Jayne Kennedy of Broadcast Fame May Carry the Ball, but Husband Leon Calls the Signals
Kennedy will watch with a videotape recorder whirring at his side—neither cheering nor leering, but analyzing the performance of his wife, Jayne Kennedy, 27. (Is she overdoing the sloe eyes or the girlish giggle?) Jayne was chosen to replace Phyllis George on the weekly The NFL Today show last July, after "the greatest talent search since Scarlett O'Hara," as one network official described it.
"People ask how I like living off my wife," Leon says with an ironic laugh. He has just sold a chain of L.A. discos and written, co-produced and starred in two low-budget black-oriented movies, The Penitentiary and Death Force. "I am the guiding force in her career. How can I be jealous of what I created?"
Jayne, of course, was not exactly a tatterdemalion when Leon met her in 1970. Shortly before, she had been crowned Miss Ohio at age 18, the first black woman ever. Mother Virginia and machinist father Herbert Harrison were providing Jayne, a brother and four sisters with a loving, stable home in Wickliffe, a Cleveland suburb. "We weren't rich or poor, just average, but very close," says Jayne. "In drama classes now, when my instructor tells me to pull up unhappy experiences from my childhood, I can't think of anything."
Leon is also from the Cleveland area and rightfully boasts of his family's distinguished academic credits—three Ph.D.s and two master's. His father had nearly finished medical school when he died of a heart attack at 28. Leon was only two days old. His mother, June, remarried five years later. "I always wanted to be somebody and couldn't wait to grow up to start," says Leon. At 16, he landed a disc jockey job and in high school gave parties for the Temptations, Stevie Wonder and the Miracles.
With the radio show and eventually a TV program too, Leon became a popular local celeb. "He was called Leon the Lover," recalls Jayne. "He had a real sexy style. I'd be in my bedroom, crying my eyes out over some boy, and turn on Leon and listen to him play dreamy music and read poetry."
Leon's mother, "who was always trying to get me to date nice girls," suggested one day he call the new Miss Ohio. Their first date was on the dinner break from her job as a department store teenage fashion consultant. "I gave her my phone number," Leon says. "She told me she didn't call boys, and if I called, to do it at a decent hour. I telephoned her the next night at 10:30, and she hung up. I learned to call earlier."
They were married in June 1971 and turned their honeymoon into a move to the West Coast, with stops in big cities to peddle Leon's TV variety show, which ran for two years. Jayne, after a temporary stop as a law office receptionist in Pasadena, posed for the cover of Players (the black Playboy), did commercials and landed a spot on Laugh-In. Then for almost two years she became one of four meant-to-be-ogled "Ding-a-ling Sisters" on Dean Martin's TV show. "It was degrading and demoralizing," says Jayne now.
By 1972 Leon had raised enough money to open a disco that soon became a string. That freed both Kennedys for acting classes with prestigious coaches like Milton Katselas and Jeff Corey. "We did commercials for the exposure and experience," says Leon. "We were paying our dues."
His philosophy is clear: "We've gotten dressed up and gone to every benefit we could—to get our faces known. We've tried to make the right friends, so that when we made phone calls, people would answer them. All our socializing and working and hustling are paying off now."
Jayne's pro football break came after she had worked through bit parts on Kojak and Sanford and Son, guest star billings on Wonder Woman and Police Story and a feature role in a TV-movie, Cover Girls, which didn't spin off as planned. "When we heard there was an opening for Phyllis George's spot, I didn't even stop to ask myself if I could do it," says Jayne.
She found herself in stiff competition with actress JoAnn Pflug, Steve Garvey's wife, Cyndy, and veteran sportscasters. Then there was the matter of race. "I'd be lying if I didn't admit there was a lot of conversation about two blacks on the show," says Linda Sutter, associate director of talent at CBS Sports (analyst Irv Cross is also black).
That didn't worry Jayne. "I have been told I'm too dark, too light, too pretty, too tall, too everything," she says. "For every no, there's a yes. I am used to trying harder."
The network yes came after an on-camera audition in New York. "I had to test-interview Clyde Powers of the Giants," remembers Jayne. "I overheard Clyde telling someone he had worked with underprivileged children. So I built the interview around those two seemingly unrelated qualities—the tough guy and the gentleman."
Anchorman Brent Musburger was a strong supporter, and that confidence hasn't wavered. "Jayne brings a warmth to interviews," he says. "She wasn't hired because she was a seasoned broadcaster or because she had in-depth knowledge of football. The mistakes Jayne has made are my fault. I've thrown her into situations she was not prepared to handle."
One beaut came early in the fall, when Jayne read the scores in reverse order (as in "Lions 0, Bears 19"—foot-ball purists don't take such variations of ritual lightly). A Chicago newswoman also sniped in print: "Kennedy narrates football highlights at halftimes as if the scripts were in a foreign language."
"Criticism in the press hurts," Jayne concedes. "I don't want to be the second coming of 'Gorgeous George'—I really want to contribute more than just a pretty face."
With the end of the football season, Jayne, who has a one-year contract, will do some sports and a TV movie or two while waiting to hear if she survived her rookie season. She'll also spend time with Leon at their $200,000 home in the Pasadena foothills. It boasts Oriental antiques in the living room, three horses in the barn and four cars in the garage, including matching brown Cadillacs. Social life, even with close buddies like Dick Gregory and Muhammad AN, is almost nil. Their main diversion is the videotape machine.
Both Kennedys still regard themselves as actors: Their ultimate goal is matching Oscars. "We have lists of people who have said 'no' to us," Leon explains. "When we get our Academy Awards, instead of an acceptance speech, we are going to read those names—not to put anyone down, but to remind other people and ourselves to keep the faith."