HEADED IN THE WRONG DIRECTION : Chet Forte, Former Award-Winning Director of 'Monday Night Football,' Says Longtime Gambling Addiction Is Why He's Unemployed, in Debt and Facing a Possible Prison Term

TIMES STAFF WRITER

By all accounts, Chet Forte knew a lot about directing sports telecasts. Directing his life was another matter.

Forte, the longtime director of "Monday Night Football," was paid well--reportedly as much as $500,000 a year. He lived in the fashionable area of Saddle River, N.J., in a six-bedroom, seven-bathroom home appraised at $1.5 million.

But he has lost everything--his money, his home and his dignity. He has no income, no assets and debts of about $1 million.

Forte's home was auctioned last month for $908,000 to help satisfy creditors. A few days later, his Mercedes-Benz was repossessed.

Fulvio Chester Forte Jr., 54, says he was a compulsive gambler.

"Everybody at ABC knew he was a compulsive gambler," said Howard Cosell, Forte's friend and former co-worker. "But there was nothing anybody could do to get him to stop."

Now, Forte has major legal problems and is facing a possible prison term.

Indicted April 27, Forte is charged with fraudulently misrepresenting his finances on loan applications to four banks and mortgage companies in 1985 and '86. The 19-page indictment alleges that Forte got $1.47 million in loans through applications that overstated his assets and understated his liabilities.

He also is charged with failing to file a personal income tax return for 1987.

Forte, free on a $500,000 bond co-signed by a relative, appeared in a federal court in Camden, N.J., on May 11 for arraignment. He pleaded not guilty.

The day before, Forte had appeared in a municipal court in Saddle River, where he faces charges stemming from a complaint filed by a contractor seeking payment for air-conditioning work in 1987. The contractor contends that Forte's check for $5,300 bounced.

Also pending is a civil suit filed last year by cousins Ann and Lou Perrin in Hackensack, N.J. They claim that Forte defaulted on a $280,000 personal loan. Forte's accountant, Al Simon, also is named as a defendant in this case.

Forte's mother, Ida, who was co-owner of the Saddle River home, was forced to file for bankruptcy last July.

Forte, who hadn't spoken to the media since he was indicted, recently talked with a small group of reporters in Camden. The day before, Forte had asked his attorney, public defender Lawrence Lustberg, for permission to speak. Lustberg stood nearby as Forte talked.

"Gambling is why I'm in this predicament," Forte said.

He said he began betting on sports in the early 1960s and didn't give it up until a year and a half ago.

"I finally just stopped," he said. "I had no more money to bet."

Forte also played blackjack in casinos at Las Vegas and Atlantic City. "I once lost nearly $200,000 in one night in Atlantic City," he said. According to the FBI, it was $204,000.

"That was six years ago," he said. "And I lost it with a business associate, so it was really only about half that."

He declined to name the business associate.

"My main problem wasn't the casinos. It was sports betting," Forte said.

"Most gamblers might make two or three bets a day. But when you're a wacko like I was, you make 10 bets a day."

He said each bet was $500 to $1,000, meaning he was betting $5,000 to $10,000 a day. But friends have said it was more like $30,000-$40,000 a day.

To make matters worse, Forte said, he usually lost. "I was a terrible gambler," he said. "The guys in the crews I worked with used to hang around me to see which way I was going to bet, then they would bet the opposite way. They were laughing behind my back, and I didn't even know it.

"On games I was working, I always bet the underdog. I was rooting for a close game. That was more important than winning a bet. The telecast always came first.

"You probably wonder why I didn't stop after five years, or 10 years, or 15 years.

"I don't know why. I used to tell my wife, 'I need this, I need the action.' She'd say, 'Why?' I couldn't give her an answer.

"Sure, there were times I'd stop for a week or two. But I'd always go back.

"I had a gambler's mentality. It didn't matter if I won or not. I needed the action.

"Gamblers don't wake up until it's too late, and that's what happened to me."

STAR ATHLETE

Chet Forte, it seemed, had life made.

The son of a pediatrician, he was a basketball star at Hackensack High School. He was handsome and bright.

"I'm really shocked because I thought he had it all," former high school teammate Al DiDonato said.

Although only 5-feet-8, Forte went on to become one of the leading scorers in the nation in 1956-57 as a senior at Columbia University.

He used to brag that he had a higher scoring average than Wilt Chamberlain of Kansas that season, but actually Chamberlain averaged 29.6 points, Forte 28.9. Elgin Baylor of Seattle averaged 29.7 that season.

Still, Forte was a consensus All-American and the United Press International player of the year.

He was successful in his professional life as well, working at ABC for 25 years and winning nine Emmy Awards.

Besides "Monday Night Football," he directed the network's top events--the Olympics, the Indianapolis 500, the World Series--and later was also a producer.

