Television viewers of the late 1970s who craved a combination of amateur athletics plus celebrity skin (mixed together with more cheese than a Wisconsin souvenir shop) had to look no further than Battle of the Network Stars. Inspired somewhat by ABC’s popular Wide World of Sports Superstars—an annual competition of professional athletes competing in a series of 10 different events unrelated to their own sport—the network set up a bi-annual “sporting” competition between various actors from series on the three major networks. The first installment aired in 1976 and garnered enough of a following that the series continued until 1985.
As the stars of Welcome Back, Kotter, CHiPs, Happy Days and other hits of the day fought it out in relay races, the obstacle course, the dunk tank, and Simon Says, veteran sportscaster Howard Cosell provided color commentary with the gravity usually reserved for an Ali-Frazier prize fight. But why would a TV star participate in such a spectacle, risking injury and mussed hair during their hiatus? One answer might be that they embraced the human drama of athletic competition. Another might be that this was a time when episodic television didn't have million-dollar salaries, and Battle offered some nice prize money: Each member of the winning team on the debut episode collected $20,000 (the Pittsburgh Steelers only earned $15,000 each for winning the Super Bowl that year). Join us, won’t you, for the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, the political incorrectness of the era, and some gratuitous swimsuit shots….
There was dissent in the ranks from the get-go. CBS team captain Telly Savalas (puffing away on a cigarette during an athletic competition, no less) raised a protest after the relay race. It seems that Ben Murphy (Gemini Man, better known for the “Riding with Death” episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000) stepped off of his line and accepted the baton several yards too soon from a struggling Joanna Pettet (Captains and the Kings). This was a “vulgar” and “flagrant” violation of the rules, according to Savalas, who points out that his Greek heritage makes him an expert on such things. NBC captain Robert “Go Ahead, I Dare Ya” Conrad is having none of it and challenges ABC captain Gabe Kaplan to a 100 yard run-off. Forget the 1984 Olympic boycott, this is sports tension at its finest, with Conrad threatening to pull his team from the competition amid a flurry of jaw-dropping ethnic remarks that would never get past the network censors today.
Freestyle or Breaststroke?
Adrienne Barbeau and Lynda Carter were a little nervous—but buoyant with hope—as they stepped onto the starting blocks for the swimming competition. Once they hit the water they lost that deer-in-the-headlights look and went for the jugular. Perhaps it was a little tit-for-tat after that contentious relay race, but it was clear that neither woman wanted to settle for the booby prize. Luckily they had plenty of support—just listen to those “yahoos!” from the hooters and hollerers in the audience!
What It Was, Was Football
Not to say that any of the other contests were necessarily frivolous, but one event that was played very seriously was the 3-on-3 football competition. Maybe it was because many of the male TV actors had played some ball back in the day and were eager to relive their wonder years. Whatever the reason, the men actually took the time to plan some game strategy and play with the fervor of old college pals engaging in a “friendly” competition at a reunion. Just watch Richard Hatch (the Battlestar Gallactica guy, not the Survivor guy) and Joseph Bottoms risk injury while making some very dramatic catches in this clip and see if they’re not envisioning themselves on the gridiron at the Rose Bowl.
“High and Dry, I Need a Ball Player…”
Believe it or not, the Dunk Tank was an actual “athletic” event in BOTNS. Athletic is in quotation marks because there was some controversy as to the accuracy of the dunking mechanism. Skeptical TV viewers noted that the more comely the dunkee, the less accurate the dunker had to be when hitting the target. Notice how a pre-Mad About You Helen Hunt barely nicks the target but yet manages to send hunky Dean Butler swimming.
Meanwhile, Tom Selleck takes entirely too long to strip down to his swimsuit. (Preen much?) And Judy Norton-Taylor (eldest Waltons daughter) boasts some impressive biceps that even Michelle Obama would envy.
Let No Obstacle Block Your Path
Much like on sister show The Superstars, the Obstacle Course was a fan favorite and a deal-breaker for the competitors involved here. Younger stars like Scott Baio and Kristy McNichol seemed to have an obvious advantage, but when similarly-aged celebs like Melissa Gilbert placed further back in the standings than actors twice their age, it gave viewers hope. Maybe youth wasn’t the be-all, end-all when it came to physical fitness…Perhaps if we elder statesmen watched our diet and exercised regularly we could compete with the best of them… Before you run off to the gym, here is Kristy versus Melissa:
Billy Crystal versus David Letterman:
And Penny Marshall versus Mackenzie Phillips:
For All the Marbles
The ultimate, decision-making event on BOTNS was the Tug of War. After all the preliminary competitions, the two teams with the most points went on to compete in this final event. The captain of each team decided who would play and in which order on the rope (there was a maximum weight limit of 900 lbs. on each side). Watch the fierceness of play involved in this event and you’ll see that tug of war can actually be dangerous (there have been contests in the past where players have lost a finger or two during play), which is why it has been banned as an event in many professional competitions.
If you’ve ever watched Battle of the Network Stars, here is the place to share your memories. If you’ve never seen this show (or even if you have), what current TV stars would you like to see pitted against one another in sweaty, bouncy athletic competition?