Tuesday, November 10, 2009
An American Tragedy: The Legend of Jimmy the Greek
When I watched Dan Rather refer to Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder as “an American tragedy” in the first few minutes of the latest documentary in ESPN Films’ “30 for 30” series, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. Rather’s assessment struck me as the kind of hyperbole that career on-camera interviewers – who know what makes for good TV – have a tendency to spew when they’re answering the questions instead of asking them. But by the end of The Legend of Jimmy the Greek, I was stunned to find myself nodding in agreement. If like me you remember Jimmy the Greek for the manner in which he became infamous, Fritz Mitchell’s film will reawaken you to the days in which “The Greek” was merely famous. Furthermore, it will enlighten you about an even earlier time, when Jimmy the Greek was just Demetrious Synodinos of Steubenville, Ohio. On paper this profile of a gambler turned TV personality turned outcast might appear to be the least compelling of the six “30 for 30” pictures released thus far. On screen, however, it’s the most complete film yet.
That’s fitting, really, because Jimmy the Greek loved an underdog, and underdogs live to surpass expectations. Thirteen years removed from his death, Jimmy the Greek is largely remembered today, if he’s remembered at all, for the insensitive comments about black athletes that got him fired from CBS more than two decades ago – a thick shadow of controversy that “The Greek” shaped with his own hands. Mitchell’s film doesn’t shy away from that controversy, but it also cuts through the fog, and what it finds is fascinating: I knew that Jimmy the Greek was a gambler, but I didn’t know the story of how he became one, at the age of 13. I knew that Jimmy the Greek was a colorful TV personality, but I didn’t know how hard he worked to get on the air in the first place (as with John Madden, his cartoonishness could distract from his legitimate credentials). I knew that Jimmy the Greek’s career ended sadly, but I didn’t know that his life had been touched by catastrophe long before that – as a parent who lost three children and as a child who lost a parent. This won’t be news for everyone, of course, but I suspect that even those familiar with this background will find it feels like new. In Mitchell’s film, Jimmy the Greek’s spirit is tangible.
That’s hardly an accident. Mitchell’s boldest gesture is having Greek-American comic Basile narrate anecdotes from Jimmy the Greek’s life in the first person. The tactic effectively invites us to experience the subject’s story through his eyes, rather than absent-mindedly observing it, but the artistic flourish isn’t without problems. First, rather than relying on the kind of straightforward line readings we’ve come to expect from Ken Burns documentaries, Basile delivers a vocal performance that is at once both overdramatic and flat, bearing little resemblance to the man he’s imitating. Second, Basile’s voice-over sometimes accompanies ill-advised reenactments featuring a Jimmy the Greek stand-in clad in a suit and dark glasses who looks more like an extra from Donnie Brasco than Jimmy the Greek himself. Third, Mitchell never makes it clear if Basile is reading Jimmy the Greek’s actual words, perhaps from his unmentioned autobiography, or if the descriptions and accounts are written expressly for the film. Not that it matters much. These are minor annoyances in a documentary that is routinely compelling even before it reaches its tragic conclusion. And it is tragic.
As Mitchell’s documentary makes clear, Jimmy the Greek was already wearing out his welcome at CBS, after 12 years with the network, even before he told a Washington, DC, newsman that “the black is the better athlete to begin with because he was bred that way.” Jimmy the Greek wasn’t trying to be controversial or derogatory or demeaning when he linked the athletic success of black athletes to the slave trade, but – only months removed from similarly offensive statements by Los Angeles Dodgers executive Al Campanis – it sure didn't play that way. It couldn't have helped that, given the impromptu nature of the interview, Jimmy the Greek's remarks had the appearance of being whispered surreptitiously, as if in acknowledgement of their impropriety. In response, CBS fired their analyst and, just as quickly, Jimmy the Greek was shattered. One of the most heartbreaking moments in Mitchell’s film is an all-too-brief clip from a media interview in which a contrite Jimmy the Greek tries to explain his offensive remarks, only to stop, shaking his head, seeming to realize that he’s an inch away from repeating them.
Mitchell covers this controversy and others (a difficult working relationship with Phyllis George, fisticuffs with Brent Musburger, etc.) with a deft touch. The Legend of Jimmy the Greek manages to feel blunt rather than sensational and compassionate rather than absolving. Mitchell’s film is packed with talking heads who are both complementary and critical – including members of Jimmy the Greek’s family. Using a nonlinear approach to cover the ups and downs of its subject’s life, Legend never rushes or lags, and it avoids the usual arc of the tragedy. By the time the documentary ends you might still believe, with good reason, that Jimmy the Greek’s notoriety overshadows his accomplishments. But at least you'll see through the fog. Mitchell’s film makes no attempt to rewrite or reanalyze the final act of Jimmy the Greek’s American tragedy. That would be useless. Instead it simply honors the American dream that came before the fall.
The Legend of Jimmy the Greek premieres tonight on ESPN at 8 pm ET, and will rerun frequently thereafter. The Cooler will be reviewing each film in the “30 for 30” series upon its release. The next "30 for 30" picture won't be released until December 12.