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Jim Palmer jockeys from underwear to PBS

ANN HODGES, Houston Chronicle Tv-Radio Editor Staff

WED 04/17/1985 HOUSTON CHRONICLE, Section Houston, Page 1, NO STAR Edition

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First things first - the man is gorgeous.

Brown hair, blue eyes, resort tan and the physique to sell a million pairs of Jockey shorts.

It's Jim Palmer, of course - the national sex symbol who's now about to become a TV star.

They tell me he used to play baseball. Who cares?

Palmer was in Hollywood this day to plug "The Sporting Life." It's the first regular weekly sports series ever on the full public TV network, and it starts at 7:30 p.m. Thursday on PBS and Ch. 8.

Palmer had a lot to say about that. But first, he had to say a few words about underwear.

He did those ads, Palmer swore, to send his kids to college.

"I can't complain about the `hunk comments,' " he admitted. "I put myself in that position. I sold out. I did. But so does everybody. Most of us sell out, one way or another.

"Last night, I was writing down questions - what would I ask myself if I were you," he mused. "I know myself so little. . ."

One thing he'd definitely ask himself, he said, was how he ever got up the nerve to do that underwear ad.

"I meant that about sending my kids to college," he declared. "I wasn't one of those fortunate few who made a lot of money in baseball, compared to what they make now. I was looking for ways to subsidize my income. I stayed in Baltimore because I wanted to be home with my children and to be part of the community.

"For the next two or three years, I want to try to be a father. I've never had time to be, before. With the Jockey ads and "The Sporting Life," and my new five-year contract with ABC Sports, I have more license to be home where I want to be."

He has two daughters at home - one in college, the other a senior in high school. He and his wife are divorced.

"I was married at 18," Palmer said, "and about the most difficult things an athlete has to do are handle the press and handle his personal life. I was adopted, and my parents were not wealthy, but I certainly never lived a deprived life. I went from Beverly Hills and Scotsdale right to baseball.

"In the last five years of my career, I woke up every morning with a sore arm. And after 10 years, my wife decided she just didn't want to be married to a baseball player. I can't blame her," he said.

"One of the constant things about being an athlete is you're always being reminded you're not as good as you used to be," he went on.

"At 20 I was so frightened pitching against Sandy Koufax, all I could think of was: `Please, don't let me go out there and make a fool of myself.' Your mind can make your body do anything, you know. If the mind-set is proper, you can do it. I had one of my best games at age 37." He's now 39.

"All athletes have tunnel vision," he said with a smile. "For 15 years I worried about being the best pitcher. Now I worry about tax accountants."

Palmer was first choice of the producers - both women - to host their new "Sporting Life." But when they made him the offer, Palmer was wary.

When you do underwear commercials, you apparently get some pretty strange proposals. "I kept thinking, `But who are these women, and why are they doing this show?' " Palmer recalled.

The women are "The Sporting Life's" co-executive producers, Roberta London and Phyllis Behar, and both of them know a lot more about television than they know about sports: London as a producer and Behar as an actress with a career including four years of soap opera on "One Life To Live."

The reason they're doing "The Sporting Life": They thought it was high time for somebody to do "not just another sports show for the male sports addict but a family sports show, for everybody."

What sold Palmer was the format. "The best things about the Olympics coverage, I thought, were those "Up Close" and personal things on ABC," he said. "These shows are like those.

"The networks cover sports events, but they don't really tell you what an athlete must do to succeed and what the person is like behind the public image," he went on. "As a former athlete, I know that people don't know the real me. They know I won games, but that's all they know. These shows prove that athletes have the same problems and joys as everybody else. They're human."

The day the public discovered Palmer was human was the day he retired from baseball.

"I cried on TV, and that was the best thing that ever happened to my career," Palmer declared firmly. "People knew then that Jim Palmer was just like anybody else, a human being."

"The Sporting Life" covers all kinds of sports, and some of its sports stars are neither well-known nor winners.

Thursday night's opener is "Angel On Horseback," a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the life of famous jockey Angel Cordero.

"I don't think the fans have any idea of the sacrifice a jockey has to go through," Cordero tells Palmer. "You take risks when you ride a horse, and it's hard work all year round."

Cordero loses most of the races he runs in this opener, but the show itself is a winner.

Next week, "Sporting Life" visits Lady Magic, otherwise known as Nancy Lieberman, a lady who just wants to play basketball.

