Our children turn to teenage soap-opera heroes for their role models and we, the parents, are left with an overbearing premier, a couple of talk-back personalities, some ageing variety performers and a handful of former-footballers for our celebrity fix. Is it any wonder Newman has achieved such acclaim? We made him because we needed him. And although we tut-tut, and dismiss his actions as sexist/racist/conservative/ageist/macho stunts, debate in Melbourne sure as hell would be boring without him.
Oh, yes, he’s just a former Geelong ruckman (albeit a 303-game one) who was born with the gift of the gab. But if you accept the premise that football in this town is a big business that, particularly during the season, generates its own news stories, then Newman – through TV’s highest-rating football show and radio’s most influential commentary team – is a powerful entity. He is an excellent communicator, seldom short of a message to pass on.
To make sense of Sam Newman’s rise and rise, you have to look at the man and the community in which he’s been nurtured, and why we are so keen to feed and rear tall poppies, then so savage in ripping them down.
On The Footy Show recently, Sam Newman did something unpredictable. Again. The program was televised from Crown casino and it opened with Newman singing the old Sammy Cahn number Come Fly With Me in front of a 600-strong “studio” audience, plus another half-a-million at home. In true crooner style, he cruised through the crowd, microphone in hand, dressed in a pale blue tux, blue waistcoat and scarlet red tie. Like Frankie or Tony Bennett, or Dean Martin in one of those “60s Italiano smooching films, he seduced the audience – off-key, garish cabaret outfit, and all.
Newman had wanted to sing the previous week, but production staff said no, they had another number planned. This week, he got his chance and arrived at a Footy Show meeting with the Come Fly With Me lyrics printed out.
If the team had said, “no, this isn’t going to work”, Newman would have backed down. The act might get people talking, just as the tutu and the nudity did, but he was prepared to accept the umpire’s decision. For Newman, the rule is: what’s best for the show; the reputations of the people with whom he works also factor in his decision.
Colleagues at Channel 9 and 3AW talk about his professionalism. He honors his commitments, they say, and is seldom late for any appointment. If you call and get his answering service, he’ll always call back. He is loyal and values loyalty in return. Add to this a quick mind, good looks and enormous personal style, and you have a pretty potent individual. But these fine attributes have a flip side. Newman says what he thinks and often attracts flak as a result of his candor. He is quick-thinking, but sometimes too quick. He is brilliant at the one-liner, but his words can sting.
A beautiful blond cherubic baby, who was born several years after his two sisters, Newman developed the kind of quiet confidence often observed in much-adored and treasured children. At Geelong Grammar, where his father, Noel “Nogger” Newman was an economics master, Sam was a good student, popular with his peers and a gifted sportsman.
The self-confidence puts a lot of people off-side. “Sam’s the sort of person you’d find maybe one or two of in your class at school,” said Steve Price, station manager at 3AW. “He was the smartest kid in the class, the best-looking kid in the class, and the best sportsman in the class. A lot of people quietly smirk when this kind of person has a fall.
“The first time I met him he had a great presence,” said his old coach, Bob Davis, who recruited Newman when he was a schoolboy. “Sam is a very well-educated man and he had a lot of advantages many young people didn’t have. But you would never have known it. He didn’t have any airs about him. And when we first brought him to the club, he had the ability to get on with anybody and that’s one of his gifts – to have the dustman love you as well as the managing director.”
Former television personality and football commentator Mike Williamson recalls an episode from the early “60s that, he claims, was Newman’s first “media” performance. On that day, he knew the young Geelong player had something special and “a rapport with the public”.
Williamson was hosting a live TV show called The Club Show from the Geelong Town Hall and introduced a young footballer called John Newman, who was going to play drums with the band. “I’d never clapped eyes on this blond kid and had no idea whether he could play or not. Anyway, the song was Song of India, which has a long drum solo in the middle. Sam knew the beginning of the drum solo and he knew the middle bit, but he didn’t know the end of the thing, so he just kept playing. The crowd loved it and the more they clapped and cheered, the more he kept playing … the only way we could get out of it was to go to a commercial break!”
Williamson started using Newman at the handball competitions he hosted at suburban shopping centres and then, one night, asked him to join Channel 7’s then popular footy panel program Football Inquest. “He took to it like a duck to water,” Williamson recalled.
During the “60s and “70s, Newman’s media performances became more frequent and, after retiring in 1980, he joined Seven’s World of Sport.
Williamson believes Newman’s experience with people such as Lou Richards, Jack Dyer and Bob Davis provided a good grounding .
“A lot of blokes they put on television now go bang, straight into a big position. They’re thrown in at the deep end and often they fail. But Sam learnt from these blokes and he was an extremely good learner.”
During his seven years on World of Sport, Newman honed his on-screen act; he had trouble finding a niche, however, in a show where Lou played the clown, Jack played the straight man and Bob Davis the buffoon.
“Lou and Jack were the stars and the others were adornments,” said Mike Sheahan, football journalist and long-time friend of Newman’s. “But I reckon there were little cameos of the man he became.”
