The first time Nick Charles and Fred Hickman occupied the same TV screen was at a 1970 high school football game in Springfield, Ill. Charles was a 24-year-old rookie sportscaster for Springfield's WICS-TV; Hickman, a 14-year-old freshman at Springfield Southeast High. As Charles stood on the field recapping the action, Hickman mugged for the camera in the stands.
Twenty-four years later, Hick and Nick have their shtick down cold. Last Friday they celebrated their 3,000th appearance as co-anchors of CNN's Sports Tonight. For the better part of 14 years, Hickman and Charles have provided bump-and-run critiques; they have taped highlights and a lot of spirited patter. They are not just the best-dressed sportscasters on cable, they're the best-meshed. "We never try to one-up one another," says Charles. "With us, it's give-and-take and take-and-give."
Charles, born Nicholas Charles Nickeas, began his broadcasting career as a taxi dispatcher in Chicago. One day he drove down to Springfield to audition for the sports slot at WICS and got the job. "It was a very big deal," Charles recalls. "A month later, my picture was on the side of a bus."
From Springfield, Charles bounced from WJZ-TV in Baltimore to WRC-TV in Washington, D.C. When his contract wasn't renewed in Washington—"A station executive said I looked too swarthy, too ominous, too threatening," he says—he switched briefly to radio before signing on with the newly formed CNN in Atlanta in 1980. "I felt like a trailblazer," he says of the network's early days.
Hickman, too, came to CNN by way of WICS, where, at 22, he anchored the news, sports and weather—sometimes on the same broadcast. After jiving but not thriving with a host of other sports anchors, the pair joined forces on June 1, 1980. They clicked. "We had good chemistry," Charles says.
Bad chemistry nearly destroyed Hickman. Eager to work in local TV in a major market, he bolted to Detroit's WDIV-TV in 1984. "I wanted to go out by myself into the desert," he says. "But I picked the wrong desert."
Lonely in the Motor City, he turned to cocaine. He snorted and free-based, spending upwards of $400 a week on his habit. One morning while sitting in his car outside a convenience store, he hit bottom. Weeping uncontrollably, he resolved to check himself into rehab. He spent nearly a month in treatment, then left Detroit, and says he has been clean ever since. "Fred and I would talk on the phone, but I never suspected a thing," says Charles. "He can seduce you that way."
But his powers of seduction couldn't get him back on TV. He sent out reams of rèsumès, but got no offers. Finally, after six months without work, he called CNN and asked for his old job. When management wavered, Charles interceded. "Fred's worth the risk," Charles argued. "Everybody deserves a second chance." Hickman got his. He returned to the chair beside Charles in November 1986.
Though both Hick and Nick have been divorced (Hickman has remarried), their TV marriage remains solid. "How have Nick and I stayed together so long?" muses Hickman. "I guess because I don't go home with him."