Producer’s notes: Reflections on Joe Willie

Behind the Scenes, Keith Cossrow, New York Jets, Sneak Peek

During the closing credits of our new documentary about Joe Namath, “Namath: Beaver Falls to Broadway,” there’s a brief snippet of a man at an autograph show greeting Broadway Joe. He says: “I’ve been waiting 45 years, you are my idol. You don’t know what this means to me. Now I can die in peace.” That moment occurred during our first shoot with Namath last April. After spending many more days with him in the months that followed, it’s the one that stays with me.

That morning our crew accompanied Namath to a large autograph show in North Jersey. Among the luminaries in attendance: Deion Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Jerome Bettis, YA Tittle, LaDainian Tomlinson, Gordie Howe, Kenny Stabler. The players were lined up side-by-side, seated at separate tables, each with their own line of paying customers waiting with their memorabilia to be signed. Namath’s line was longer than all the rest combined. It snaked around a corner, fans waiting 45 minutes or more for a moment with Broadway Joe. One woman handed Joe a letter to him she’d been holding for 13 years. As her husband stood by, mouth slightly agape, she handed Joe the letter and invited him over for dinner.

Joe Namath signs autographs for young fans in Hempstead, New York, 1973 (AP)

Unlike the other legends, some of whom never looked up at the people who had waited in line to meet them, every person in Namath’s line got a minute or two with the man they came to see. He worked the crowd like a seasoned politician—hugs for the women, kisses for the babies, that famous twinkle in the eye for everyone.

To a large extent this is what Joe Namath’s life is now. He has been one of the most famous people in America for almost fifty years. Most of his life has been spent in the unforgiving glare of the public spotlight. To this day, every person he meets expects Joe to be on, to be Broadway Joe. Someone in that circumstance certainly has little right to complain at their good fortune—and Joe makes a point never to complain—but witnessing the phenomenon up close it is impossible not to wonder how a life experience like that would impact any of us.

Our crew spent upwards of 15 hours interviewing Joe on 3 separate occasions at his home near Jupiter, Florida. Those interviews are the backbone of the film, but they were not easy—for Joe or for us. My partner from HBO Sports, Joe Lavine, and I worked our way through his entire life: the incredible highs and extraordinarily painful lows that played out on a very public stage. We were determined to leave no stone unturned. We kept waiting for him to shut us down or tell us he wasn’t interested in speaking about a particular topic, but that never happened. He answered every question enthusiastically, with humor, and when necessary with ample reflection. Our goal, like anyone charged with producing a biography, was to poke through the public persona and capture something deeper. Whether or not we succeeded the viewer will decide. But after all this time I walk away from Namath, like the man at the autograph show and most people who meet him, with a smile. That is the enduring magic of Broadway Joe.

“Namath: Beaver Falls to Broadway” premieres tonight at 8 p.m. ET only on HBO. You can check out a sneak peek of the new film right now:

For more, check out the synopsis of the new film at HBO.com.

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