Newman’s business life took a nosedive and, at one point, he lost several hundred thousand dollars when he tried to support a friend whose business eventually failed. He bumped up his appearances on the sportsman’s night after-dinner speaker circuit and, in the late 1980s, approached The Sun with an idea for an interview series.
For two years, Sam’s Q and A was one of the must-reads of the paper. It was Newman unplugged. The Sam we see today asking the tough questions on 3AW or The Footy Show learnt much from the Q-and-A format.
“When it started, it reignited a flame in footy journalism,” said Caroline Wilson, chief football writer for The Age.
“That column was the reinvention of Sam Newman,” said another Age writer, Geoff McClure. “Up until then, he’d been just another former footy star trying to make a buck in the media.”
In 1988, Newman started at Channel 9, first presenting a sports segment on Ernie Sigley and Denise Drysdale’s morning program and later, on John Jost’s short-lived Melbourne Extra, where he developed his Street Talk-style interview. Although the show failed, Newman’s ability to talk with people and move with ease through a crowd was evident.
Channel 9 could see Sam’s potential. “They (Seven) had producers who didn’t know how to use him properly,” said GTV’s managing director Ian Johnson. “(We decided to) let him be himself.
“He’s a very honest communicator, Sam. He’s incredibly clever and he’s got a sharp mind.
“A lot of these controversial comments can be a bit hit-and-miss. Ninety-five per cent of the time it’s quick and clever, the other 5 per cent it backfires.”
The recent Footy Show incident in which Newman painted his face black and tried to impersonate the Western Bulldogs’ new recruit, Nicky Winmar, was certainly one of those backfires. The episode has been dissected by columnists, editorialised upon by radio hosts and prompted the usually helpful Channel 9 publicity department to shut down on any media requests to interview their big star. For this article, Newman had agreed to talk; the day after our off-the-record lunch, however, he called to say the station had asked him not to do any publicity. He apologised, but he had to abide by the station’s decision.
Requests for interviews had not only come from publications such as The Age and Who Weekly; Nine’s sister program Sixty Minutes had also been knocked back.
So what did Newman say during our lunch? Did he say anything about racism? The facelift rumors? His love life? Life in general? A lot of territory was covered, much of it off the record. But a couple of observations – and some on-the-record comments of Newman’s – should be noted.
(1) It is no surprise that Sam Newman riles many men – and some women. It’s not about what he says or what he represents; it’s the way he looks. Three weeks ago, he ambled into the restaurant. His body language – the kind of relaxed, uncomplicated composure we see every Thursday night on The Footy Show – suggests a man very comfortable in his own skin. If you half-closed your eyes for a moment and imagined you were sitting across the table from a dark-haired, brown-eyed man in an Armani suit, you would think he was Italian; he has that same continental self-assuredness and pride in appearance and look. Some Aussies would find this unnerving.
(2) He says he has only “two or three” very close friends, yet several people told me Newman is the kind of bloke who would help you out if you were in a fix. He was called a “good friend”, “loyal”, “generous and protective”. One colleague said: “The amount of times he’s helped people financially would stagger you.”
(3) He is perplexed by the outburst that occurred after the black face incident. Would he try a sight gag like that again? “I wouldn’t do it again out of deference for the people I work for and with, because it puts them under the griller. The heat gets turned up on them because it’s guilt by association.”
(4) Newman says he is not racist. “The whole thing got to the moral crusaders, those pompous and indignant monitors of tastes and standards and ethics.
“No one but no one can explain to me – or has – what is so outrageously racist or vilifying – or in fact offensive – about what I did.”
For several days after the show, the black face incident dominated talkback radio in a week when the Kosovo story was breaking. He was back on TV and in the press again this week, attracting a long examination on the ABC’s Media Watch. Opinion has been divided into three groups: one group considered Newman a racist; another believed Newman was not racist, but had made an error of judgment; and a third group viewed it as a gag made on the spur of the moment, and therefore pretty harmless.
“He knew it would provoke a reaction, but he was not out to be racist and there is a distinction,” said Age columnist Patrick Smith. “He did not sit out there backstage saying: I’ll belittle Nicky Winmar and I’ll belittle black people but … I would say that as the makeup girl applied the makeup, this was calculated to get a reaction.”
Caroline Wilson said, “Sam is a master of public relations and he’s absolutely brilliant at getting publicity for The Footy Show.”
She believes Newman knew the painted face routine would make people sit up and that’s why he did it. “It doesn’t matter how long it was premeditated for – even if it was only in the previous ad break. He knew it was going to cause a stir and that some people might think it was in bad taste.
“He says he wasn’t trying to do that; I say he’s smarter than that.”
During the Winmar fall-out, Patrick Smith was one of the most passionate critics of Newman and The Footy Show. Yet he likes Sam. Perhaps Smith sums up a widely held view of Newman – and a possible explanation for the bloke’s success – when he says: “He’s his own man and I appreciate that.
“He’s not prepared to bow to anybody or any philosophy. He has certain views and he will stand by them, and I like that part of him.”
* Corrie Perkin is the sister of Steve Perkin, the supervising producer of the Footy Show.