possum Trot Chamber of Commerce extends its wishes for a successful season to its favorite son -- Sudden Death Sabol." His mother had T-shirts printed up that said, "I'm a Little Possum Trotter." Sudden Death sold them on campus.
Finally, he was playing.
He took his statistics, changed a few 3s into 8s and 4s into 9s, mailed out his new stats, and, at season's end, was named by area sportwriters to the all-conference team.
No, none of that is exaggerated.
And the fact that he was a streaker 10 years before its time?
"That's true. But a lot of the other stuff is exaggerated."
But not the sign he had in front of his house: The Institute of Abstract Speculation and Sneak Attacks. Inside, he of course had his electric chair and the rarely encountered Room of the Bad Popes.
None of that is exaggerated, either.
"But a lot of that other stuff is," he said.
Ed Sabol, Steve's father, went into business with his father-in-law, who was one of the country's largest makers of men's topcoats -- and hated it. He said, "It was like going to the dentist every day for 20 years." His relief was film. Everything that happened, he filmed. It became his life's obsession. In 1962, he sold his share of the topcoat business with no other job in line, and got the film rights to the NFL championship game.
"My dad called me," Steve said, "and he said, 'All you've done all your life is play football and go to the movies. You ought to be able to make some contribution.'"
NFL Films now makes highlights films for all 28 teams, plus all the filming for "NFL Today" on CBS, the half-time highlights for ABC's "Monday Night Football," selected work for NBC's Sunday show and, usually, another one or two hour-long documentaries for the networks. For this, they shoot 430 miles of 16mm film each season ("If you ran it continuously, it would run 40 days and 40 nights" as Steve likes to say), and they employ 65 people full time. Ed Sabol is president and handles the negotiations and finances. Steve is the creator.
Each film has his distinct brand: the magnifying effect of slow motion, and closeups and zooms, coupled with music of a 65-piece orchestra, and, of course, the voice. Some have called it the voice of God. Steve calls it the Return-to-Dunkirk voice.
"See, the way this came about," Sabol said, "was through a guy named Bill Moses, a Philadelphia lawyer. He'd seen a film we'd done on the '78 season titled 'Mighty Men and Magic Moments.' It'd won an Emmy, in fact. sHe called me one day and said he had this idea. He'd found out that all the NASA film was in the public domain. You don't have to buy the rights to it. And it was just sitting there."
Sabol is sitting in his office in a red, short-sleeve summer-knit shirt, cordurory jeans and a new pair of running shoes. He switched from his ducktail and sleveless white T-shirts with leather vests just a couple of years ago. In the background, one could hear the voice. It belongs to John Facenda, who was the Cronkite of Philadelphia until the nation's television stations went to pretty faces and blow-dry tops. "I couldn't use John. We needed a name who would help sell it. We needed marquee," he says. "So it was either Orson Welles or Gregory Peck." Peck was in Europe, shooting a film Welles was in L.A., filling out his pajamas.
"We flew out there with the script, and went straight to his house. He has a studio right there. He came out in his pajamas and robe and house slippers and sat down and read through the script once." He never say any of the footage. Facenda never does, either. Nor does Sam Spence, who arranges and conducts the orchestra in Munich. The film footage, the music, the words -- they are all bits of a montage that exists only in Sabol's mind until he puts them all together.
The footage is of astronauts walking in the blackness of space, with the earth in the background -- spectacular footage -- and Welles rolls into the poem, bringing an impression of grand, sweeping gestures into his voice, finishing in a deepening, fluttering voice. Given the reverence he brings to not selling wine before its time, imagine what he does with this: Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings; Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth . . . And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod The high intrepassed sanctity of space, Put out my hand and touched the face of God.