'Arli$$': Robert Wuhl and Mike Tollin on Why It's Time for a Revival

Sixteen years after wrapping its seven-season run on HBO, co-creators Robert Wuhl and Mike Tollin talk with THR about the highs and lows of the comedy about a sports agent and if it could return for new episodes now that it's hit streaming.
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Robert Wuhl wasn't making a true confession over a plate of eggs benedict and a side of oatmeal at John O'Groats Restaurant. But, yes, since it was brought up, it can now be told: Donald Trump inspired the comedic framework of his HBO show, Arli$$.

"If you remember the opening credits, and I say, 'My name is Arliss Michaels, I represent athletes, these are my stories,' and this book spins into the picture," Wuhl says.

The book is a mocked-up cover of Wuhl, as Arliss Michaels, titled The Art of the Sport Super Agent

Sound familiar?

"This is around 1995," Wuhl continues between bites, looking at Mike Tollin, sitting next to him and working on a stack of pancakes at the Westside diner.

"I had read [Trump's book] The Art of the Deal [from 1987] and I thought — remember, this? — I said, 'This is total, 100 percent bullshit. You gotta read this, Mike. He's saying stuff that I don't believe a fuckin' word of it. He's telling you what happened, but I want to see what really happened.'" We can use this, as Arliss the sports agent telling you what happens, and then we prove he's full of shit and show what really happened."

And now there's Trump, in the White House, dealing with much bigger issues.
"Who would have figured that?" says Wuhl.

HBO had a big-deal, seven-season, 80-episode run of Arli$$ from 1996 to 2002, feeding off the hypocritical irony of the sports world of that era, augmented with hundreds of cameo appearances by the biggest athletes of the day.

It comes back into focus more than 15 years because, after figuring out a way to re-introduce it to a new era of bingewatching and maybe as a reminder this was going on long before HBO's Ballers and Entourage, the entire series is now available on HBO Go and HBO Now.

Wuhl, the 66-year-old also known for roles in Bull Durham, Batman and Cobb, says he continually gets stopped on the street by those who know him simply as Arliss, who ran his own sports agency with a core cast of characters played by Sandra Oh, Jim Turner and Michael Boatman.

Wuhl was the star, writer and executive producer; Tollin was the co-creator and producer. Tollin currently co-chairs Mandalay Sports Media and was an Academy Award-nominated documentarian later connected with producing feature films such as Varsity Blues, Radio, Wild Hogs, Coach Carter and Chuck.

With very little egging on over breakfast, the two relived the art of their Arli$$ deal, how it found its voice and its potential future.

The Pitch

Tollin: This was actually supposed to be a limited series, where Arliss would tell stories from jail about all the bad things he did. One of the first meetings we had with Chris Albrecht [when he took over the original programming division at HBO] was that he said, "Good news and bad news. The good news is now I'm in charge of this show. The bad news is I don't like any of the six scripts. Start over." The original pilot became the seventh script we wrote. We got the princely sum of $2,500 from HBO. This was all from the one-line pitch I made to David Picker, who was the big studio executive at the time: This would be The Larry Sanders Show of sports.

Wuhl: I remember it as the This Is Spinal Tap of sports.

Tollin: My original idea was to make the character a filmmaker, like Rob Reiner did with Spinal Tap in doing a satire of The Last Waltz, but make it a sports director, like Bud Greenspan, and make sports the satire. But then Robert says, "Let's make him an agent." Which was a timely thing since they were becoming the power people in sports. 

Wuhl: That wasn't long after the New York Yankees were trying to sign their top draft pick, Brien Taylor [in 1991, with agent Scott Boras representing him]. There was also the time of Norby Walters [who with Lloyd Bloom were sports agents convicted of fraud and racketeering]. I thought we could tell a satire of the sports world through the eyes of a self-serving agent.

The Inspiration 

Tollin: A lot of agents wanted to say we were portraying them; that they were the inspiration. It was really Dennis Gilbert. He was far and away the biggest contributor in the early days.

Wuhl: I thought Dennis was the biggest mensch out of all of them who contributed stories. Although I have to say the ones who were also great were Drew Rosenhaus, Jeff Morad, Adam Katz and Arn Tellum.

Tollin: There was only one guy on the show who wasn't so great to us and Robert doesn't want to say because now he's his best friend. It's obvious [Scott Boras]. There were only two athletes who committed to the show and didn't show up: [Dallas Cowboys quarterback] Troy Aikman. The other was someone who this agent promised, [Yankees outfielder] Bernie Williams, and we wrote a scene about him as a classical guitarist … Then we were told late he was cancelling.

The Casting 

Tollin: Chris Albrecht was as good an executive in the business we could have hoped for in support of the show. He was very hands on. The casting was fun.

Wuhl: I knew Jim Turner [as ex-athlete Kirby Carlisle, Arliss' assistant who had a gambling problem] from the early days of MTV. I knew how talented he was. Michael Boatman [as financial adviser Stanley Babson] came in and auditioned. He was on Spin City but I didn't really know him. Sandra Oh [as secretary Rita Wu] was the wildcard and we didn't know what we were going to get. It was between her and Lauren Graham, who went onto the Gilmore Girls. I was also very determined with the nature of clientele with Arliss to get a diverse cast. That was in the forefront of everything. Diversity wasn't by accident.

