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From football to Hollywood, ex-Vikings RB Ed Marinaro knows the limelight

Marinaro, 72, played in the NFL from 1972-77, including 1972-75 with the Vikings

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Minnesota Vikings Ed Marinaro escapes a tackle by Bears Bob Pifferini for a seven-yard gain during the first quarter of an NFL football game at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, Minnesota on Oct. 5, 1975.
St. Paul Pioneer Press files
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A decade before Ed Marinaro became a fixture on the acclaimed 1980s television show “Hill Street Blues,” his Vikings teammates already thought he had gone Hollywood.

The Vikings took Marinaro in the second round of the 1972 NFL draft out of Cornell, where the running back had shattered numerous NCAA records and finished second in voting for the Heisman Trophy. He showed up for his first training camp in Mankato in style.

The flashy Marinaro arrived behind the wheel of a purple Porsche, using a portion of the money from his $25,000 signing bonus to buy the $10,000 sports car. Fifty years later, that moment hasn’t been forgotten.

“Everybody knew that here comes Ed in that purple Porsche,” said Dave Osborn, a Vikings running back from 1965-75. “It seemed like the veterans were always ribbing him about that.”

They sure did — even though Marinaro said his initial quest had been to buy a Porsche in his native New York City that wasn’t the same color as his new team. But Marinaro was told he would have to wait three months for his car unless he took a purple Porsche that had been returned by a customer.

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“I took one look at the car on the showroom floor, and it was beautiful,” Marinaro said. “I knew that I’m going to take some crap if I pulled up in training camp in a purple Porsche. You’re going to look pretty cocky. But I said, ‘I love that car, and I’m going to buy it.’ And the guys did give me so much crap.”

Once, his teammates did a lot more than just talk about his car. After driving over to get treatment during training camp, Marinaro made the mistake of leaving his keys in the ignition. When he came out, the Porsche was gone.

“I called the Mankato police and they come up and they’re asking me questions,” Marinaro said. “And then one cop came up and said, ‘We found his car.’ It was under the goal post on the practice field. (Teammates) stole my car and put it under the goal post. So the next morning, we had a thousand people watching practice, and I still don’t have my car. … Then, sure enough, the keys are sitting in my locker, so I’m in full uniform and I go out and get in the car and the fans are watching me and I drive it off the practice field.”

Lonnie Warwick, then a Vikings linebacker, admitted he was in on the caper, but he said defensive end Jim Marshall was the ringleader.

“We all jumped on the bandwagon and were ribbing him and everything because he got so much publicity before he got (to the Vikings),” Warwick said. “We had a lot of fun with Ed. We always made him sing his school song as a rookie. But he took it well. He turned out to be pretty good actor, but he was like an actor back then. He was a pretty flamboyant-type person, and everybody liked Ed.”

Marinaro, 72, played in the NFL from 1972-77, including 1972-75 with the Vikings. He was a bit of a disappointment as a pro, rushing for 1,007 of his 1,309 career yards and catching 125 of his 146 passes with Minnesota. But Warwick said he became more famous than any of his star Vikings teammates after making it as an actor.

Marinaro landed his first notable role when he played Hollywood stuntman Sonny St. Jacques on the sitcom “Laverne & Shirley” from 1980-81. He then hit it big when he played Officer Joe Coffey from 1981-86 on the police drama “Hill Street Blues,” a show that won 26 Primetime Emmys in a seven-season run, although Marinaro didn’t claim one.

NEW GENERATION

More recently, Marinaro starred from 2010-11 as college football coach Marty Daniels in the cult football comedy show “Blue Mountain State.” That introduced Marinaro to a new era of fans, most of whom weren’t even half his age.

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Marinaro lives in Charleston, S.C., where he moved in 2012 from the Los Angeles area along with his wife, Tracy York, and his son, Eddie Marinaro, who is coming off his freshman season in the Cornell football program. Marinaro said he left to escape the hustle and bustle of Hollywood, but he still finds himself recognized plenty in public.

