When Network Stars Went to Battle

Background: iStock, L-R: Keystone Colour/Getty Images, Tony Duffy /Allsport, Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Background: iStock, L-R: Keystone Colour/Getty Images, Tony Duffy /Allsport, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The 1976 Olympic Games, held in Montreal over a two-week period in July, represented the absolute pinnacle of athletic competition. Caitlyn (then Bruce) Jenner proved to be the most impressive decathlete in the world; at 14, Romanian Nadia Comaneci earned a perfect 10 score on the uneven bars.

Just three months later, Jenner would be present—this time as an eyewitness—to a multi-discipline competition that was no less compelling, despite the fact that some of its participants were prone to smoking between events. That was the year ABC broadcast the inaugural edition of Battle of the Network Stars, a competition pitting small-screen talent from the three major networks against one another in relay races, kayaking, swimming, golf, and tug of war.

At any given time during the show’s semi-annual airings, viewers could expect to see Gabe Kaplan, Tony Danza, Farrah Fawcett-Majors, O.J. Simpson, Billy Crystal, Michael J. Fox, Ron Howard, Tom Selleck, Scott Baio, and other TV Guide cover subjects making very earnest attempts to outdo one another. While ABC’s motivation was clearly ratings, and viewers were compelled by both male and female stars sporting gym shorts, the participants were recruited based on a dual reward tier: Their egos would be challenged, and they could win a lot of money.

Battle’s origins can be traced back to the NBA—specifically, a lack of it. In the mid-1970s, ABC had lost the rights to broadcast National Basketball Association games to CBS, creating a hole in the network's Sunday afternoon programming schedule. An ABC executive named Dick Button proposed a show called Superstars, where well-known athletes would step outside of their comfort zones and try out a new sport.

ABC was elated when Superstars wound up outdrawing CBS’s NBA games in the ratings. The logical progression, according to former ABC executive Don Ohlmeyer, was to use the Superstars format and take advantage of the deep bench of attractive primetime stars appearing on television at the time. In an unlikely bit of collusion, ABC convinced both CBS and NBC to allow their contracted talent to appear on Battle of the Network Stars on the premise that it would amount to free advertising during a rival channel’s airtime.

The three network squads were a who’s-who of ‘70s fame. For ABC, team captain Gabe Kaplan (Welcome Back Kotter) led a charge that included Lynda Carter, Ron Howard, and Penny Marshall; NBC’s crew was comprised of captain Robert Conrad, Tim Matheson, Melissa Sue Anderson, and Ben Murphy; CBS appointed Telly Savalas to manage Lee Meriwether, Jimmie Walker, and Mackenzie Phillips.

Conrad would later recall that recruiting for the shows was easy, since “actors have tremendous egos” and took the competition seriously. An additional incentive was the fact that each member of the winning team would receive $20,000. (The amount would eventually go up to $40,000 as the series wound down in the 1980s.)

Despite the overall sheen of ironic detachment from commentator Howard Cosell, former Wild, Wild West star Conrad was fiercely competitive. Onetime contestant Melissa Gilbert recalled that Conrad once sent a kayak instructor and kayak to her house so she could practice for the event in her pool. During a relay race, when judges determined NBC had committed a foul, Conrad angrily demanded to face team captain Kaplan in a “run-off” to determine a winner. (Savalas, whose CBS team was destined for third place regardless, puffed on a cigarette and looked on with amusement.) Kaplan overcame an early deficit to surpass Conrad in a 100-meter foot race.

To Ohlmeyer, Conrad’s genuine outrage at the accusation of a foul helped set the tone for the specials, which didn’t appear to soften the events for the amateur competitors. Bikes were mounted without helmets or knee pads; Gilbert recalled seeing broken bones, sprained ankles, and contestants passing out from the heat; Falcon Crest star Lorenzo Lamas once took a spill off a cliff during a bike race, and landed in a ditch.

Several competitors had athletic backgrounds. Tony Danza was a former professional boxer; Mark Harmon was a quarterback at UCLA; Kurt Russell played minor league baseball. But an athletic background was no prerequisite: ABC was under no delusion about why many viewers were tuning in. Men like Lamas and Tom Selleck were of significant interest to audiences once they had disposed of their shirts, while the sight of a jogging Carter or Fawcett-Majors appealed to another demographic. “Giggly, jiggly starlets” is how Detroit Free Press columnist Mike Duffy described the action of the 1980 special, chiding producers for the shamelessness of dangling Dallas star Charlene Tilton over a dunk tank.

