YOU'D NEVER KNOW IT FROM THE crass, moneygrubbing sports agent he plays on the HBO sitcom Arli$$, but Robert Wuhl is a baseball fanatic. Every August, in fact, Wuhl (pronounced "wall"), 45, eagerly suits up in a Los Angeles Dodgers uniform and drives down to Dodger Stadium, where he and other stars, including Billy Crystal and ER's Noah Wyle, take to the field for a four-inning charity game. Two years ago his nephew Michael, then 4, was in the stands. "I got a base hit," says Wuhl. "Tommy Lasorda, who was managing the Dodgers then, hugged me—so Michael thought I was on the team."
Nowadays, Michael must really be confused. On Arli$$, for which Wuhl is co-executive producer, cowriter and occasional director, he gets to hobnob not only with baseball idols such as Barry Bonds, Jim Palmer and Cecil Fielder but with basketball's Shaquille O'Neal, football's Nate Newton and former tennis great John McEnroe, all of whom have played themselves in cameos. "Everyone's asking, 'Have you been on it?' " says NBC tennis commentator Bud Collins, himself a recent guest star. "It's a bit of a cachet to be seen there."
This, despite the fact that the series portrays jocks as coddled millionaires and cynically marketed commodities. In one episode, Wuhl's character, Arliss Michaels, tries to help a down-and-out baseball Hall of Famer by peddling his client's sperm on a home-shopping channel. "It's television, so they have to exaggerate a little," says Shaq. "[:"But"] on the whole, it's a fun show." Adds Wuhl: "Athletes have a thicker skin than actors. They want the public to be aware of what's going on" between games.
Arli$$, which Wuhl's partner, producer Michael Tollin, pitched to HBO in 1992, is hardly Wuhl's first fictional foray into jockdom. He played Kevin Costner's gabby assistant coach in 1988's Bull Durham and Tommy Lee Jones's sportswriter muse Al Stump in 1994's Cobb. To hear Wuhl tell it, he has always been fascinated by sports and showbiz. Growing up in Union, N.J., the second of three children of a produce distributor and his wife, he says Roger Maris and Billy Wilder were his idols and claims he taught himself to read by poring over the movie pages of the Newark Star-Ledger. Later he majored in drama at the University of Houston, but most courses bored him, he says, and he left after seven years—without a degree.
It was 1976, and Wuhl moved to Manhattan, where he worked as a standup comic and sold jokes for $50 apiece to Rodney Dangerfield. Two years later he met Barbara CapelliKoldys, then a manuscript reader for Simon & Schuster. "I always thought she was smart and sexy," he says. She thought he needed a haircut and a new wardrobe. "I could not see past the polyester," says Barbara, now 49, who took him to a barbershop and a men's store. "Then I got a really good look at him." In 1980, apparently pleased with what she'd seen, she joined Wuhl in L.A., where he'd landed his first film role (in Hollywood Knights) and a job writing for ABC's Police Squad. Barbara became a studio script reader, and the couple wed in 1983.
A prolific character actor, Wuhl went on to play Robin Williams's sidekick in 1987's Good Morning, Vietnam and Michael Keaton's foil, a nosy newspaper reporter, in 1989's Batman. "My whole career has been based on standing next to good people," he says modestly. But he has yearned to break out on his own. Mistress, a 1992 Hollywood satire starring Wuhl, sank at the box office. So did his directorial debut, Open Season, a spoof of TV ratings that opened and closed in two weeks last May. Wuhl shrugs. "I take everything personally," he says. "But I just try to move on and say, 'Good luck.' "
A personal crisis may have helped put some of those career setbacks in perspective. In 1984, Barbara was diagnosed with a spinal-disk disease that caused her constant pain. Often she couldn't walk or even stand up. Wuhl was a less than practical nurse. "His idea of taking care of me was making a cup of tea," says his wife. "He has learned to be more nurturing. He grocery-shops and picks up around the house." After three operations, the last in 1992, Barbara can now drive herself to thrice-weekly physical therapy and acupuncture sessions. She also gives her husband suggestions on every Arli$$ script. "That's the reason you're not gonna see any dumb women on my show," says Wuhl. "Not even in the beach volleyball episode."
But are we going to see more of Arli$$, which ends its first season on Oct. 16? Wuhl is hopeful but making no rash predictions. "There's a saying in sports," he explains: " 'Don't get off the merry-go-round till it stops.' "
MICHAEL A. LIPTON
ANNE-MARIE OTEY in Los Angeles
- Anne-Marie Otey.