In your face, “Ist & Ten”: HBO’s forgotten late 80s football sitcom starring O.J. Simpson

By on October 24, 2015

Home Box Office, Inc., better known today as HBO, is one of the most successful cable TV networks of the past few decades, but you may already know that it took awhile for them to gain their large audience of subscribers, particularly since they didn’t have very much success with their attempts at original programming, and many of those early HBO TV shows are largely forgotten today, or remembered only by a loyal cult audience, even the ones that were aired more than a single season, including the focus of this post, a football-themed situation comedy — yes, a sitcom — called “1st & Ten.”

“1st & Ten” — which aired between December 1984 and January 1991 — concerned a fictitious professional football team named the California Bulls, and it clearly was HBO’s early attempt to building on their prior success with hosting sporting events, not to mention one of their first attempts to lure the lucrative sitcom audience away from the big three networks. At the time, the National Football League and NFL Films had already partnered with, and more importantly, were cooperating with, the HBO network to present a highlight-reel magazine-style program called “Inside the NFL,” and it was a logical extension of that to move their partnership into the realm of fictionalized programming.

In hindsight, it may have been that the NFL weren’t too concerned about a situation comedy that was based around pro football since it was only going to be airing on a premium cabler that didn’t, at the time, have a very large TV audience to begin (obviously, they didn’t let “1st & Ten” or HBO use the NFL logos or brands or real team names, they still don’t do let any networks do that unless they’re paying for the licensing of those images), and it’s quite possible they might have seen the show as a “test” to see whether HBO’s presentation of both occasional female frontal nudity and raunchy language would hurt their image at all, which they were still trying to protect; we suppose the NFL are still attempting to protect it today, but we’d all have to admit they’re doing a shit job of it, considering the ceaseless parade of scandals the NFL has had to endure over the past few decades (we don’t need to make a list, do we?).

And so, at the time, let’s just say that the NFL were maintaining a hands-off, let’s-see-where-this-goes type of attitude, and so “1st & Ten” itself stayed mostly in the written realm where most sitcoms live and breathe, with its added laugh tracks, often inappropriate trumpet flourishes and cutaways at the ends of scenes (in other words, typical sitcom stuff. It never really veered too far into heavy drama, not too far, anyway, which is certainly the creative direction that HBO would take with a football-themed show today (e.g. “Ballers”).

Even so, since this was going to be seen on cable, HBO’s little football comedy still was able to take a few chances, story-wise, broaching topics like sex — including stunning football groupies and cheerleaders making sure there’s plenty of topless fun — and drugs — usually, though, this meant drug testing, steroids, players struggling with the end of their careers, and a little recreational use of illegal drugs off the field thrown in for good measure — that the big three TV networks typically avoided (at the time, anyway).

The NFL even allowed real and often legendary NFL football players  to make guest appearances on the show — like Fran Tarkenton, Marcus Allen, Brian Bosworth, John Riggins, Joe Namath, Eric Dickerson, Roger Craig, Jim Everett, Herschel Walker, Randall Cunningham, Warren Moon, Ted Hendricks, Bubba Smith, and more —  which shows their sincere attempt and good faith that HBO probably weren’t going to embarrass them too much. Unless you consider their acting ability, then, yes, there is some embarrassment to be found.

On “1st & Ten,” the California Bulls are a downtrodden team owned by Diana Barrow, a glammed-out and scorned divorced heiress played by a youngier, sexier version of dark-haired beauty Delta Burke, a few years before she’d gain fame, and a few more dress sizes, as Suzanne Sugarbaker, in the popular CBS sitcom “Designing Women.” She gets the team in a divorce settlement after having discovered her husband in bed with the team’s tight end (yes, of course! and you’re free to make your own jokes about it) named Ty Taylor (played by Rick Moser). Funny thing is, Taylor is an openly gay player but in subsequent seasons he’s suddenly heterosexually straight as an arrow. Go figure.

It’s a familiar trope now, of course, to present this scenario, the handing over of control of a football team (previously only something that seemed to pass from one dominant male to another dominant male, and usually from father to son) to a ball-busting young female lead, but putting a tough-as-nails woman in charge of a mocked-up fictional pro football team was still somewhat unique to see on TV back then (eventually it was popularized and then even overdone, particularly by glossy Hollywood features like Oliver Stone’s 1999 film Any Given Sunday, in which the lovely young ball-busting Cameron Diaz inherits a pro team, the Miami Sharks, from her father).

