September 27, 2006

Robert Wuhl Hits The Big Time

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Fobert Wuhl forged a healthy show business career over the years, as a stand up comic and in films like Good Morning Vietnam, Batman and Bull Durham. But he hit pay dirt with the HBO sitcom he created, "Arli$$."

Wuhl played the title character, a sports agent who would sell his soul to the devil for the right price.

He saw that philosophy as a metaphor. "In the capitalist system it's get all the money that you can," he remarked. The character was called "Jerry McGuire without a conscience" by one critic.

Arliss's saving grace was his loyalty to his employees. "That comes from me -- I'm like that," Wuhl said.

On the surface the show was perfect for a beer-guzzling ESPN fanatic, with its parade of famous jocks and chauvinistic dialogue. Yet regular viewers quickly realized the show was far more sophisticated than that, each episode filled with strong female characters and storylines that often dealt with controversial female issues.

"It's not a sports show; it's a people show," he said. "Half our writers were women. We also followed 'Sex and the City' and we were trying to keep part of that audience." In fact, Sandra Oh, the show's lead female character, went on to critical acclaim and a Golden Globe for her role in Sideways.

Wuhl created the show and the guest stars were sports elite, including the likes of Yogi Berra, George Steinbrenner, Tommy LaSorda, Roy Jones Jr., Barry Bonds, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant.

"It was hard" to get the athletes at first, Wuhl acknowledged, though "it became much easier after the first season (the show ran for six)." Among the best actors of the bunch was Lincoln Kennedy, the six-foot six-inch 335 pound Oakland Raiders' star. "We found out he was a drama minor in college," Wuhl said. Others who shined on camera were Roger Clemens, Marion Jones and Peecabo Street, he added.

The series premiered in 1996; Wuhl, in addition to his film roles, had earned kudos and two Emmys for writing, yes, the Emmy Award shows in 1991 and 1992, both hosted by Billy Crystal.

The "Arli$$" plots are wacky, complex and hilarious - the title character tries to get a pot dealer's son enrolled in a private school to keep him from leaving town - and leaving his NBA clients without any weed; Arliss dates a WNBA coach even though his client, a player, wants her fired; Arliss returns to the scene of his failed Little League days to seek redemption and the hand of a childhood love only to screw up again.

Throughout the series, serious issues are broached within the context of the seemingly superfluous plots: alcoholism, domestic abuse, obscene phone calls, Alzheimer's, gambling addictions and the like. It was hailed a brilliantly conceived and written series, some critics calling it the best show ever, though others were less kind.

Wuhl grew up in New Jersey and attended the University of Houston. He will be reprising his HBO special "Assume the Position" at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor Saturday, October 7. It will be his first visit to the Hamptons, despite the fact his college roommate was Julian Schnabel, a Montauk resident. "My wife grew up in the Berkshires, so that's where we went," he said.

"Position," his first project since "Arli$$," finds the comedian in the role of a history teacher examining "the stories that made up America and the stories America made up," according to HBO. It was called "smart and uproariously funny" by Variety and "another pot of gold" for Wuhl.

Wuhl said he enjoys comedy and acting equally. "I had an acting background in college so I had a chance to listen and observe other actors. I enjoy the process. Each one is different."

His comedic influences include Preston Sturgess, Peter Sellers and Dick Shawn. "And Woody [Allen] - he was a big influence . . . you could say he begat Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David. Also Cosby. Those were inspirations for me, but I'm a little older. The younger guys might say the `Saturday Night Live' people."

Wuhl acknowledged he has typecast himself for life, with a generation of viewers who still call him by the character's name. "Oh yes, especially when I'm at a ballgame or sporting event. It's to be expected. It never bothered me, because I created the character, I wrote it."

The comedian and HBO icon Robert Wuhl at the Bay Street Theatre, October 7 at 8 p.m. performing his one man show "Assume the Position." Call (631) 725-9500 for ticket information.

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