Coming up, George Starke counts his lumps the morning after a bone-jarring game as offensive lineman for the Washington Redskins; would-be umpires go to school in Florida; ice dancers Judy Blumberg and Michael Seibert hit the comeback rink; a doctor weekends in the rodeo arena; Jim "Catfish" Hunter tells what it's like when the game is over; American Steve Cauthen recalls how he came to be the champion jockey of England; and the Three-Quarter Century Softball League does an exhibition game, with teams of players ages 75 to 92.

The last show is an indulgence. Three comics - Alan King, Phil Foster and Steve Landesberg - join Palmer in trying to top each other's favorite funny stories about sports.

Ah, well. That's "The Sporting Life" for you. You can't win 'em all.

The numbers game

NBC was No. 1 again in the Nielsen weekly, and the gap is closing with CBS in that pivotal race for No. 1 this season.

It's significant, too, that NBC's mini series, "Wallenberg: A Hero's Story," did better than the first chapter of CBS' "Space."

Don't let that put you off. "Space" really begins to look up with these last two chapters, tonight and Thursday.

In weekly numbers, NBC had ratings of 16.3, audience share of 26 percent; CBS had 15.8 and 26, and ABC had 14.0 and 23. Season to date, it's CBS, 16.9 and 27; NBC, 16.3 and 26; and ABC, 15.5 and 24.

"The Cosby Show" was No. 1 in the Top 20 list, followed by "Dynasty, The A-Team, Family Ties, Who's the Boss, Dallas, Hail to the Chief, Cheers, Wallenberg - Part 1", Hotel, Knots Landing, Wallenberg - Part 2, 60 Minutes, Space - Part 1, Bob Newhart Show, Kate & Allie, Simon & Simon, Night Court, "Falcon Crest" and Scarecrow and Mrs. King.

While Nielsen was counting the numbers, the George Foster Peabody Awards committee was naming the winners of this 1984-85 season.

These awards are perhaps television's most prestigious, and it's ironic that one of the Peabody winners representing entertainment came in a real cropper in this week's ratings.

"St. Elsewhere," which the judges cited for examining the medical profession in human terms," without television's usual hero worship," wound up down at the bottom of the Nielsens, No. 61 in a list of 69 shows.

"St. Elsewhere" aside, this year's Peabody awards did, indeed, honor some of telvision's finest:

ABC's "Nightline," its anchor, Ted Koppel, and Koppel's boss, Roone Arledge, president of ABC News and ABC Sports. Arledge was honored for significant contributions" in both those areas.

In miniseries, England's Granada Television for that stunning and splendid drama, "The Jewel in the Crown," and CBS and producer David Gerber for the historical insight and intelligence" of "George Washington."

In drama, "ABC Theater" for "Heartsounds."

In documentary, PBS' "Heritage: Civilization and the Jews;" PBS' "The Brain;" ABC News "Close-Up: To Save Our Schools, To Save Our Children;" PBS' "A Walk Through the 20th Century with Bill Moyers;" and the PBS series, "Frontline."

In cable, Shelley Duvall's "Faerie Tale Theater" for Showtime, and Turner Broadcasting's TV reports on Jacques Cousteau's trips down the Amazon.

Bulletin board

Joan Collins' new miniseries, six hours of "Sins," started filming in Paris this week. CBS will run it next fall. Collins plays the head of a powerful international publishing empire," and the producer is Steve Krantz, husband of novelist Judith Krantz. This one, though, is not based on one of her books. . . . . .

Lucille Ball plays a bag lady in her new CBS movie. It's now in production in New York. . . . . .

Tonight at 8, Ch. 26 uses four popular sitcoms to address the problem of alcohol abuse. Lead-off is an episode of "Happy Days "titled "I Drink, Therefore I Am," followed by "Tough Love" from "Archie Bunker's Place, Sometimes There's No Bottom in the Bottle" from "Good Times" and "The Return of Stephanie's Father" from "All In the Family. . . . . .

" Bob Hope heads the celebrity roster for this weekend's Doug Sanders Celebrity Classic at Memorial Golf Course. And the duffer list is getting longer every day. Just a few of those now scheduled are Robert Stack, Claude Akins, Jimmy Dean, Willie Nelson, Telly Savalas, Alex Trebeck and Andy Williams.

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