“It was on Spike TV and then later it was on Netflix for four years until about a year ago,” Marinaro said of “Blue Mountain State,” which included a fair share of sex, binge drinking, drugs and partying along with football. “It got me a whole new audience. It’s crazy. I mean, I became so popular with this demographic of 18-to-32-year-old men. It was a raunchy role but I became more relevant among the younger kids. So it’s nice to be recognized by 25-year-olds.”

Marinaro admits that few of these young fans know he was once a football star. But he’s fine with that.

Marinaro, who attended New Milford (N.J.) High School, outside of New York, burst on the scene while starring for Cornell from 1969-71 in Ithaca, N.Y. Playing in the Ivy League, he rushed for a then-NCAA record 1,881 yards in just nine games in 1971, and finished his career with a then-record 4,715 yards. He still holds the college record for averaging 174.6 yards rushing per game.

Marinaro made the cover of Sports Illustrated as a senior in 1971, but he didn’t win the Heisman Trophy. He finished second to Auburn quarterback Pat Sullivan.

“Obviously, it was disappointing,” Marinaro said. “People questioned me because I was playing in the Ivy League. But anybody who did what I did, setting 17 national records, that player would have had their name on the Heisman Trophy. But I was really proud to represent the league (by finishing second).”

Marinaro also wasn’t a first-round NFL draft pick in 1972, which he blamed in part on fumbling twice in the East-West Shrine Game. He finally heard his named called with the No. 50 selection by the Vikings in the second round.

“I was sitting in my apartment and I got a call and it’s (general manager) Jim Finks of the Minnesota Vikings,” Marinaro said. “He said, ‘How’d you like to be Viking?’ My first thought was of the blowtorches melting the field at Metropolitan Stadium that you’d see on the highlights. It got cold in Ithaca, but our season was over by Thanksgiving.”

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GOOD, NOT GREAT

Marinaro joined a team loaded with veteran running backs in Bill Brown, 34, Osborn, 29, Oscar Reed, 28, and Clint Jones, 27. With the Vikings dividing the load, Marinaro had 66 carries for 223 yards as a rookie and caught 28 passes for 218 yards.

“I remember my first start, Clint Jones got hurt, and I gained 80 yards on 19 carries against the Packers at Lambeau Field,” Marinaro said of an Oct. 29, 1972, game before he went back to the bench. “But I wasn’t going to gain yards if I’m carrying the ball four or five times a game.”

As far as head coach Bud Grant was concerned, Marinaro, who wasn’t the fastest guy, didn’t show enough as a rookie to be considered for the role of feature back. In 1973, the Vikings took running back Chuck Foreman with the No. 12 pick in the first round of the draft, and he went on to make five Pro Bowls.

“Ed is a good guy,” Grant said. “I mean, he was not an outstanding football player but he was a good football player.”

After Foreman arrived, Marinaro had rushing seasons of 302 yards in 1973, 124 in 1974 and 358 in 1975. He did start often at halfback but Foreman, as the starting fullback, got the bulk of the carries.

Marinaro did find a niche as a receiver, and in 1975 was sixth in the NFL among running backs with 54 catches for 462 yards. Foreman ranked first that season with 73 receptions.

“When you think about my career with the Vikings, I went there as the leading ground gainer in college football history and when I got drafted, I was primarily a blocker and a pass receiver,” Marinaro said. “I’ve seen my career described as disappointing after college, but I don’t look at it that way. I loved being in Minnesota. I played with some great teammates and some great coaches, and got to go to two Super Bowls (after the 1973 and 1974 seasons).”

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Cornell's Ed Marinaro, left, (#44), had 47 rushes for 272 yards in the Big Red's 24-21 win over Columbia in 1971. In his three seasons as Cornell's tailback, Marinaro set rushing and scoring records and won every major honor with the exception of the Heisman Trophy for which he placed a close second to quarterback Pat Sullivan.
Courtesy of Cornell University

OFF TO THE JETS

Still, Marinaro wanted to carry the ball more. And when he became one of the NFL’s first free agents after the 1975 season, he signed with the New York Jets for a 1976 deal that paid him $65,000 with a $10,000 signing bonus. That was a hefty raise over his Vikings base salaries in his first four seasons of $24,000, $26,000, $28,000 and $25,200.