The Cameos

Tollin: When the show was pitched there was a clear sense that you better deliver [sports cameos] because this is an element of the show we consider part of the sizzle. On the pilot, Shaquille O'Neal was the guy. I started working on his agent, Leonard Armato, because my brother Larry, who was managing Paula Abdul, knew him. And it basically came down to, as if it often did: "Leonard, we'll put you and Shaq on the show together." And if you see the scene Leonard is in, he was so concerned about being cut out, we shot a walk-and-talk where Leonard is hugging Shaquille so close you couldn't possibly cut him out of the frame. When the series ended, we were approaching 400 cameos, which was roughly four to five per show. 

Wuhl: There were so many who did a great job: Picabo Street, Katarina Witt, Marion Jones, Alexi Lalas … People who got it were those like David Wells. Barry Bonds was OK. Kobe Bryant was good. Shaq was great. You could see his acting chops.

Tollin: I remember Gary Payton, whose every other word was the f-word. We encouraged it. Many of the cameos were a pick-up with a run-and-gun camera on the shoulder, get in, get a shot. But my favorite was an ad-lib by Mike Lieberthal, who was a Phillies catcher in the bullpen warming up a pitcher at Dodger Stadium. Arliss goes to talk to him about all the endorsement deals he could get him as one of the few Jewish players in baseball. Arliss even takes his cap off and he's wearing a yarmulke. Mike says, "I'm not really Jewish." And Arliss says: "Religion has nothing to do with it!" He starts telling him about all the great Jewish players over the years — "There was Hank Greenberg, Sandy Koufax ..." and Lieberthal says, "And Moses Malone."
Wuhl: The athlete cameos are what really do make this a time capsule. They wanted to be on it. I thought there could be an episode where Arliss was just tired of everything and needed to get out to a golf course and relax, and who would show up at the first tee to play with him? O.J. Simpson. That's something we didn't do.

The Topics

Wuhl: Everyone brings up the social issues we talked about on that show. If they say, "You were ahead of your time," my reaction is it was "of" our time. Maybe people weren't as aware of what was going on in the sports world because they didn't take that seriously — domestic abuse, steroids, Alzheimer's, gay athletes, transgender athletes, alcoholism, unwanted pregnancies. I loved that we could get darker and darker, which was a constant battle between us.

Tollin: I had to keep saying: "We're making a half hour comedy, Robert." But there was a good balance. We had so much freedom.

Wuhl: We had Ed Asner come on as a Dodgers broadcaster who was suffering from Alzheimer's. Some may have connected it to a Vin Scully, but it was inspired by Chuck Thompson, the Baltimore Orioles' broadcaster who was losing his eyesight. My father-in-law died of Alzheimer's. I knew how to script it: The announcer could be calling a game and just say something like, "Koufax looks good out there." That was a heartbreaker, but Asner was great. That's one of the top two or three shows for me that we did. If it was real I had no problems with doing it. We even had an episode where Rita was trying to talk a girlfriend of an NBA player into having an abortion. When we spoke to real agents, those were some of the stories they told us. It was real. 

Tollin: We had to do a fantasy draft show, because we both played fantasy baseball when it was big. Arliss gets Joey Pants (Joe Pantoliano) into the draft, and Arliss is so intent on winning this National League-only player league, he has one of his player traded out of the National League … a classic.

Wuhl: That one came from a story by Arn Tellum. What I learned from people like him was, early on: Numbers are meaningless. They have no emotional context. If Arliss made the biggest deal of all time, that's only a big deal until the next one. But if someone needs frequent flier miles, a gold record, winning your fantasy league, having courtside seats, being on the cover of Sports Illustrated — that's emotion. It's the old Billy Wilder line, "Don't give me logic, give me emotion."

Tollin: [Producer] Peter Guber calls it the "emotional transportation business."

The End

Tollin: Every last episode of every season could have very well been the last episode of the series. We were the original "on the bubble" show every year. This is before social media, and Robert and I would task Mason Gordon, who worked for us, with finding every letter or correspondence of any sort and put them in thick binders and deliver them to Chris Albrect's desk so we could say, "Look, there are thousands who are passionate about this show." 

Wuhl: We were pretty polarizing, and that was pretty cool. We saw quotes from people who loved it — Bryan Cranston, Fran Leibowitz, Skip Bayless, Bob Costas. Jason Reitman said our show was where he discovered you could do dark humor and be funny. 

The last episode — Arliss leaves the company to go soul searching — wasn't supposed to be the last episode; it was third from the end of the season. We put it at the end because we thought, well, if this is it, we can make this ambiguous enough that it's OK. It was a statement that it's OK to be a workaholic. It didn't really give it a sense of closure — we were hoping for it not to be closure — but it gave at least a decent placeholder.

The Revival? 

Tollin: We haven't any discussions on that.

Wuhl: No, but we can hope. There are so many topics still to go after. Look, an NFL player just retired in the middle of a game. Players are telling you which teams they will accept going to now. And you've got [scandals] at Ohio State and Penn State.  Sports is so much bigger now. 

Tollin: The idea of doing a sports agent back then was right because it was the dawn of players becoming brands and rock stars.

Wuhl: HBO would have to say yes to a comeback. And since Richard Plepler took over, he's been great. Should we leave well enough alone? No. Squeeze every dime out of it. Do you think Dick Wolf said, "You know, we've done Law & Order for 10 years now, it's enough." You squeeze every dime. Michael Jordan, did he have to play more at Washington? No, he wanted to squeeze every dime. Did we need to have a Godfather III? No. That's all bullshit. You might have done it because there was a chance it might be good. And if it's bad, people remember the good. The legacy shit is out the window. Squeeze. Every. Dime.

All seven seasons of Arli$$ are now streaming on HBO Now, HBO Go and HBO on Demand.