The Saga of Cyndi Lauper and NFL Films

I have a confession to make. I watched the Tony Awards Sunday night rather than Game 2 of the NBA Finals between Miami and San Antonio.

I watched them mainly because “Lucky Guy,’’ a play about the late, great New York Daily News columnist, Mike McAlary, with Tom Hanks in the lead role, was up for a bunch of awards. And OK, maybe I like show tunes. You got a problem with that?

Anyway, one of the people who walked off with a Tony was former pop star Cyndi Lauper, who won for best original score in a musical (“Kinky Boots’’), which prompted me to pick up my cell phone and text former NFL Films vice-president Phil Tuckett.

“Glad to see you didn’t ruin Cyndi’s career after all,’’ I said.

Tuckett was one of the many creative geniuses who have have passed through the doors of Films in the 51 years since it was founded by Ed Sabol and his late son Steve. Big Ed offered Phil a “job for life’’ after the former Weber State wideout got cut by the San Diego Chargers in 1968, and he spent the next 36 years there helping Ed and his son Steve turn pro football into art.

But in 1983, Tuckett convinced the Sabols to expand their horizons.

“Herbie Herbert, the manager for Journey, was a huge NFL fan,’’ Tuckett said. “I was shooting a game in San Francisco and one of his guys contacted me. He said, `I want you to make a film about Journey that’s just like one of your highlight films. We want John Facenda to be the narrator.’

“That was one of the first times I thought, why be so mutually exclusive? We can make a football movie about rock music. So we made a film titled “Frontiers and Beyond.’’

“Actually, it became a tribute to the road crew. Because we traveled with them. We showed the concerts too, but it was the grandest tribute ever made to that noble profession of being a dirty-legged roadie. They became the stars of the film.’’

The Journey film led to a lot more rock music business for NFL Films.

“We got hot pretty quickly and did a lot of them over the next few years,’’ Tuckett said.

Big Ed wasn’t crazy about the idea of his company getting involved with rock music people. He and Steve were perfectly content to focus on football. Ed, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame two years ago, liked to refer to rock musicians as “creeps and freaks.’’

Anyway, a year after the Journey film, Tuckett was approached about making a music video for Lauper. Lauper turned into the client from hell.

“She was a handful,’’ he said. “Probably still is. I haven’t seen her since, which she’s probably happy about. So am I. One time I even said to her, `It’s ironic for a woman that made her fame on a song called `Girls Just Want To Have Fun,’ you’re the most miserable person I ever met.’

“She said, `That’s true. I’ll agree with that. But this is my career at stake. The only reason I’m involved with you guys at all is because my boyfriend, who was managing me, said he wanted to work with NFL Films. He’s no longer doing that, partly because of this. I have to control my career. I’ve worked hard to get where I am and I’m not going to let a bunch of dumb jocks derail me.’ That was our working relationship in a nutshell.’’

Knowing how he felt about the “creeps and freaks,’’ Tuckett did his best to keep the music people away from Big Ed. But that wasn’t always possible.

“Cyndi came to the office one time,’’ he said. “She was wearing riding pants with those big puffy legs, a leather aviator helmet and a riding crop and leather gloves.

“She was walking around the halls yelling at people and snapping her riding crop. I knew I was in big trouble. I tried to keep her away from Big Ed’s office. But we had to walk past it.

“I glanced in and he just looked at me and furrowed his brow and wiggled his forefinger at me to say, `Come here.’ So I went in.

“He said, `Phil, you’re killing me.’ He said, `Don’t you realize this is the reason I only wanted to do football. I don’t want to do feature films, don’t want to do commercials, and I certainly don’t want to do music videos, because you have to work with a**holes like this. They come in and screw everything up, piss everybody off. You’re inviting the enemy right into our camp. How can you do this?’

“I told him, `You always taught me to FLAP – finish like a pro. I would suspect you would want me to FLAP on this as well, even though it’s not core football material.’ I said, `I’ll get her out of here and you’ll never see her again. I promise.’

“He said this is seditious. You’re destroying everything we built.’ Ed was given to grand eloquence and over-exaggeration. I eventually finished the video. It was the worst production experience of my life.

“It went on MTV. I went in to Big Ed. We made $80,000 off of it. It cost $50,000 to produce. So we made $30,000. He looked at the ledger and said, `OK, but I don’t ever want to see her again.’’’

As a result of their success with the music videos, the Sabols gave Tuckett the go-ahead to start a Films offshoot called NFL Entertainment.

NFLE produced a number of award-winning non-football documentaries over the years, including a dozen for the History Channel. They also did one for TNT called “The Faces of Evil,’’ which dealt with the nature of evil in the world.

“Boy, that got a few eyebrows raised at NFL Films,’’ Tuckett said. “We were interviewing Marilyn Manson and a serious killer in Trenton. That got a few people fired up.’’

When the NFL Network debuted in 2002, Howard Katz, who was named chief operating officer of Films by the league, informed Steve Sabol and Tuckett that their days of doing non-football projects were over. The league wanted Films focusing on cheaper quick-turnaround stuff that could provide programming for their new channel.

“Howard Katz came in and said we’re not going to do them (non-football projects) anymore,’’ Tuckett said. “End of story. There was no, let’s discuss it. Let’s discuss what the options are. That was the end of it.

“I had to decide what I was going to do. Whether I was a man of strong enough principles to walk away from a company that I loved dearly.’’

He was and he did. Tuckett left Films in 2007. He’s now an assistant professor at Dixie State College in St. George, Utah, and produces documentaries.

None of which have to do with Cyndi Lauper.

MORE: A look back in the Daily News archives at NFL Films.

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