No one ever questioned his skills. His telecasts looked slick and got good ratings.

Former colleagues say there was concern and some high-level discussion about Forte's gambling.

But reportedly, Forte usually said he had stopped, or downplayed how much he was gambling.

"I was paid a lot of money by ABC, so I had money to gamble," Forte said at the Camden courthouse.

That wasn't all he did. Forte, a bachelor until 41, also fancied himself as quite a ladies' man.

In the 1988 book, "Monday Night Mayhem," authors Marc Gunther and Bill Carter wrote that Forte would, before a telecast, "fix on a stunning female with spectacular dimensions, then introduce himself and describe his glamorous and exciting job."

He would often invite his new-found friend or friends to sit in the production truck to watch him work.

Once, at a 1973 game in Dallas, there were two young women in the truck when Roone Arledge, president of ABC Sports, made an unexpected visit, and then left abruptly.

" . . ., that was Roone!" Forte yelled at producer Don Ohlmeyer. "Get the . . . girls out of here."

Forte, fearing he and Ohlmeyer were in trouble, went into Arledge's office when he got back to New York.

"Roone, about the other night in Dallas," Forte said.

Arledge didn't look up.

"Roone, you should have stayed for the game. Why did you leave?" Forte asked sheepishly.

"There was no place for me to sit," Arledge replied.

But, for the most part, Forte faced little discipline from his employer. Given a seemingly unlimited expense account, he traveled in limousines and helicopters, stayed in $500- to $1,000-a-night hotel suites and ate in the finest restaurants.

Former co-workers said Forte would hire a limo before he'd walk a block.

"I never saw them, but I understand some of his expense accounts were legendary," said Chuck Howard, a former "Monday Night Football" producer.

But Howard, who now works for Trans World International in New York, declined to speak in depth about Forte.

"I've talked to Chet and offered my support," he said. "I don't see anything positive in talking about his situation."

Ohlmeyer, calling Forte one of the most important people in his life, said: "It's a tragic situation Chet has gotten himself into. He was the most talented guy ever in the business. I feel sorry for him."

Cosell, who was the best man at Forte's wedding in Las Vegas 13 years ago, said he hasn't contacted him.

"Why should I call him?" Cosell said. "I understand he's in trouble. So what?"

Asked if he ever tried to help Forte, Cosell said: "I loaned him some money once, and he paid me back, every cent of it."

Added Cosell: "It is sad what's happened to Chet. If there was any way I could help him, I would do it."

LEGENDARY TIRADES

Current executives of ABC Sports declined to talk about Forte.

A call to Arledge, now the head of ABC News, was returned by a spokesman who said Arledge was busy in meetings all week.

A second call to Arledge was not returned.

Frank Gifford is quoted in Terry O'Neil's book, "The Game Behind the Game," as saying of Forte: "He's a very talented director, but I wouldn't trust him as far as I could throw him."

Others who had worked with Forte at ABC would only speak anonymously.

They painted a picture of a hot-tempered man who was good at his job but not very popular.

"He was a bully," said one. "He didn't treat underlings with any respect at all."

His tirades are as legendary as his expense accounts. Sometimes, sources said, gambling prompted the displays of temper.

One source described a tantrum during an NFL exhibition game that ABC was televising. This time, Forte had bet on the favorite.

The underdog scored on a fourth-down play at the goal line to beat the 10-point spread. A replay showed that the runner had actually stepped out of bounds just before crossing the goal line.

"Chet yanked off his headset and threw it into the monitors and started screaming," the source said. "He just went nuts, pounding the board in front of him so hard he caused the picture going out over the air to jiggle.

"He ordered (the producer) to show a replay from every possible angle. We played that thing to death.

"And this was only a preseason game."

Several members of the crew looked into the possibility of taking a commercial flight back to New York to avoid traveling on ABC's private charter with Forte. But no other flights were available.

Asked about such tirades, Forte said: "It's just not true. You can write whatever you like, I'm just telling you those stories aren't true. I never had any problems with anyone who worked with me for any length of time, anyone who really knew me."

Forte also said a bet never influenced how he directed a telecast. "I was immersed 100% in the telecast," he said. "My mentality was, I had a job to do. I was never thinking about my bet."

JOB HUNTING

Forte lost his job with ABC in January of 1987, after the football season. One insider said he was fired by Dennis Swanson, ABC Sports president, who was fed up with Forte's lifestyle.

Said Forte: "I was not fired. I'm a little embarrassed to admit this, but when Dennis Swanson offered to buy out the remainder of my contract, I took the offer because I needed the cash to pay off gambling debts."

He declined to say how much money he got.

After leaving ABC, Forte had a couple of failed business ventures. One was a production company, LaRose-Forte Entertainment Production, with Lou LaRose. The company didn't last long.

"Lou and I just saw things differently," Forte said.