With a rotating cast, Battle taped most of its events at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, airing twice a year through 1985. Devoted viewers would eventually be treated to the surreal spectacle of Tony Randall or William Shatner leading a sports team or David Letterman paddling shirtless in a kayak while Dick Van Dyke commentated the action. During one climactic tug of war, Conrad recalled that the teams spent over 14 minutes locked in a stalemate.

It seemed viewers would never tire of such high drama, but Battle's novelty eventually wore thin. The 1985 season was its last, with brief revivals attempted in 1988 and 2003. More recently, ABC announced a reboot scheduled for June 2017 that will feature many of the show's previous participants: Lorenzo Lamas, Erik Estrada, Jimmie Walker, and Mackenzie Phillips will all be there. It might be diverting and it might not, but the sight of a celebratory Lynda Carter kissing Gabe Kaplan while Telly Savalas moodily drags on his cigarette is a scene unlikely to ever be matched.

11 Masks That Will Keep You Safe and Stylish

Design Safe/Designer Face Covers/Its All Goods
Design Safe/Designer Face Covers/Its All Goods

Face masks are going to be the norm for the foreseeable future, and with that in mind, designers and manufacturers have answered the call by providing options that are tailored for different lifestyles and fashion tastes. Almost every mask below is on sale, so you can find one that fits your needs without overspending.

1. Multicolor 5-pack of Polyester Face Masks; $22 (56 percent off)

Home Essentials

This set of five polyester masks offers the protection you need in a range of colors, so you can coordinate with whatever outfit you're wearing.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

2. 3D Comfort Masks 5-Pack; $20 (25 percent off)

Brio

The breathable, stretchy fabric in these 3D masks makes them a comfortable option for daily use.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

3. Reusable Face Masks 2-pack; $15 (50 percent off)

Triple Grade

This cotton mask pack is washable and comfortable. Use the two as a matching set with your best friend or significant other, or keep the spare for laundry day.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

4. Active Masks 3-pack; $23 (14 percent off)

RipleyRader

Don’t let masks get in the way of staying active. These double-layer cotton masks are breathable but still protect against those airborne particles.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

5. Washable Protective Cotton Face Masks 2-pack; $13 (35 percent off)

Its All Good

Avoid the accidental nose-out look with this cotton mask that stays snug to your face.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

6. Washable 3D Masks 12-pack; $24 (44 percent off)

Elicto

With this 12-pack of protective masks, you can keep a few back-ups in your car and hand the rest out to friends and family who need them.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

7. Reusable Dust-Proof Mask with 5 Filters; $22 (45 percent off)

Triple Grade

This dust-proof mask can filter out 95 percent of germs and other particles, making it a great option for anyone working around smoke and debris all day, or even if you're just outside mowing the lawn.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

8. Reusable Fun Face Cover / Neck Gaiter (Flamingo); $20

Designer Face Covers

Channel some tropical energy with this flamingo fabric neck gaiter. The style of this covering resembles a bandana, which could save your ears and head from soreness from elastic loops. Other designs include a Bauhaus-inspired mask and this retro look.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

9. Seamless Bandana Mask; $8 (52 percent off)

Eargasm Earplugs

This seamless gaiter-style mask can be worn properly for protection and fashioned up into a headband once you're in the car or a safe space. Plus, having your hair out of your face will help you avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth before washing your hands.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

10. Two-Ply "Love" Face Masks 2-Pack; $18 (40 percent off)

Design Safe

These statement masks allow you to have a voice, even if your mouth is covered.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

11. Neoprene/Fleece Neck and Face Mask (Purple); $10 (66 percent off)

Its All Good

This mask will definitely come in handy once winter rolls around. It features a fleece neck, face, and ear covering to keep your mask secure and your face warm.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

Prices subject to change.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links. If you haven't received your voucher or have a question about your order, contact the Mental Floss shop here.

The Brief, Bizarre Pro Wrestling Career of Andy Kaufman

Andy Kaufman.
Andy Kaufman.
Joan Adlen Photography, Getty Images

For a period of time in the early 1980s, the most hated man in Memphis, Tennessee, was a comedian from Long Island.

