New Canaan’s Ted Shaker two years ago set a professional goal that had eluded five or six producers before him: Get two of sports radio’s iconic personalities and former collaborators to participate in a documentary about their pasts, their immeasurably influential show, their complicated relationship and rather public “breakup.”
Starting around 1982—the year Shaker and his wife, Sheryl, moved to New Canaan—he had served as executive producer of “NFL Today” at CBS Sports and then the entire sports division, and in the course of his 19-year career there he hired a brilliant St. John’s University graduate named Mike Francesa, first as a researcher and then as a football and basketball analyst.
In May 2015, Shaker traveled to Long Island to visit Francesa at his home there—the men had been in touch occasionally in the intervening years, such as at Jim Nantz’s California wedding in 2012—and after securing a ‘Yes’ to participate in the ESPN documentary film, returned home for a breakfast meeting at New Canaan Diner with an equally gifted though dramatically different kind of sports commentator—longtime New Canaan resident, Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo.
“He [Russo] in fact said somebody was talking to him about doing a documentary about them, some other guy, so I guess people had been around him, and I said, ‘Well, Mike [Francesa] said he was going to do it,’ and he was surprised by that,” Shaker recalled. “[Russo] said, ‘Let’s do it,’ though it’s funny—he was skeptical that it was going to happen.”
At 8 p.m. Thursday, the widely anticipated “Mike and the Mad Dog” installment of the award-winning “30 for 30” sports doc series will premiere on ESPN.
Directed by Dan Forer (more on his substantial contributions below), the 52-minute film traces not only the genesis and arc of “Mike and the Mad Dog”—a cultural phenomenon in the tri-state area that would change sports talk programming nationwide—but also the tragic and triumphant, deeply personal stories of the show’s charismatic co-hosts.
“I loved it,” Russo told NewCanaanite.com during a phone interview while on assignment during MLB All-Star Game festivities in Miami. “I think he [Forer] did a hell of a job. It’s a director’s medium, these 30-for-30s. You are the subject-matter so you have to allow them to do what they do. You have to have confidence that they will tell the story right, and you leave yourself open to criticism because not everybody who sees it will love it. But they handled it well.”
Conceding that in some cases the film may have focused on different people or areas in telling the dramatic story of “Mike and the Mad Dog,” which ran from 1989 to 2008, Russo said the documentary portrays him and Francesa as they were.
“It’s accurate,” he said.
With hundreds of clips and sound bites from what was at the time a radically unconventional show, including through interviews with Francesa and Russo as well as those who had conceived the idea of putting the pair together—an idea each man loathed—the film elevates what remains for its area fans a deeply personal experience to both an intimate story about a relationship and an industry-changing on-air innovation.
For Shaker, the film’s three major prongs—Francesa and Russo’s individual histories and personalities, their relationship with each other, through highs and lows, and the impact they made together on the business—emanated from Forer, film editor Mario Diaz and Shaker himself, respectively.
“Each of us brought something different to it,” Shaker said.
Though the film has since won accolades at the Tribeca Film Festival and—perhaps more importantly to Shaker, high praise at home from a “critic” who cares little for sports (see below)—its creators had to fight for the film to get made as a full feature rather than a “short.”
Forer broached the idea for the documentary with Shaker two Aprils ago, over dinner at Ching’s Table on Main Street. The pair had been longtime friends and Forer already had created some 30-for-30 installments for ESPN.
Shaker set about getting the two key players on board, Mike and the Mad Dog themselves.
“I think the timing was right,” Shaker said. “I said to Mike and I said the same to Chris—he [Francesa] had kids late in life, he has a second marriage—and I told him that this is something that will last forever. This puts you and Chris in your place in time. What you did. And your grandchildren can look at it someday and say, ‘This is what my grandfather did.’ ”
Even with Francesa and Russo on board, Forer and Shaker had to convince ESPN to get behind the documentary as a 30-for-30 installment.
It was complicated. The man who had served as Forer’s contact and champion for the documentary at ESPN had left that network for ABC, and some felt that it should be a 10- or 15-minute “ESPN Short.”
“Dan and I are sort of like, ‘We think there is more to it than that,’ but the feedback was, ‘This is a radio program,’ ” Shaker recalled. “So we had to prove to them [ESPN executives] that this thing was more than that, and we told them we needed an editor.”
Enter the very talented Mario Diaz of Los Angeles.
