“I WAS TWO WEEKS SHY OF 16 WHEN ROGERS HORNSBY scouted me when I played for a team called the Evening Stars in Chicago,” Ron Masak is telling me over lunch at the Hollywood Grill Restaurant at Universal Studios. “I was a good ballplayer, and he offered me a contract to play for the Chicago White Sox organization. I brought him back to my mother and told her about the $8,500 I’d get to sign. She then told him my real age — he thought I was 18 — and said she preferred I finish high school instead. So I didn’t play for the White Sox, but I’ve got the memory of that offer by the great Rogers Hornsby.”
Masak is best known as Sheriff Mort Metzger from the TV series Murder, She Wrote, which I must admit I’ve never seen. He also appeared on Bewitched a lot, which I also never watched. I might as well admit it up front: I’ve never seen Bonanza or Mission: Impossible or I Spy or Dallas or Dynasty either. I’m not a TV snob by any means — I’ve just been selective. Doesn’t mean the shows I’ve missed were not worth watching. They obviously were, judging by their popularity. But there are only so many hours in the day, so if you watch CSI, you may not watch Fringe; if you watch The Amazing Race, you might skip Survivor; you may choose American Idol over Dancing with the Stars.
That said, when Masak tells me about his eight years as Sheriff Metzger opposite Angela Lansbury on Murder, She Wrote, I’m interested. “Angela’s the Rolls-Royce of our profession,” he says. “Never saw her angry, never saw her late, never saw her unprepared. She gave me class.” When he tells me about the time he met Joe DiMaggio and Sandy Koufax, I’m even more interested. I did watch those guys play when I was a kid. They were genuine heroes.
Masak — who says no one ever pronounces his name right (it’s “may-sack,” and not “mask,” as he’s most commonly called) — knows this. He’s even published a book detailing the many heroes he’s met. He likes to talk about those people the way Martha Stewart likes to talk about floral arrangements or Tommy Lasorda likes to linger over linguine. His book, I’ve Met All My Heroes from A to Z, is really more of a scrapbook, alphabetically listing the names of the famous people he’s rubbed shoulders with and giving a brief description of each, along with a grainy photograph. A is for astronauts Aldrin and Armstrong, as well as Ali, Autry and Astaire; B is for Ball, Benny, Burns and the first President Bush; G is for Gable and Grant; H is for Hepburn, Heston, Hope and Hornsby; L is for Lansbury, Lasorda and Lombardi; R is for Reagan, Rooney and Roy Rogers. Every letter has a few people listed. Flipping through Masak’s recollections, one learns that Marlon Brando liked to dip miniature hot dogs in his beer; that Muhammad Ali agreed to meet the Dodgers in their dugout if Tommy Lasorda would give him a couple of hats; that when Gen. James Doolittle was asked by Masak to “say something” at an event at the Sportsman’s Lodge, Doolittle jumped on stage and said, “Something”; that Olympic decathlon champion Bruce Jenner owes him $12; that he was almost hit by a chair that Lasorda threw against his office wall after the Dodgers lost a game; and that, according to football giant Jim Brown, “All great athletes have big [butts].”
Masak gets to hobnob with these people mostly through his work emceeing various celebrity events — golf and ski tournaments (including American Airlines’ celebrity golf and ski outings), charities, telethons and baseball pro-am games. Though he’s never played professional ball, he was good enough to be invited to work out with the Dodgers for 20 years and became close with their then manager Lasorda (with whom he made a motivational film called Ya Gotta Believe). At producer David Wolper’s golf tournament for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Masak made it to the elimination shoot-out against NBA great Rick Barry; each player was only allowed one club. Masak’s long putt with his five iron came close, but Barry won it by draining his putt with his six iron.
As an actor, he’s appeared in hundreds of television shows, some 25 movies and hundreds of commercials. His first film was 1967’s Ice Station Zebra with Rock Hudson. During filming, he was encouraged to play a prank on Elvis Presley, who was also on the studio lot making a film. Masak did a good imitation of the King, and when he was introduced to Elvis, he mimicked all of Presley’s movements and comments. Presley wondered where he was from and Masak told him Tupelo, Miss., which was Presley’s hometown too. That’s when Presley turned sheepishly to his friends and said, “I’m being had.”
Masak tells me that in the tug-of-war between professional ball and acting, it was The Jolson Story starring Larry Parks that tipped the scales for him. “When I saw that, I knew what I wanted to be,” he says. “Al Jolson did it all. He would say ‘Turn the lights up, I want to see the audience.’ He loved to entertain. And I started doing Al Jolson. I fell in love with his music. Changed my life.”
When I ask him if he’s ever met anyone who hadn’t seen Murder, She Wrote, he says, “Actually no, I haven’t.” I don’t have it in me to admit he’s having lunch with one. He’s way too nice a man for me to sour his day. Instead, I ask him what TV shows he likes these days. He mentions Lost, as well as reruns of Seinfeld, Cheers and Frasier. Then he tells me why he’s never been tongue-tied around any of the stars he’s met: “Because I worked with Vince Lombardi on a sales training video called Second Effort, and once you’ve worked with Lombardi, there’s no one alive who can make you nervous.”
At 74, Masak considers himself a lucky man. He’s still hired to do commercial work. He’s in constant demand as an emcee. He’s prepping to star in a movie about Mark Twain. He is humbled by all the famous people he’s met, and he’s most proud of his family. He and his wife, Kay, have been married for 49 years. They have six grown children — four daughters and twin sons — and six grandchildren. “I have always told people that I was not a wealthy man,” he writes in his book, “but I was the richest man on earth, for I had the love and respect of a beautiful family.”
LAWRENCE GROBEL has written 11 books, including Conversations with Capote, The Hustons, Conversations with Brando, The Art of the Interview and Al Pacino: In Conversation with Lawrence Grobel. He also teaches four seminars at UCLA.