“I think he was a little frustrated, no question about it,” Foreman said of Marinaro wanting more rushing attempts. “But he was certainly a valuable part of what we were doing. He could catch the ball as well as anybody coming out of the backfield. So when he went to New York, that disappointed me.”

With the Jets, Marinaro got a chance to be the feature back but it was fleeting. In an Oct. 3, 1976, game at San Francisco, he carried 21 times for a career-high 111 yards. The next Sunday, he topped that with 31 carries for 119 yards against Buffalo.

But in a Monday Night Football game on Oct. 18, 1976, at New England, Marinaro caught a pass and his toe stuck in the turf, bending his left foot back. Marinaro eventually learned he had suffered a Lisfranc fracture, which ended his season.

After that, Marinaro was never again the same player. He was released by the Jets before the 1977 season, and later that year was picked up by Seattle, getting into one game but not having a rushing attempt. He was signed by Chicago in 1978 but didn’t make the team.

“I had two 100-yard rushing games back to back with the Jets, and then I got hurt and my career was pretty much over,” Marinaro said. “But at least I proved to myself that you give me the ball and I’m going to gain yards.”

Marinaro was disappointed in his career being cut short, but he had made a valuable contact in his one season with the Jets. He became good friends with star quarterback Joe Namath, who by then had also become an actor.

Marinaro had long been interested in acting, and Namath hooked him up with his agent, Mike Greenfield. He took some acting classes, and with his handsome looks and muscular build, he began to get some feelers.

HELLO, HOLLYWOOD

“I realized that I never wanted to have a real job,” Marinaro said of getting into acting. “I ended up doing a screen test. I didn’t get the part. But I was single and I was only 28 years old, so I moved out to Hollywood by myself.”

Marinaro’s first role was in “Fingers,” a 1978 mob-related film set in New York. It had a strong cast with Harvey Keitel, Danny Aiello, Tanya Roberts, former football star Jim Brown and Tisa Farrow, sister of Mia Farrow.

“I had two lines,” Marinaro said. “(Keitel’s character Jimmy Fingers) was carrying a big, like, boom box, and I kicked it and said, ‘What are you going to shoot us with, your tape recorder?’ ”

Marinaro’s first big acting break came with “Laverne & Shirley” in 1980, when he played Antonio DeFazio, Laverne’s cousin from Italy, for one episode. He didn’t like the role of having to speak in a “broken accent” but soon was moved to the role of Sonny St. Jacques for 10 episodes.

“All of a sudden, I’m making $7,500 an episode and I felt like I was on top of the world,” Marinaro said.

Marinaro eventually was dropped from “Laverne & Shirley,” which had been the nation’s top-rated show in the late 1970s before ratings slipped in the 1980s and it came to an end in 1983. But an opportunity surfaced for the fledgling actor in 1981 with “Hill Street Blues.”

“I was originally going to be a guest star in the last four episodes of the first season, and at that time the show was a bit of a cult hit, but I I had never even seen the show,” Marinaro said of playing Joe Coffey. “They had me come in for four episodes and I was supposed to get killed at the end. But then they changed the ending of the last show from where I got killed to one where I didn’t get killed, and I was a regular on the show for six years.”

Marinaro initially took a pay cut from his “Laverne & Shirley” days, making $5,000 an episode on “Hill Street Blues.” But that figure was bumped up to $14,500 for his last season on the show, and he said the role resulted in him gaining “credibility” as an actor.

“I’m most proud of the work that I did on ‘Hill Street Blues,’ ” Marinaro said of his acting career. “I wasn’t trying to do too much. What I was doing was pretty natural stuff. I wasn’t trying to be Robert De Niro, but I’m proud of what I did.”