“He’s this brilliant editor, producer and director, and he’s highly trusted and liked at ESPN Films,” Shaker said.
Diaz advocated for the project as “more than a ‘Short,’ ” and in late-2015, ESPN green-lighted it as such.
Shaker said he is “thrilled it has received so many positive reactions” since its showing at Tribeca, though for him one story hits rather closer to home.
“Sheryl, my wife, could not care less about sports—she could not care less,” Shaker said with a smile. “She didn’t watch the stuff I used to do, didn’t follow it. She finds it all kind of silly. So back in December, when we still had a rough cut, we’ve been working on it for a year and a half, and so I say to her, ‘Look, take a few minutes and tell me what you think.’ ”
The film was about one hour long and Sheryl Shaker watched in the family’s Ponus Ridge living room on a laptop.
“So I’m expecting a dead honest critique, and she comes over and says she loved it,” Shaker recalled. “And I immediately fell on the floor. It was stunning. And why? Well, she said, it was entertaining and it was about these two guys and how they dealt with each other and how their relationship and popularity built up and it became more difficult over time to manage—and she loved it. What I learned there was that this is something that’s not just for a guy. And every time we showed it to women, they all loved it, and I did not see that coming.”
Russo, a 20-plus-year resident of New Canaan who has been involved in the New Canaan Basketball Association and St. Aloysius Church, among other community organizations, and belongs to the New Canaan Field Club, said some from WFAN—the radio station that launched “Mike and the Mad Dog”—raised some questions about the film. For example, Russo said, they asked why someone like Eddie Coleman wasn’t interviewed, “but I said, ‘Listen guys, it’s a national thing not a local thing.’ ”
“They have to make it appealing to a national audience not just FAN [listeners],” Russo said.
He added: “I think there is a happy medium of doing this properly, where a local fan gets satisfied but you don’t forget about the national guy who doesn’t know much about us. It’s a very tough line and inevitably somebody will feel cheated—so for FAN people there is a little criticism that it’s not ‘New York’ enough, but overall it was right.”
Russo said that some of the achievements and milestone moments of “Mike and the Mad Dog” did not make the final cut—for example, coverage of Magic Johnson’s 1991 disclosure that he was HIV-positive. At the same time, Russo allowed that “it’s 52 minutes—it’s not like they had hour upon hour where they really could have delved into it.”
Asked what surprised him about the film, Russo said that it appeared to make it seem as though he was more eager for Don Imus’s morning drive time slot than he had been after the host was fired in 2007.
“I’m not sure I wanted the Imus job as much as they made out,” Russo said. “Maybe there was a month where I wanted it, I thought maybe when Imus left that I would do mornings, but they made it sound as though I was pining to do Imus. They used that in a way that what the next step was my leaving, and I left in ’08, and that was part of the reason but not as big a deal, as I remember it … When you allow yourself to be the subject [of a film] you just have to accept it and it’s true that I did want to do it [the Imus slot] for a little while.”
Francesa and Russo also were on-air and ranked among the very first to report major news in professional sports, he said, such as New York Jets defensive end Dennis Byrd’s life-changing on-field broken neck in November 1992, and New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle’s October 2006 fatal plane crash on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
One legitimizing piece of “Mike and the Mad Dog” during its early years, Russo said, was their strong relationship with New York Knicks head coach Pat Riley in the early-1990s.
“He is one guy that did not want to do it [the documentary] who was very, very important to me and Mike,” Russo said.
“We were on the air for three or four years, and that was a big component of the early success. Riley wouldn’t do it and I wish he would have.”
For Shaker—producer of seven Super Bowls, nine NBA finals, 11 NCAA men’s Final Fours and 12 Masters tournaments—the collaborative experience of working on the “Mike and the Mad Dog” documentary has been a deeply rewarding, and in some unfamiliar ways.
Working in TV, Shaker said, he had limited ways to gauge how those viewing a program experienced it—“With the work we do, you sit and watch at home or maybe you have four people in a sports bar, but I don’t really know what people think.”
So to work on a project for two years and have 1,000 eager viewers watching the documentary on a big screen at Tribeca was “amazing” and “ran the full emotional gamut,” Shaker said.
And as a fan of “Mike and the Mad Dog” himself during its heyday, Shaker said he has a special personal tie to the 30-for-30 installment.
“As Traug Keller said, the impact they had was that they were so good at what they did, and the audience was so in love with them, that what they did was they gave permission to the program directors to try it.”