Hearing that poor Willie “Buddy Lembeck” Aames is having a garage sale to stay afloat, I went looking on YouTube to see if they had a clip from the episode of “Battle of the Network Stars” where Aames (then on Eight is Enough) inexplicably slowed down in the middle of the relay race, leading Howard Cosell to comment on how he seemed to be “relaxing” in the middle of the race. Not only did I find that clip, but I found that someone had posted a new batch of clips from Battle of the Network Stars, including Aames’s relay race slowdown. There are also other clips that were posted a year ago by other people.
“Battle of the Network Stars” was like “Dancing With the Stars,” only cheaper, more fun, and with more people you’d actually heard of. It was a bi-annual series of two-hour ABC specials in the late ’70s (it continued into the next decade, but it was very much a ’70s thing) where actors from shows on all three networks would be organized into teams, representing each network, and they would compete in sporting events to see which network’s team would come out on top. Howard Cosell, ABC’s star sportscaster, hosted these shows, and the insane brilliance of the concept was that Cosell called the swimming and running and jumping of second-tier television stars in exactly the same style he used for professional sports: if he had acknowledged that this was silly, it wouldn’t have worked.
The whole thing was covered by ABC as if it were a real sporting event, and in the best episodes, there were arguments over rules and calls and everything, as if the stars were such egomaniacs that they really wanted to win. One of the most famous examples was the early episode where Robert Conrad could not accept losing to Gabe “Kotter” Kaplan, and got genuinely angry about the whole thing (“Like hell! Like hell!), finally winding up in a memorable runoff against Gabe “Kotter” Kaplan. This is probably the most famous BOTNS segment, and ESPN’s Bill Simmons wrote a tribute to it a while ago.
Since this was the height of the “jiggle” era on TV, and especially on ABC — the network where brassieres were unknown — the show was partly an excuse to display Lynda Carter or Farrah or whoever else was available for a particular special. Saturday Night Live, you may recall, parodied this as “Battle of the Network T&As.” I refer you to the Victoria Principal/Cheryl Tiegs obstacle course competition:
But in many ways, it was more fun to see actors (mostly male) with bodies that weren’t really made for speedos and track outfits. An example is CBS team captain Ed Asner (November 1979). He’s not in a Speedo, though.
And the Willie Aames relay race (Nov. 1979). He doesn’t flame out as badly as I’d remembered. Another cherished memory in the dustbin.