Mike Tollin is a huge figure in the sports and media world now, directing everything from Radio to Morningside 5 and producing everything from Kenan and Kel through Smallville, One Tree Hill, Coach Carter, many of the early 30 for 30 installments and the Five Rings Films series. He’s also directed (along with his Mandalay Sports Media colleague Jon Weinbach) the upcoming Walk-Off Stories: Improbably Gibson, premiering Sunday on FS1 after their MLB playoff coverage. But one of the key things that helped Tollin get his foot in the door in Hollywood was Arli$$, the series he created with Robert Wuhl on a sports agent (played by Wuhl) that ran from 1996-2002. Arli$$ is now available for streaming on HBO Now, HBO Go, and HBO On Demand, and Tollin spoke to Awful Announcing earlier this month about what the show meant for his career and how long it took to get it on the air.
“It was a milestone for me, as it coincided with my move. I started my career in Philadelphia, longer ago than I can even imagine, doing a show called Greatest Sports Legends, which I don’t know that there are too many people alive who can claim to have even seen it. I started in an attic above an Italian restaurant on City Line Avenue in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, literally across the street from Philadelphia; the other side of the street was the city, we were in the suburbs. And we made these syndicated shows called Greatest Sports Legends. My rookie season, Tom Seaver was the host, and then we inherited George Plimpton, and what a great apprenticeship to basically be doing the writing, and then also the editing and producing, and finally directing.”
“I had a two-year stint there, then went to New York. I spent 10 years in New York, starting with Major League Baseball and then was one of the co-founders of Halcyon Days Productions, which was essentially the NFL Films of the USFL. (Tollin later used that experience when making the 30 for 30 “Small Potatoes: Who Killed The USFL?”) I got married and I moved to Los Angeles in 1990, and the only thing I really had going for me was this idea of a TV show.”
“The easiest and best way I could describe it was The Larry Sanders Show of the sports world. That was my one-line pitch. And I didn’t really know anybody in the conventional film world. …I was kind of in this ghetto of sports programming, children’s programming, documentaries. I’d been one of the creators of The Baseball Bunch, a lot of highlight films, we’d done the whole USFL thing.”
“But I had this idea, and my only entry was a man named David Picker, a very storied Hollywood executive, who I knew had produced a short film for HBO with a friend of mine named Dean Parisot that won an Oscar for Best Short. Dean set me up with David, and David was a busy man, a cut-to-the-chase kind of guy, like, ‘All right, what have you got, kid?’ And I said ‘I want to do The Larry Sanders Show set in the world of sports,’ and he said ‘Got it, great,’ and he yelled to his assistant, ‘Hey, get me Bridget Potter on the phone.'”
“David called Bridget, who was an executive at HBO at the time, and I was literally in the process of moving my stuff to Los Angeles and that’s the only meeting I had. But Bridget set me up with somebody who was no longer working with HBO by the time I got there, so with the typical glacial speed that development happens with in our business, it took me about six months just to get the meeting. I woke up every day watching the pot boil, because what else did I have to do? But now I think about that, I’m like ‘Yeah, that’s par for the course.'”
Even after that meeting, there was still a long process ahead for Tollin and company.
“Eventually, it was received favorably, and because they loved it so much, I was given the princely sum of $2,500 to develop this idea. David took a meeting with me and there were a number of executives, Carolyn Strauss, Sarah Condon, Suzie Fitzgerald. Chris Albrecht was sort of the creative boss of the network. And there was a suggestion made that I reach out to and consider collaborating with Robert Wuhl, who had his own stand-up comedy special on HBO. …David, Robert and I had dinner at The Grill in Brentwood, and as I remember it, shook hands, agreed this would be a great collaboration, and off we went.”
“When I say ‘Off we went,’ I mean off we went into development. Robert wrote a script, it was received well enough to develop additional scripts but not well enough to trigger production. Eventually, once again with glacial speed, we moved from one script into six scripts, we brought in some other writers, and we had six scripts kind of waiting for what we thought could be the first season. And again, I haven’t researched the facts and figures and hopefully my chronology holds up under scrutiny, but as I recall it, there was a change in upper management at HBO, and (then-CEO) Michael Fuchs moved on and Chris Albrecht ascended to big boss, not just the creative boss, running the whole network. (Albrecht became president of original programming for HBO in 1995, and worked closely with new CEO Jeff Bewkes to further expand their original programming lineup.)”
