Olympian, sportscaster gets his due in ‘Glickman’

On the surface, a movie about a New York radio sportscaster might seem a niche project of limited appeal. But Marty Glickman was no ordinary play-by-play announcer, and the documentary “Glickman” is much more than a sports biography. Lovingly made by first-time writer-director James L. Freedman, who worked for Glickman as a teenager, the film is a tribute to a genuine Jewish hero.

“If you grew up in the latter half of the 20th century and were any bit of a sports fan, Marty Glickman was part of the soundtrack of your life,” Freedman said in an interview. “He literally brought the games to life — he was television on radio.” But before Glickman took up a microphone, he was a star athlete himself, a runner so fast that he made the U.S. Olympic track team in 1936 — in Nazi-ruled Berlin.

There was talk of a boycott, but Glickman was against it. “He wanted to go and prove a Jew could be just as good as anyone else, if not better,” Freedman said. But while his black teammate, Jesse Owens, won multiple gold medals — to Hitler’s horror — Glickman and Jewish teammate Sam Stoller were pulled from the 4 x 100-meter relay under dubious circumstances. In the interview included in the film, Glickman declares it was an act of anti-Semitism, and blames Olympic official Avery Brundage and coach Dean Cromwell, known Nazi sympathizers.

Understandably devastated, Glickman never got the chance to compete again. Because of the war, the Olympics were canceled in 1940 and again in 1944. “The heart of my film is what happens when an 18-year-old’s dreams are crushed by racism and prejudice. Do they become bitter? Or do they triumph in life? Marty Glickman not only triumphed, he used sports as a means of transcending the divisions created by race, class and religion. And that’s remarkable,” Freedman said. “He never gave up, and he continued on with such style and grace, helping others along the way and making sure that what happened to him would never happen to anyone else.”

Freedman, a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis and Stanford film school, has been a Hollywood writer on films and TV, including “Coach” and “Cybill,” but said he’s proudest of his job as Glickman’s radio show producer. When Freedman’s older brother was called up in the Army Reserves, Glickman tapped the 17-year-old to take over. “Marty Glickman never treated me like some high school kid, and that gave me a professional confidence I have to this very day,” he said.

Determined to honor the memory of his mentor, who died at 81 of complications from heart surgery on Jan. 3, 2001, Freedman spent three years on the film, including sorting through 100 hours of footage, archival material and new testimonials. “It was a massive undertaking,” he said, noting that he had to learn how to interview, edit and promote a film. Fortuitously, “Marty’s name opened doors,” and celebrities and sports figures wanted to be a part of it.

Bob Costas, Bill Bradley, Frank Gifford, Larry King, Jerry Stiller, Jim Brown, and Glickman’s Olympic teammate Lou Zamperini all shared memories of Glickman. So did Nancy Glickman, one of the athlete’s four children, who lent Freedman scrapbooks and home movies of her father.

Freedman got an unexpected but welcome hand when Martin Scorsese came aboard. Scorsese’s agent, Ari Emanuel, requested to see the film, and recommended it to the Oscar-winning director. “After that, I got an e-mail from Martin saying he loved the film and wanted to release it through his company at HBO,” Freedman said. Not coincidentally, Glickman had worked for the pay-cable network in its early days as its first sportscaster, footage of which is included in the documentary.

But despite the wide exposure that the HBO job and other television work brought him, Glickman “never got the national recognition and national stage that a lot of other broadcasters that he mentored did get, and it always bothered him,” Freedman said, suggesting that Glickman was a victim of the more overt anti-Semitism of the time. “It took him half of his career before he had national success. There just weren’t many ethnic voices. There still aren’t today. Howard Cosell was probably the first known Jewish broadcaster nationally.”

Freedman, who grew up in a Conservative home, is “very proud of his Jewish roots” and remains involved with the Jewish community. His family, which includes 14- and 11-year-old sons, belongs to Wilshire Boulevard Temple, where he and his wife were married. But he stresses that he didn’t set out to make a Jewish film. “Marty happened to be Jewish. The story of an 18-year-old having his dreams crushed by racism and prejudice is universal,” he said.

Freedman said he hopes the documentary will afford Glickman the belated recognition and appreciation he’s due. “If it does, even a little, it would be a success. This is a man who had such an incredible life and whose story needed to be told, and I’m proud that I’m able to tell it. He was so brilliant at what he did. Marty Glickman represented the joy and the purity of sport.”