When Barrow assumes ownership of the team, they’re not doing too well, and there are, of course, the unavoidable and inevitable conflicts with the Bulls’s coach, Ernie Denardo (played by veteran actor Reid Shelton), and also her nephew, Roger (Clayton Landey), who wants Diane out and was happy to use his mob connections to try to accomplish that fait accompli. During a first season episode, Barrow is even forced to coach the team herself after the head coach, Ernie Denardo, is placed in the hospital.

She also fights off advances made by her quarterback played by Geoffrey Scott. Much of the action for the rest of the season concerned Barrow’s ownership of the team and dealing with crooked financiers who have their own nefarious plans, and leading her players on the Bulls, as the DVD box says, “through a minefield of hilarious hi-jinks on and off the gridiron.”

1st & Ten” mostly played off of these conflicts and the hi-hinkery while showing some of the day-to-day issues that the oft-cleverly named football players themselves were dealing with, complete with running gags about full-grown linebackers having sex problems with their itty bitty, but tough, wives, all of it performed by an extended cast that featured a lot of former pro football legends like John Matuszak (as “John Manzak”) and Lawrence Taylor (“Tombstone Packer”).

The main cast featured a mix of mostly fairly well-known and no-name, forgotten actors of yore, including Robert Logan, Marshall Teague (“Mace Petty”), Robert Prescott, Donald Gibb (“Leslie ‘Dr. Death’ Crunchener”), John Kassir (a Bulgarian place-kicker named “Zagreb Shkensuky”), Paul Tuerpe (“Michael Westwood”),  Prince Hughes (“Bubba Kincaid”), Geoffrey Scott (“Bob Dorsey”), Sam Scarber “Carl Witherspoon”), and Cliff Frazier (“Jethro Snell”).

And, as with many serialized TV shows, characters appear suddenly, written into the script, and they seem to be important new characters but then just as suddenly they’re gone, never to be seen or heard from again. Or, they play a character in one season of the show, then return in a later season as a completely different character: Michael Toland is introduced as a troubled player with a cocaine problem in season one, and he returns as “Billy Cooper” in season 3, and eventually becomes a troubled player with an alcohol problem.

The cast also featured a few actors you’d probably recognize, like actor Michael Gallo (he was The Godfather‘s Frank Pentangeli), and a pre-“Law and Order” Christopher Meloni (seen here), but re-watching these clips, it’s clear to that it is Matuszak that we’re remembering today.

“The Tooz” was a legit football legend, and off-screen as well as on the field, he was something of a wildman. He’d been a standout college player at the University of Tampa before signing with the Houston Oilers. He even tried to play for two teams when he signed a deal to play for the Houston Texans of the World Football League in their inaugural season of 1974. A court-order barred him from playing for both teams, but the Oilers were sufficiently disgusted with Matuszak to trade him to the Kansas City Chiefs after just one season. In 1976, he moved on after just two seasons with the Chiefs to play with the Oakland Raiders, a match made in heaven, or hell, something like that, since the outlaw Tooz was now on the roster of probably the most renegade team in the NFL.

Matuszak became a big reason the Raiders had a 13-1 record in ’76, going on to a 32-14 triumph over the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl XI. He won another championship with the Raiders after the 1980 season, as Oakland became the first wild card team to win the Super Bowl, a 27-10 romp over the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XV. But it all eventually caught up with the Tooz, and after six years with the Raiders, he retired after the 1981 season to pursue a career in show business.

He began to show up all the time in movies (like the wonderful Caveman, as seen below, in 1981) and in guest-starring appearances on TV shows, usually playing wild-eyed madmen characters that weren’t too far off from his actual personality.

He was best known, however, for his role as Sloth, a deformed but gentle giant, in the 1985 movie The Goonies. He even posed nude in the December 1982 issue of Playgirl magazine, but unfortunately, Matuszak’s off-screen antics, which involved a lot of drugs and drinking, probably were at least partially to blame for his untimely death at the age of 38, passing away in his Burbank, California home on June 17, 1989, from heart failure.