Forte, after taking six months off following a heart attack, directed Arena Football telecasts for ESPN in the spring of 1988. Later that year, he directed a couple of football telecasts for NBC during the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

Earlier, while still at ABC, Forte had a computer casting service called Sharkives, which failed in 1986. If one were interested in getting into, say, commercials, the service supposedly provided it.

"The less said about Sharkives the better," Chuck Howard said.

And attorney Lustberg said, "No questions about Sharkives."

Now, amid it all, Forte yearns to go back to work.

"That's the most important thing right now," he said. "I want to be able to support my family."

Forte, his wife Patricia, his 11-year-old daughter and his mother live in a rented home in Midlothian, Va., near Richmond. His wife's family has been helping with living expenses, and his wife has applied for a job in a chiropractor's office.

Forte's trial is probably four or five months away. Although a trial date of July 2 has been set, a continuance is likely.

"I'm not going to just sit around for the next four or five months," Forte said. "I've got to get a job, even if it's not in television."

Forte said he contacted Beverly Hills attorney Ed Hookstratten about employment. "That was two months ago, and I haven't heard from Hookstratten," Forte said. "I imagine he ran into some stumbling blocks. When FBI agents are going around making inquiries, it sort of scares people off."

In the fall of 1987, Forte contacted New York agent Art Kaminsky.

Kaminsky said: "We made a small deal for him with Raycom (an independent production company) to direct a couple of college football telecasts for cable and a bowl game. It was something like a $20,000 or $25,000 deal.

"He told us money wasn't important, but without our knowledge he went back to Raycom and made his own deal, asking for more money.

"Then he refused to pay me. We finally settled. It wasn't much, probably under $1,000.

"But this one dealing with Chet Forte led me to believe two things: One, what people said about his morality was true; and, two, he really did need money."

HEALTH PROBLEMS, TOO

The Forte case, a federal case because of the tax charges, was filed in Newark because of its proximity to Forte's former home in Saddle River. It is being tried in Camden, a 2 1/2-hour drive away, because that's where U.S. District Judge Joseph H. Rodriguez tries cases. Rodriguez, one of 16 federal judges in the state, was chosen at random.

Lustberg, 34, a public defender in Newark for five years, was given the Forte case about two months ago because Forte had no money to continue to pay for private counsel.

Said Chuck Howard: "Chet told me he has a good attorney."

Lustberg said he likes his job, adding: "A paid attorney has to do whatever makes a client happy. We can do whatever is in the best interest of the client. We don't have to put a show on for our client. We can quietly go about our business."

Three years ago, Lustberg defended a man accused of shooting an FBI agent. "We were able to get him convicted of a lesser charge," he said.

But Forte is drawing more national attention than any of his previous clients. Lustberg said it would cost $100,000 to defend this case in the private sector. "That's more than I make in a year, and I've got 85 other cases going," he said.

Lustberg, a sports fan who had heard of Forte before he got the case, observed: "He's been humbled by all this."

Humble isn't often a word used to describe Forte.

"When he was at ABC, he was in control," Lustberg said. "Now, he's lost. He's scared, really scared. He has no idea what is going to happen next. He calls almost every day with questions, lots of questions. He's very dependent on me."

Lustberg said he has grown fond of Forte and feels sorry for him.

"It's really a tragic story, in the magnitude of Pete Rose," Lustberg said. "Chet actually had three heart attacks in 1987. He's had two operations for skin cancer on his legs, and he has a lung condition that may be cancerous.

"If he goes to jail, I just don't know how he'll hold up."

Lustberg said he will first have to see the evidence against Forte before deciding whether to go to trial or attempt to plea-bargain.

It's been written that Forte could be sentenced to more than 70 years in prison.

"There's no way that's going to happen," Lustberg said. "People arrive at that figure by adding up the maximum sentence for each of the nine counts against Chet."

Ken Hense of Point Pleasant, N.J., an attorney who specializes in gambling-related crimes, said a plea bargain is likely in the Forte case.

Five years ago, Hense defended an accountant accused of embezzling $980,000 to pay gambling debts. In that case, Hense's client was sentenced to six years in prison but got out in three.

Hense said: "If there is a plea in the Forte case, it can be assumed the government will dismiss certain counts in the indictment and the remaining counts would be served concurrently."

Lem Banker of Las Vegas, a professional sports handicapper who, with Fred Klein of the Wall Street Journal, wrote "Lem Banker's Book of Sports Betting," said such stories as Forte's aren't unusual.

"I make my living off gambling, but I don't encourage it," Banker said. "I've seen so many tragic stories. It's the worst kind of addiction, worse than drugs or alcohol."

Banker has a philosophy about betting: "Never bet what you want to win, only bet what you can afford to lose."

Said Forte's friend, Ohlmeyer: "There's a lesson here I hope people can learn from, so that what's happened to Chet isn't totally wasted."

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