When Bob Fishman graduated Boston University he wanted to get into broadcasting, and when WCAU in Philly hired him as a stage manager he thought he was on his way. That is, until he realized one of his main jobs was to drop confetti from high above, onto Saturday morning children’s folk hero Gene London. He soon was looking for something else.
The CBS job boards led him to an opening as a commercial coordinator in New York. He grabbed it. There he befriended a rising young CBS exec named Bob Wussler, who was in charge of Special Events for CBS News. Wussler first made Fishman his assistant, then an associate director. And by age 24, Fishman had gone from dropping confetti to directing Walter Cronkite through moon shots.
When the network asked Wussler to take over CBS Sports, he took Fishman with him, and for the next 47 years Fishman directed some of the greatest events network television has ever known. Those events included 39 Final Fours, 27 U.S. Tennis Opens, 21 Daytona 500s, a score of Belmont Stakes, the MLB and NFL Playoffs. He also directed the early years of The NFL Today.
One of the most beloved directors in the business by his colleagues, Fishman has always stood for two things while directing: (1) never missing live action; and (2) capturing the emotion in sport. For example, Tonya Harding crying over a broken lace at the Lillehammer Olympics, or the fantastic literal fight to the finish at the ’79 Daytona 500 between Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough, who were leading on the last lap.
Along the way he’s been honored by the DGA three separate times and he’s been nominated for 20 Emmy Awards, winning an astounding 16 times. Those who watched the events he directed appreciated the nuances of his detail and preparation at so many levels. There are hundreds of decisions he’d have to make on the spot at every event.
“If there were a Mount Rushmore for sports directors, Bob Fishman would be front and center; he is one of the greatest directors in the history of sports television,” said Sean McManus, Chairman, CBS Sports. Fishman may not only be one of the greatest sports directors of all time, many think he may be the best ever.
On Saturday, February 18th the DGA honors Fishman’s legendary career. He’ll receive a Lifetime Achievement Award–just the fifth ever handed out in the DGA’s 75-year history. Quite an honor!
Fishman officially hung up his directing cleats last April, and now plans to keep busy working in film and television, undertaking a variety of projects. We were lucky enough to snag him for a Q&A session covering much of his illustrious career:
Publisher David J. Halberstam interacted with Bob Fishman and reviewed a chunk of his sparkling career.
I understand you had a circuitous means, through which you arrived in the U. S. Where did you come from and where did you wind up?
Not a circuitous route at all….I was born in New York City. My grandfather at that time was involved in business in Puerto Rico, and made a side trip to visit St. Thomas, one of the three U.S. Virgin Islands. He and his partners fell in love with the island and saw that it was the perfect place for the expansion of tourism, considering that it was not a foreign place, yet under the U.S. flag. They began construction of the island’s first luxury hotel, and a few years later, we all moved from NYC to the island. I was two years old, and St. Thomas became my childhood home. So, I never “arrived” in the U.S.
When you walk into CBS’ production truck, bright and early, what’s your first challenge?
Three main challenges would be dealing with feeding numerous shots to NY for the pre-game show, making sure we are set to record any interview with a head coach upon his arrival at the stadium, and making sure our production assistant has correctly finished my isolation chart for our camera meeting. We have various scenarios to cover and they must be accurate. Another challenge would be bad weather and if any cameras have issues.
You were in the sports broadcast for a half century. Did your appetite ever temper?
There were some sports assignments that, because of the matchup, were not very compelling. Perhaps a meaningless regular season basketball game, or a football game that had no playoff implications. The adrenaline doesn’t flow nearly as much as those that do have major implications, but that never affected my focus to be “locked in.” When I began directing in the news division, everything was so new for me, thus, there was never a “tempered appetite.”
In all your years with CBS, did your relationship with your fellow producers ever sour?
I never had a bad relationship with any producing partner. We were always a team, and the newer, younger guys, I believe, looked up to me and took my lead. The veteran producers always knew that I would never miss live action, so I would determine if there was time to show an extra replay or graphic. Sure, there were always some disagreements in my many years, but nothing that would ever put the broadcast in jeopardy. I always felt that your demeanor in the truck was important. The crew responds better when there is no tension between the producer and director. One of the things I learned early on was how not to behave. I learned so while working on “60 Minutes” and witnessing too many arguments.