GOODBYE, HILL STREET

Marinaro had enough confidence in his acting by 1986 to quit “Hill Street Blues” before its final season because he wanted to pursue other roles. He did end up getting killed in his final episode, which was entitled “Iced Coffey.”

“I always thought he was good on ‘Hill Street Blues,’ ” said Foreman, who has kept up with Marinaro through the years. “When he left the show, I asked him if he was crazy.”

During his years on “Hill Street Blues,” Marinaro found time to also do some made-for-TV movies. And that number increased after he left the show.

In a 2019 interview with Ben Mankiewicz on Turner Classic Movies, Marinaro quipped, “They were hiring me because I could take my shirt off.” He laughed when reminded of what he said.

“I probably did make maybe 20 TV movies back in the ‘80s and the ‘90s, and they were all kind of the same sort of thing with a woman in peril where I was the boyfriend, and I was either the nice boyfriend or the (jerk) boyfriend,” Marinaro said. “I was the guy with the girl who always had love scenes, bedroom scenes with no shirt on. I worked harder when I was an actor to stay in shape than when I was playing football. I’ve been lucky I got to work with some really great-looking actresses.”

Those movies included “Dancing with Danger” with former “Charlie’s Angels” star Cheryl Ladd, “Policewoman Centerfold” with former poster girl Melody Anderson, and “Amy Fisher, My Story.” That was one of three movies made not long after the sensational case in which the 17-year-old Fisher was dating 36-year-old married Joey Buttafuoco and in 1992 shot and severely wounded his wife. Marinaro played Buttafuoco in the movie, and he said he later briefly ran into Buttafuoco and it “was kind of awkward.”

According to the Internet Movie Database, Marinaro has 65 acting credits. From 1991-94, he was a regular on the show “Sisters.” Other notable shows he has appeared on have been “Dynasty,” “Falcon Crest,” “My Sister Sam,” “The Twilight Zone,” “Days of Our Lives,” “Monk,” “Grace Under Fire” and “Touched by an Angel.”

Marinaro doesn’t act as much as he once did, having had eight screen credits since moving to South Carolina. But he said that when needed, he easily can make it to New York and Atlanta, two filming hotbeds, for shoots. And he did have two movie credits in 2021 — “The Many Saints of Newark” and “A Unicorn for Christmas.”

STILL ACTING

“I don’t need to work financially,” he said. “I don’t need the money, but it’s just nice to stay sharp, and it’s exciting when you’re working on a show or a movie. It’s sort of fun. It gets your blood going.”

Marinaro’s wife is a longtime fitness instructor who has a gym in Charleston. And Marinaro has been watching lots of football games in recent years involving his son, including when he was a star quarterback at Bishop England High School. Eddie then followed his father to Cornell, where he switched to running back. He saw some junior-varsity action last fall before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury.

Marinaro has been back to Minnesota several times since his playing days. His last visit was in September 2019 for alumni weekend, when he saw U.S. Bank Stadium for the first time in the Vikings’ 34-14 win over the Raiders.

“It made me feel really old,” he said. “You know you’re old when it’s two stadiums removed from when I played. I remember when the Metrodome was the big deal in town, but (U.S. Bank Stadium), it’s pretty impressive.”

The Vikings held their last training camp in Mankato in 2017 before moving it to the TCO Performance Center in Eagan. But Marinaro still has fond memories from his four training camps in Mankato.

As for that purple Porsche he drove to his first training camp, Marinaro didn’t have it for too long. Shortly after his rookie season, it was stolen off a New York street. The car was recovered two years later in Colorado, but Marinaro didn’t need it back.

With his insurance settlement, Marinaro had purchased a gold Porsche in 1973. And that was the car he drove to Hollywood in 1978 to start his second career.

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Minnesota Vikings Ed Marinaro blocks for Brent McClanahan as he takes a hand off from Fran Tarkenton.
St. Paul Pioneer Press files

Related Topics: MINNESOTA VIKINGS
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