“So now we’re in the mid-nineties, and don’t ask me what else happened in my life in those four or five years. I do have a 26-year-old daughter, records suggest that I had a daughter born, there was an earthquake, the Phillies won a pennant but lost in Game 6 when Joe Carter hit a home run. Those are the highlights as I can recall now. In any case, in 1995 I think, Chris Albrecht called Robert and me into his office, and said ‘I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is I’m in charge now, and I like this show and want to make it. The bad news is these scripts suck, we’ve got to start over.'”
“On balance, to me, that’s more good news than bad. But when you look at the pilot in 1996, an episode called ‘A Man Of Our Times,’ that is actually script number seven. The person I neglected to mention that David brought into the fray was Andy Wolk. Andy was coming off a successful feature film that David produced, and he started eating up that $2,500 with us, and when I say eating up, I mean literally. We basically went to a series of lunches at Orso’s, which no longer exists in LA, and we basically wined and dined our way through $2,500, long enough to create the name Arliss, long enough to decide who the main character was, long enough to come up with story ideas, ideas for additional characters, ideas for additional writers. And Andy hung in with us, and obviously was the director when it came to the pilot.”
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“A critical component was authenticity. We were really committed to making this about the world. Unbeknownst to us, Cameron Crowe was developing Jerry Maguire, and his gestation period was about as long and almost followed the same timeline. (Arli$$ premiered in August 1996, Jerry Maguire came out in December 1996.) And, you know, that was a romantic comedy set in the sports world, it was spectacular, but I don’t think they applied the same rigor to the mechanics of that world. What we did was we reached out to every sports agent that we could find and ask them if we could follow them to the office, ask them questions, get to meet their employees and their clients, and have them tell us stories. It’s fair to say that every main and/or secondary story in each of the 80 episodes sprang initially from a story told to us by an agent, an owner, a coach…”
“The key figure with that was Dennis Gilbert. He’d formed a firm called the Beverly Hills Sports Council, and he loved the idea, he befriended us, he embraced us, he really took us in and made himself accessible. Dennis was a minor-league ballplayer who started his agency career through his contacts in the minor leagues; he quickly realized that he wasn’t going to make the show as a player, but could make it tangentially by representing guys who’d get there. …Because Dennis was an insurance agent, he wore suits and ties to the office, and that’s why Arliss wore suits and ties. If you think about sports agents, at that time, by and large, they didn’t.”
The idea of a show heavily involving agents has become pretty common now, with the likes of Entourage and Ballers. Tollin said Arli$$ may have laid some groundwork there, but the bigger element was that they picked the right time to spotlight agents. They did that as agents were growing in power in sports, and that process has continued since then.
“I heard secondhand that some had said Arli$$ was a source of inspiration for Entourage. I liked Entourage, I watched Entourage. I don’t watch Ballers, it didn’t really hit me right in the first season and I haven’t watched more, so I don’t really feel qualified to comment on it. …But I think when we started, the choice of making the lead character a sports agent was at a time when they really were becoming a big influence and a big power. …So the timing was good. And what’s now exploded in the last two decades is how sports has made its way into pop culture. …Athletes are rock stars, brands, recognizable way beyond the playing field. So I think it’s just a question of timing.
While Arli$$ eventually ran for seven years, Tollin said it was never assured that they’d be able to stay on the air.
“It was a lot of fun. You never know where it’s going to go. I don’t know if we could have imagined that we’d have seven years ahead of us. And it was never easy; I think we were a bubble show for most of those years, we’d get to the end of a 10- or 12-episode season not knowing if there would be another. But somehow, we hung in there.”
But he remembers it fondly, and credits it for much of what he’s done since.
“It was a milestone for me, not just because it was one of the first big things I did in Los Angeles, but because it was the first big scripted show that I’d done. In the same way that my initial apprenticeship in production was on Greatest Sports Legends, going from researcher to writer to producer to director, this helped me really learn the ropes in Hollywood, the language, the culture, the collaboration. …That really laid the groundwork for everything I’ve done since then.”
[Photo of Tollin from Mandalay Sports Media]