The Directors Guild of America honored you, and deservedly so, for three major events, Daytona in 1979; The Final Four in 1982 and the A.L. Baseball post-season series in 1990. How’s that trio stack up?
The DGA awards were very flattering. During those years, sports and news together were a separate category. Today, for some inexplicable reason, sports awards are in the same category as variety and music shows, so there is less chance of winning. By and large, DGA awards or even Emmy awards are won because the event was compelling, not necessarily because it was a masterful directing job. I will acknowledge that the ’79 Daytona 500 was both compelling and good directing. It was the first time the race was shown “live”, flag to flag, and the backstretch fight on the last lap was, up till then, one of the most epic events in sports history. I don’t know if I deserved the other awards. Again, it seems to me those were won, not because of any inspired directing, but because of the events themselves.
Was there an instant event that you’ll never forget and what was it?
There are too many moments that I won’t forget. It’s impossible to rank them. If I had to list my favorites, in no particular order, they would include….Olympic Figure skating in ’94 with Tonya Harding raising her broken laces for the judges….Joe Carter’s walk off home run to win the ’93 World Series….the ’79 Daytona 500 last lap, crash and fight….the ’82 NCAA basketball championship with Freddy Brown throwing the ball mistakenly to James Worth and subsequent winning shot by Michael Jordan…the ’83 Final shot in the NC State/Houston game and subsequent shot of Jim Valvano running across the court to find someone to hug…..the ’87 Championship game with Indiana’s Keith Smart winning jumper….the 2010 NCAA Championship game and final shot by Gordon Hayward that hit the rim to preserve Duke’s win over Butler…the 2013 NFL Playoff game between Baltimore and Denver, won in double overtime…..the 2016 Championship game between Villanova and North Carolina and buzzer beater by Kris Jenkins…..and finally, last year’s Championship game, won by Kansas, which was my final broadcast. The most emotional of all, for obvious reasons. (Harding, above)
In the 75 year history of the Director’s Guild of America, you are the only one with four awards. Quite a tribute to you! How do you feel?
I am living in a surreal world. Being given the Lifetime Achievement award is the pinnacle of my 50 year career in television. I thought this was another award for sports directing, but when Leslie Linka Glatter, the president of the Guild called and told me it was for all of television, not just for sports and news, I was speechless. I am so grateful that the guild membership has recognized me for this, and is confirmation that all of us that work in sports are relevant. Without a doubt, this recognition is beyond anything else I have achieved.
Who’s your idol director at CBS? Or Is it NBC like Harry Coyle, known for all his baseball on NBC?
My mentors are my idol directors, not just one…. Sadly, most are no longer with us….In sports, Tony Verna and Sandy Grossman at CBS. I was an AD for many games with them in the 70’s, learning by their sides. Of course, Harry Coyle at NBC who spent hours helping me with camera placements and traps in directing baseball, as well as Ted Nathanson at NBC doing the same for tennis coverage. The man who made the biggest impact on my career was Joel Banow, who directed CBS News space shots, conventions and elections and The NFL Today before I took over. I was Joel’s AD and learned the ins and outs of studio directing.
How do you judge a good director?
I judge a good director by how patient he or she is in those emotional moments within a game. Patience is required in knowing that maybe just one shot tells the story and not overcuttng to other meaningless shots. Preparation is another requirement for a good director and making sure you are on the same page with your announcers. What they are describing must always be on the screen. Most importantly, a good director has to set the scene near the end of a potential game winning moment, and that requires knowing those who will provide the best reactions to winning or losing and instructing your cameras to being there. Covering the live action is the easy part. Knowing how to handle the aftermath of a play is the harder part.
Name your three favorite sports and why? What are some of the prep steps?