Andy Kaufman had spent years as a stand-up comic perfecting his own peculiar brand of antagonistic performance art, inciting anger among audiences by reading verbatim from The Great Gatsby, pantomiming the theme song from Mighty Mouse, and taking naps onstage. Even as he enjoyed mainstream success with a prominent role as Latka Gravas on the popular sitcom Taxi, Kaufman still yearned to stir discontent. He was, in the vernacular of professional wrestling, a “heel”—someone who draws attention by riling up crowds.

In 1981, Kaufman decided to adopt a heel persona where it would be best served: in the ring. With little athletic ability, no experience, and relatively little money to be earned, he became a professional wrestler and one of the biggest attractions the Memphis area had ever seen.

He did this by challenging and wrestling women.

 

Kaufman had grown up on Long Island and perfected his craft in unpaid appearances in comedy clubs before garnering attention for his guest spots on Saturday Night Live. Taxi followed, as did a successful tour, where Kaufman would do anything from impersonate Elvis Presley to escort 2000 fans out for milk and cookies after performing at Carnegie Hall.

As a child, Kaufman had been a fan of professional wrestling and an admirer of “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers. He once saw Rogers grapple with Bruno Sammartino at Madison Square Garden, with Rogers—the villain—drawing boos from the crowd. It was this memory that probably came calling back to Kaufman when, in 1977, he began issuing challenges to women in the audience. If they pinned him, he said, he would give them $1000.

Andy Kaufman’s wrestling memorabilia on display at New York City's Maccarone gallery.Jack Szwergold via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Estimates on how many times Kaufman wrestled with a woman range from 60 to more than 400. Though some matches may have been staged, Kaufman did appear to be engaged in real physical contests with many of the volunteers. While it had the expected result for his audience—they were alternately amused and confused—Kaufman wanted to do it on a larger stage. He made his proposal during an appearance on Saturday Night Live on October 20, 1979, wearing his now-familiar wrestling outfit of black trunks over white long johns. Kaufman explained that he wasn’t interested in wrestling men because they might beat him, but he would take on any woman who dared.

A pregnant woman volunteered, but Kaufman refused to wrestle her. Instead, he faced Mimi Lambert, a dancer and Lacoste sportswear heiress, who was pinned after several minutes. For no apparent reason, a triumphant Kaufman then challenged Olympic swimmer Diana Nyad to a match, with $10,000 on the line if she won, before clucking like a chicken.

 

Andy Kaufman returned to Saturday Night Live several more times that year to continue his challenges, at one point even “threatening” host (and future Golden Girl) Bea Arthur.

Finally, Kaufman found an opponent in Diana Peckham, the daughter of Olympic wrestling coach James Peckham, and wrestled her on the December 22, 1979 episode of SNL. Though Kaufman had childhood hero Buddy Rogers in his corner, he was unable to beat Peckham and the bout was declared a draw.

Kaufman then began phoning wrestling promoters, including prominent New York promoter Vince McMahon Sr., and told them he had crowned himself the World Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion and was willing to defend his title against all comers. He was undefeated, save for one loss to six women at once at a Chippendales club in Los Angeles.

As usual, Kaufman was ahead of his time. This was in 1981, years before McMahon’s son, Vince McMahon Jr., would elevate the business with spectacles like WrestleMania and celebrity appearances by Mr. T, Cyndi Lauper, and Liberace. In a short while, he likely would have been welcomed into the fold. But McMahon Sr., a wrestling traditionalist, wasn't interested.

Dismayed, Kaufman turned to friend and wrestling journalist Bill Apter, who recommended the comedian get in touch with Jerry Lawler, the most popular wrestler in Memphis. With partner Jerry Jarrett, Lawler ran the region's Continental Wrestling Association, or CWA. Lawler was intrigued by the proposal and suggested Kaufman come to Memphis. While he had no real in-ring ability, he was recognizable and his male chauvinist persona was likely to draw attention.

For months, Kaufman sent in tapes taunting the locals. On October 12, 1981, Kaufman finally appeared at Tennessee's Mid-South Coliseum and wrestled three women in a row. On November 23, he took on four women. The fourth, Foxy Brown, managed to wrestle Kaufman to a draw. Both Lawler and Kaufman knew a rematch with Brown—with Lawler in her corner—would be a success.

