Joe Aceti, a TV sports director who not only changed the craft but mentored many in the industry today, died Oct. 5 after suffering a stroke Sunday night. He was 76. Aceti had worked for all four broadcast networks and played an integral role at both ABC Sports and Fox Sports during their respective formative years.
“He was an amazing talent in every aspect,” says Dennis Lewin, who worked with Aceti on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. “When he was a PA, he was terrific; when he was a director, he was terrific. And he had a very unique personality.”
Lewin was the coordinating producer and Aceti the coordinating director. “He was as funny a human being as you would want to meet,” says Lewin, “but his outward demeanor belied his professionalism, as he was the consummate professional.”
Aceti’s list of career highlights covers nearly every sport, and, given the time of year, it is worth mentioning two: Bucky Dent’s home run in the 1978 one-game playoff between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox and the 1980 National League Championship Series between the Philadelphia Phillies and Houston Astros.
“[The latter] was the greatest baseball playoffs ever played. The first game ended in the ninth inning, and the next four games when into extra innings,” recalls Lewin. “And Joe did an unbelievable job and did things like putting the camera in the gondola in the Astrodome looking straight down on the field. Now everyone does that, but, at the time, it was unique.”
Other career highlights include the 1968, 1972, 1976, 1980, and 1992 Olympic games; the 1990, 1991, and 1992 World Series and numerous MLB playoff series; the World Figure Skating Championship from 1983 to 1990; the US Open tennis tournament 1984-87; NBA and NCAA basketball; NFL and collegiate football; major-league and collegiate baseball; and 10 years of directing Wide World of Sports, with some 300 shows as the coordinating director.
Aceti was also the guiding hand on broadcasts of some of the all-time greatest boxing matches, and he directed 80 of them, including Ali vs. Frazier and the “The Thrilla in Manila,” Hearns vs. Duran, Ali vs. Spinks II, and Cooney vs. Holmes.
“He was a hell of a guy and a great talent,” says Don Ohlmeyer, who joined Aceti and Lewin at ABC Sports in 1967. “At ABC Sports, he was one of the real backbones of the department. He taught me how to edit the ABC Sports way, and, when he went to CBS, he left a big hole. He was an immense talent who constantly pushed the envelope of coverage forward, and, on top of everything else, he was a terrific guy with a boundless sense of humor mixed with an ample supply of compassion.”
His Start in TV
Before all those accomplishments came a humble beginning. Born in West Point, NY, on May 2, 1935, Aceti grew up in Highland Falls, NY. He was an All-America baseball player at Colgate University and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in fine art. In 1964, he began his career in television at ABC Film in New York City and, a year later, got his break when he became a production assistant for MLB Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson.
“I got the job because I could spell Carl Yastrzemski ’s name; most people put the Z in the wrong place,” he recalled. “I was in awe of Jackie Robinson. I could never call him Jackie. I always called him Mr. Robinson or sir.
“After the game, we went back to the Hilton Hotel, and I called my wife. I told her that going to the game with Jackie Robinson is like going to church with Jesus Christ. I also told my wife I liked that job so much, I’d do it for nothing. And my wife said, ‘You are doing it for nothing.’ I was getting about 85 bucks a week.”
After three years as a production assistant for Robinson, Aceti became assistant director (AD) and held that position for eight years, directing up to 35 shows a year. In the 1970s, he was AD in charge of Wide World of Sports and, in 1975, became a director at ABC Sports.
“We sat side by side, week in and week out, 52 weeks a year, fielding every curveball you could think of,” says Lewin of the intricate dance of programming Wide World of Sports. “If a live fight goes two rounds, then you had to have something on tape; if it goes 15 rounds, then you have to swing the other way. You had to be prepared to do things on the fly.”
Geoff Mason worked alongside Aceti in the formative years of ABC Sports and recalls a man who would not be fazed by anything: “All about could be in a total panic, and he would never flinch. He was unflappable.”
On to CBS
In 1982, Aceti left ABC and went to CBS, where he stayed for 10 years directing baseball playoffs and four World Series, World Championship Figure Skating, the Olympics, and the NFL.
Fox Sports director Artie Kempner began working with Aceti in 1983 at CBS Sports and recalls a turnaround production of the Phoenix 10k Road Race where tapes from the five cameras used to shoot the show were brought into the edit room and loaded into tape decks.
“Joe said, ‘Let’s match up the timecode and see how far we can go,’” Kempner says. “He cut a 20-minute line cut in real time. He could do things other people couldn’t do.”
As a young production assistant, Kempner also had a chance to see firsthand Aceti’s strengths as a mentor.
“He constantly talked about how he did things and why he did things,” says Kempner. “Too often, people don’t tell you why they do something but just to do it or do it because that is how it was always done. He was thoughtful, and, to me, those were the keys to his success.”
Fox and Friends
In 1993, he joined the fledgling Fox Sports division, where he directed NFL games and helped define the network.
“Joe was one of the television originals,” says Fox Sports Chairman David Hill. “Larger than life in every sense, someone who cared passionately about his profession and his crew, and who brought warmth and compassion to the job.”
Ed Goren, who worked with Aceti at CBS and also made the jump to Fox Sports (alongside others from CBS) adds that Aceti was also one of the great storytellers as a director.
“He had so many wonderful qualities, but at the top of the list was how Joe tutored young directors and producers,” says Goren. “He was a people person who really cared about all people.”
Aceti was known for more than just his technical skills. He would get the most out of his camera operators by telling them not to be afraid to make a mistake, because artistry, he believed, is not possible without mistakes.
Fox Sports SVP of field operations Jerry Steinberg says Aceti had a great eye and great feel for directing. “He had that passion, and, for the great ones, it is never a job but a calling. He was a very special guy and a great baseball director. I don’t know how you quantify that looking over his body of work, but he was a special human being and a special guy.”
For Aceti, directing figure skating was a great joy, because it was a subtle form of sports directing that involved cutting visuals to the music.
“You have to make the camera shots different — different in size, different angles, and so forth,” he said. “It’s a very subtle and very difficult thing. You have to cut on the music but not incorrectly, like when the skater is jumping in the air. You never cut anything when it’s in the air. You don’t cut in the middle of a jump. You never want to cut with anything in the air: a baseball, a basketball, a football. It’s not good television. You have to keep screen direction all the time, and you should not overcut.”
There was, however, one incident when he accepted overcutting. It also encapsulates his personality.
“Joe did the British Open and put in an expense report for tree trimming,” recalls Goren. “Joe got a call from the expense-report group telling him they watched the show and there were no trees on the course. Joe’s response? ‘I guess we did a heck of a job!’”
Aceti is survived by his wife, Barbara, and daughter, Jessica.