Baseball is number one. It was always my favorite sport as a child, and directing baseball is the most challenging, simply because it is the only major sport that requires multiple camera cuts within a single play. It is not played on a rectangular field or court, and the ball can be hit anywhere while runners are moving from base to base. That requires the director to be fast and use multiple camera angles. College basketball would be my second favorite, mainly because of the enthusiasm of the players and the home crowd. My third favorite as a viewer is Thoroughbred horse racing. I’ve always been a horse owner and love being around the track, but as a director it would be Figure Skating. This requires a great deal of prep work, spending hours reviewing practices so the right camera cuts are made taking into account that each routine has required jumps in different corners of the ice. For each performance I would watch about thirty minutes to an hour of each skater’s practice routine as well as listen to their performance music selection which determines the pace in which you make the shot changes.
The five best play-by-players you grew up with and what you liked about them?
With limited television in the Virgin Islands, and most sports events broadcast in Spanish from nearby Puerto Rico, it was mostly radio for me. Vin Scully was absolutely number one. Not just because I was a Dodger fan, but because his ability to paint a picture with words was unparalleled. I always felt I was right there, while listening to him. …In my early years, listening to and then working with him on College Football, Lindsey Nelson was the best. I loved his voice and accuracy. The same for Keith Jackson. You knew it was a big game if he was doing the play by play. For me, before I joined CBS, Pat Summerall was the NFL’s best announcer. Probably still would be. Pat simply called the play, and let the pictures do his talking. I only did a few games with him, but there was nobody better, ever. I must mention two others whom I admired and maybe had the best voices. Verne Lundquist and Dick Stockton. Verne for football, basketball, golf and skating, and Dick for baseball and the NBA. Both consummate pros in everything they did. After I joined CBS Sports, it was great to work with them. Two more guys who really understood how a director helps them.
Your role models and what they taught you?
My first role model was Robert Wussler. He hired me to be his production assistant in 1972 and I saw his magic in the control room for space shots, elections, conventions, and then later as the producer for The NFL Today as well as becoming the President of CBS Sports. Simply the best CBS News producer during his time, and a master at creating the ultimate football pre-game show. He pretty much taught me everything about live TV, demeanor in the control room, and how to handle the unforeseen. He gave me my first opportunity to be a director in sports. Two other role models came from CBS News. One was Don Hewitt of “60 Minutes” fame. Another great producer who taught me about great story telling. As well as Mike Wallace who was the best reporter of his generation. Finally, the great Walter Cronkite made the biggest impression on me. As a 24 year director doing CBS Morning News segments from Cape Canaveral during the Apollo 17 mission, he could not have been kinder or more supportive of me. That was, after all, my first directing job. I will never forget working with him, the greatest ever. There were other role models mentioned in the answer about mentors, but I must go back to my days in news for those who helped shape my career.
Last, Vin Scully. You worshiped him. Describe your relationship please?
I did worship Vin. It all began listening to him on shortwave radio, when armed forces radio rebroadcast Dodger games. I would get up very early before school, starting when I was eight years old. It is still impossible to believe that years later, I would not only meet him, but be assigned to be his director on NFL football for two seasons, when he worked for CBS. He was just as kind and gracious as a person could be to someone twenty something years younger. My favorite story is when we travelled together from Atlanta to New York after a Falcons game, and he was connecting to Montreal for the 1981 playoff game between the Dodgers and Expos for the right to play the Yankees in the World Series. He asked me if I would take his very large suitcase back home with me and should the Dodgers win, bring it to his NY hotel or have CBS ship it home to L.A. if they lost. When I explained to my wife Margaret why I had this huge Dodger suitcase, she suggested I open it, take out his pajamas, and sleep in them, so one day we could tell our kids about it. Good joke!…. So, long story short, Pat Haden, that winter while we were in El Paso for the Sun Bowl, presented me with a pair of pajamas that Vin signed for me with the inscription, “Thanks for looking after my luggage,Pleasant Dreams,Vin”…. For the next few years, I would always visit with him in the Dodger radio booth, and then in 2019, my friend and CBS producer Alanna Campbell, had him voice over my Sports HOF induction video, which we will also use for the Directors Guild event in February. We became good friends over the years and I was grateful to speak with him after the passing of his wife, and then a few weeks before his passing. What else can I say? I get emotional just thinking how lucky I was to know him, work with him and become a good friend. I loved him.