Even though the show had debuted late in the year, and was timed to coincide with the regular football season, from summer training to winter championship bowls, the saga of the California Bulls officially got under way in 1985. By the time the second season of the show came along, HBO had given it a new name — ‘”1st & Ten: Going for Broke” — and there were new issues to deal with, namely players doing recreational drugs during training camp, and, later, the playoffs at the end of the regular season.

There were cast additions and changes along the way, too. After Barrow managed to deal with nephew Roger’s attempts to wrest the team away for her and he ended up being fired, the General Manager position was given to an assistant coach for the team, a likable fellow named T.D. Parker, a washed-up football player who had played with many of the Bulls when he was in his prime, who becomes the first black person in the league to reach that position.

T.D. is played by veteran football playing legend with initials for a first name: O.J. Simpson. Remember, this was a decade before he was put on trial for murdering his ex-wife Nicole Simpson and her friend, Ron Goldman, and casting someone of Simpson’s stature was seen as a good move on HBO’s part, even though his appearance in a handful of feature films (The Towering Inferno, Capricorn One) hadn’t moved the needle too much on his acting abilities. At the height of the O.J. Simpson trial, the show made its way to syndicated reruns.

Also, here’s an interesting note: Simpson’s friend with the white Ford Bronco, AC Cowlings, has a recurring role as an assistant coach. Marcus Allen portrayed a rookie who was taking over T.D.’s spot on the team, and Vince Ferragamo played “Mainstreet” Manneti, a veteran quarterback. Jason Beghe joined the cast to play Tom Yinessa, a walk-on rookie, the “Cinderella quarterback,” who at the urging of his greedy agent decides to hold out for a contract guaranteeing $1 million a year for five years. Sounds about right.

Only Donald Gibb, Cliff Frazier, Prince Hughes, and Reid Shelton appeared in all six seasons. John Kassir and O.J. Simpson (who joined the cast the second season) stayed till the show’s end.

Delta Burke made her exit in 1988, just four seasons and 32 episodes later, leaving mid-way through the third season after committing herself to CBS’s “Designing Women,” which she had begun starring on in 1986, and which was renewed. The storyline was that Barrow would lose control of the Bulls to Teddy Schrader, her former lover (played by Roy Thinnes), who makes likable T.D. fire lovable Ernie as coach, and Yinessa practice without a contract, and also, he has to deal with Matuszak’s Manzak and his steroid use. Legal issues force him to leave the country and turn control over to his daughter, played by Leah Ayres.

Meanwhile, that Bulgarian kicker named Shkenusky may have to leave the country as an illegal alien unless he finds an American woman to marry him. Ms. Barrow says she may have a willing friend. ”Is she hot mama like you?” he asks. Ah, sitcom comedy, it’s the same whether it’s HBO or CBS.

There were multiple show name changes along the way, in addition to these cast upheavals. Season 4 was briefly re-named “1st & Ten: The Bulls Mean Business,” and Shanna Reed joined the cast as the team’s new female president, representing the new owners, the Dodds Corporation. Her attempts to innovate include bringing a female soccer player in to kick, and signing an Olympic sprinter as wide receiver. Joe Namath made a cameo appearance. Actress Shannon Tweed would replace her in Season 5, and remain with the show to the end.

The show was renamed “1st & Ten: Do it Again” for the fifth season. The final season was called “1st & Ten: In Your Face,” and the show was dropped from HBO’s schedule after the 1990-91 TV season.

HBO, meanwhile, sometime in the mid-80’s, sold the syndicated rights to this show to NBC, which preceded to badly edit the show for network viewing, removing all nudity and dubbing in what everyone describes as a horrible laugh track, but then they thankfully cancelled the show after it had aired just three seasons, realizing, perhaps, that without the drugs and sex seen when the show aired on the cable network, this was just another bad sitcom about a non-existent pro football team full of comedic lunkheads.

The complete series was released on DVD on January 24, 2006, but apparently the released DVD features the three edited-for-TV seasons that aired on NBC for seasons 1-3, and the remaining seasons/episodes are the un-edited HBO seasons.

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.