It was. Kaufman defeated Brown convincingly on November 30, 1981, which led to Lawler jumping into the ring to confront Kaufman for his unsportsmanlike conduct. It was at this point that Kaufman and Lawler realized they had something special. Lawler, the Memphis hero, was standing up to Kaufman, the Hollywood outsider who had no respect for women. The crowd’s response was electrifying to Kaufman, who saw an opportunity to take his admiration of Buddy Rogers one step further and actually wrestle a man.

 

For months, viewers of local pro wrestling programming in Memphis watched as Kaufman sent in more videos heckling them. “I’m from Hollywood!” he said. He taught them how to use soap, a skill he insisted they lacked, and played into offensive Southern stereotypes. He insisted women “belonged in the kitchen” and that their time was best spent “scrubbing potatoes.” If Kaufman were to ever walk down the streets of Memphis unescorted, it could have been a problem.

Finally, Kaufman and Lawler squared off on April 5, 1982. Roughly 11,200 fans showed up to the Mid-South Coliseum eager to see Lawler silence Kaufman, invested in the outcome even though a portion of them probably realized the two were playing roles. (They had even rehearsed moves at referee Jerry Calhoun’s house two nights prior.) The bout lasted less than seven minutes, with Kaufman spending much of that time avoiding Lawler and offering little offense beyond a simple headlock. Finally, the wrestler got his hands on the comedian, sending him to the mat with consecutive piledrivers.

It was far from the end of the show. Kaufman spent 15 minutes in the ring, legs twitching, before insisting Lawler call for an ambulance. (Lawler told him it would cost $250 for the real thing to arrive. Kaufman promised he would pay for it.) He was hauled off on a stretcher and spent the next several days giving interviews from a hospital bed, insisting he had suffered real injuries in a legitimate contest. While Kaufman told Lawler the piledrivers had hurt him, it was unlikely the injuries were severe enough to require a three-day hospital stay.

Yet Kaufman's testimony was apparently enough to mislead The New York Times, which reported on his convalescence as being legitimate:

“[Lawler] insisted the bout be a real thing. It was, too … As a result, said George Shapiro, the comedian’s manager, Mr. Kaufman suffered cuts on the top of his head, strained neck muscles, and a compressed space between the fourth and fifth vertebra. Hospital officials listed him in good condition yesterday.”

In a 2012 piece for CNN, author Wayne Drash recalled being a kid in Memphis and going to school the day after the bout. A child who was convinced Kaufman was really hurt suggested the class pray for him. He was booed.

 

Though their rivalry had seemingly reached a conclusion, Kaufman and Lawler believed they could continue their feud on a larger stage. On July 28, 1982, the two were booked to appear on Late Night with David Letterman, which had only been on the air since February of that year. During the interview, Kaufman—sporting a neck brace—continued his vitriol against Lawler, which led to the wrestler slapping him across the face while a bewildered Letterman watched.

As with Kaufman’s “injuries,” the mainstream media was slow to recognize that the incident was orchestrated. Kaufman helped legitimize it by filing a $200 million lawsuit against NBC, insisting he would soon take it over and make it an all-wrestling network. The bouts with Lawler continued to draw crowds in Memphis as well as Indiana and Florida, which prompted Vince McMahon Jr. to later tell Lawler that he was jealous of the Memphis wrestling territory. It had master heel Andy Kaufman at its disposal.

Kaufman never lost his taste for wrestling. He appeared in 1983’s My Breakfast with Blassie, a parody of the chatty 1981 character piece My Dinner with Andre, alongside famous wrestler “Classy” Freddie Blassie. He also played a ring referee in Teaneck Tanzi, a Broadway musical about a woman (Deborah Harry of Blondie fame) who wrestles the men in her life. It opened and closed in one night.

Kaufman succumbed to lung cancer at the age of 35 on May 16, 1984. Had he lived, he would likely have continued to climb between the ropes. Recalling their time together, Lawler once said that Kaufman expressed a wish. If only he could quit acting, he said, he wanted to wrestle full-time.

 

Additional Sources:
Lost in the Funhouse: The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman.