A Drama Series Re-emerges to Energize and Delight. Discovering a Remarkably Talented TV Writer -- And Most Likely You've Never Heard of Him. Robert Duvall in a Long Forgotten Part That Must Be Seen
For the better part of the past several weeks I have been binge-watching four seasons of a TV show that has recently become available on DVD. And in a year that has brought such pleasures as the last season of “Breaking Bad” and the first season of “House of Cards,” I’ve found a drama series I’ve liked every bit as much as those gems. Remarkably, it’s a TV series that’s more than 50 years old!
It’s a series set in New York, my all-time favorite city. New York is also the subject of one the best essays I’ve ever read, E.B. White’s “Here is New York,” which first appeared in Holiday magazine in April 1949.
Wrote White, “New York is the concentrate of art and commerce and sport and religion and entertainment and finance, bringing to a single compact arena the gladiator, the evangelist, the promoter, the actor, the trader and the merchant. It carries on its lapels the unexpungable odor of the long past, so that no matter where you sit in New York you feel the vibrations of great times and tall deeds, of queer people and events and undertakings.”
Being 1949, White used queer to mean unconventional. Later in his essay, White talks of how “the collision and intermingling“ of the millions of those living in New York City represent “so many races and creeds [as to] make New York a permanent exhibit of the phenomenon of one world.” White adds, “The Consolidated Edison Company says there are eight million people in the five boroughs of New York.”
That fact was also noticed a year earlier in a movie that began with a daytime shot of Manhattan from an airplane and this narration by the film’s producer, Mark Hellinger, who informed the audience that this movie was going to be different from most because “it was not photographed in a studio. … The actors played out their roles on the streets, in the apartment buildings, in the skyscrapers of New York itself. … This is the city as it is -- hot summer pavement, the children at play, the buildings in their naked stone, the people without make-up.” He then begins the narration that was written by screenwriters Albert Matz -- who was later blacklisted -- and Malvin Wald:
EXT. MIDTOWN MANHATTAN - NIGHT
It's one o'clock in the morning now --
EXT. WALL STREET - NIGHT DESERTED
And this is the face of New York City --
The movie, about two policemen trying to solve a murder, was called “The Naked City,” and is as famous for its narrative semi-documentary style as it is for being filmed, in vibrant black & white, on the streets of New York. At the very end of the film narrator Hellinger said, “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.”
Close to a decade after the movie came out a young TV producer saw it. According to the 2008 book “Naked City: The Television Series” by James Rosin, “‘The Naked City’ was part of a feature film package acquired by Columbia for television release in 1957. This caught the attention of Herbert Leonard, an independent producer who worked with Screen Gems, Columbia’s television subsidiary.” Bert Leonard was 35 in 1957, and had had a big TV hit three years earlier with “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin,” which was still on the air on ABC. Leonard contacted the widow of the producer of “The Naked City” and acquired the TV rights to the film. With tobacco giant Brown and Williamson agreeing to co-sponsor the show with Quaker Oats, ABC and Columbia’s Screen Gems agreed to make “The Naked City” as a weekly half-hour cop drama.
The show premiered on ABC on Tuesday, Sept. 30, 1958, at 9:30 p.m. ET/PT, following another new show, “The Rifleman.” Using some of the same overhead footage of Manhattan that was in the film version of "The Naked City," a voiceover by Leonard repeated many of the same lines Hellinger said when he introduced the movie as its narrator. And at the end of the episode Leonard’s voice was heard once again as he said, “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.”
In Rosin’s book, Mark Alvey, a media historian, says that Leonard told Variety in 1958 that the idea of the TV version of “The Naked City” was “an attempt to tell anthology-style stories within the framework of a continuing character show. It was, [Leonard said], a 'human interest series about the city and people of New York, told through the eyes of two law enforcement officers.' Leonard’s agenda for the show’s setting was equally unique: It would be shot completely on location in New York, duplicating the trend-setting realism of the 1948 feature film. This was an ambitious, if not radical move at this moment in television history. New York retained a presence as the site of variety and quiz shows, plus live anthologies. But no weekly TV film dramas were being produced there at the time.”
Leonard hired writer Stirling Silliphant to pen the pilot of the show. He went on to, astonishingly, write 31 of the show’s first-season order of 39 episodes. According to Alvey, Screen Gems didn’t like the anthology nature of the show, and wanted it to be more conventional, but Leonard stuck to his guns. The two main characters in season one were played by John McIntire, as a police lieutenant, and James Franciscus as his younger detective partner.
John McIntire (right) and James Franciscus on the half-hour version of "The Naked City"
I think Franciscus was miscast. I liked McIntire, but, in a move practically unheard of for the time, he was killed off midseason, when he decided he wanted to leave the show.
Susan Orlean, for her 2011 book “Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend,” did extensive research into the life of Leonard, and wrote: “For the first season [of 'The Naked City'] Silliphant wrote an episode in which James Franciscus’s character watches an inmate being executed. ABC was outraged, but Bert insisted he wanted to use the episode; the network responded by canceling the show.”
I’m not surprised that the series was canceled. While somewhat interesting, I don’t think “The Naked City” really worked well as a half-hour drama.
But clearly Leonard was onto something. The show generally did about a 20 rating, not far behind the 21 or so that Red Skelton was doing on CBS. Bob Cummings' sitcom on NBC was competitive as well.
On the sponsorship side, Quaker Oats had quit its half-sponsorship of “The Naked City" about halfway through the season. Brown and Williamson picked up the slack. And they liked Leonard’s vision of the show. So they convinced ABC to bring back the series, now just called “Naked City,” as an hour-long drama starting a year later, in September 1960.
So the show ran as a half-hour drama for the 1958-’59 season, sat out the 1959-’60 season, and came back as an hour-long drama for the 1960-’61 season. It ran for two more seasons after that in its hour-long length.
When it came back in the fall of 1960, Franciscus was gone, replaced by Paul Burke. The difference was night and day. Franciscus's Detective Jim Halloran was full of the piss and vinegar of youth. Burke's Detective Adam Flint was at once older, more worldly, warmer and more sympathetic. Furthermore, when John McIntire was killed off in season one he had been replaced by Horace McMahon, whose lieutenant character was -- appropriately -- more gruff than the one McIntire had played. McMahon returned for the hour-long version of the show.
Paul Burke (left) and Horace McMahon in the hour-long version of "Naked City"
Also added to the cast was Nancy Malone as Burke’s girlfriend, and they had terrific chemistry as well.
More importantly, Silliphant had moved on to another show Leonard created, “Route 66.” He was replaced as the story editor on "Naked City" by Howard Rodman, who later would write such movies as “Coogan’s Bluff,” “Madigan” and “Charley Varrick.”
Plus, Rodman and Leonard hired a stable of top-flight writers who transformed "Naked City" into a compelling weekly anthology series that, for my money, was as good as most of what I’ve seen from TV’s Golden Age of live drama. The show was good enough to be nominated for the Best Drama Emmy for each year it was on, from 1960 to the end of the 1962-63 season.
I urge you to buy this DVD set of 138 episodes and check it out for yourself. It's put out by RLJ Entertainment. To start, you can get seasons one and two on Amazon’s streaming service.
Another persuasive reason to watch this series is to see the wonderful work of Abram S. Ginnes. He’s a writer I had never heard of before I started watching this DVD set. He wrote a total of 13 episodes of “Naked City,” all in seasons three and four. One of them, titled “The One Marked Hot Gives Cold,” which was originally broadcast in season three on March 21, 1962, is one of the finest hours of episodic drama I have ever seen on TV. The primary guest stars were Robert Duvall, Edward Andrews and a little girl played by an actress named Laurie Heinman.
A number of Ginnes' "Naked City" teleplays included characters who were either kids or teens. In "The One Marked Hot Gives Cold," Duvall plays a man who is having trouble finding himself, who befriends a 12-year-old girl played by Heinman. I don't want to spoil anything about this episode -- at some point you should try to see it. In total, Duvall guest-starred in four "Naked City" episodes, playing different characters in each one.
All I could find out about Ginnes on the Internet was a May 22, 2006, obituary about him written by film and TV historian Stephen Bowie. Here's an excerpt:
“Abram S. Ginnes, an enormously talented writer whom I had the pleasure of knowing during his last years, died Saturday in Los Angeles following a long illness. He was 91.
“Ginnes was nominated for a Writers Guild Award for his only screenplay, ‘Gaily Gaily’ (1969), an adaptation of Ben Hecht's memoirs. Before that he wrote extensively for radio, television and the theatre, specializing in cop shows and flavorful tales of New York City life that drew upon his own Brooklyn upbringing.
“Ginnes was an unapologetic radical for his entire life, and as a result he was blacklisted for several years during the 1950s. Like most artists who ran afoul of the McCarthy-era witchhunts, Ginnes found himself out of work just as his career was beginning to gather momentum.”
The obituary adds, “Ginnes' comeback from the blacklist took the form, primarily, of a baker's dozen of hour-long scripts for the New York-based police drama 'Naked City.' 'Naked City' was always an anthology in disguise (the writers struggled to get the cops into their stories), and Abe's contributions were all perfectly polished gems that reflected his wry, offbeat, and optimistic outlook on life. They were obsessively psychoanalytical, deeply interested in folklore and outsider communities, and dabbled in a surrealism that was highly unusual for TV at the time. I could go on about these amazing, largely unknown works, but most of them are on DVD and I encourage anyone who's interested to seek them out.”
I agree wholehearedly with this assessment of Ginnes' first-rate work on "Naked City."
The hour-long “Naked City” episodes made for such an absorbing, enthralling and exciting series because the stories were smart, original, tightly written teleplays about people who, in less than an hour, you were able to come to know and care about.
In Rosin’s book about "Naked City," James Sheldon, who directed a number of episodes, nailed it when he observed, “An important factor of the show and the way it was structured was that the series regulars never competed with the guest cast. They were there to complement and support them, and it made for a very effective weekly ensemble.“
And Burke told Rosin, “I had a metaphor for our show, which was a pie with three slices. One slice was the regular cast, another was the guest cast, and the third slice was the city of New York.”
Finally, here are a few of the actors who guest-starred on “Naked City”:
Lee J. Cobb, Claude Raines, Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Maureen Stapleton, Diahann Carroll, George Segal, Lois Nettleton, Gene Hackman, Rip Torn, Tuesday Weld, Martin Sheen, Anthony Zerbe, Luther Adler, Nina Foch, Nehemiah Persoff, Akim Tamiroff, Mickey Rooney, Jack Lord, Piper Laurie, Sylvia Sidney, Gladys Cooper, Richard Conte and Dan Duryea.
And that’s just a partial list. Kudos to Marion Dougherty who, along with Jeff Kimmel, cast the guest stars every week.
And thank you, producer Bert Leonard. He died, in debt, at age 84 on Oct. 14, 2006. But what a legacy he left. "The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin," "Route 66" and another baby-boomer TV favorite that he produced, "Rescue 8." Plus, of course, "Naked City." In Hollywood there are also eight million stories. And how lucky for us that we can celebrate Leonard's one-in-a-million success.
It was 2 a.m. one night in 1970 and Johnny Carson, 45, was on the phone, clearly drunk, slurring his words. Carson was at the watering hole Sinatra had made famous -- Jilly’s in New York.
The person he called was a lawyer named Henry Bushkin, 27, whom Carson had known for all of 48 hours, and Carson wanted Bushkin to come to Jilly’s right away. The day before Bushkin had accompanied Carson and a few others as they broke into the Manhattan love nest that Carson had discovered was being kept by his then-wife, Joanne. She was his second wife, and during the break-in Carson had discovered evidence that Joanne had allegedly been having an affair with former football great Frank Gifford. (This was a year before Gifford would become even more famous by joining the announcer team on “Monday Night Football.")
Bushkin excused himself from his wife and dragged himself down to Jilly’s -- which was nearly empty at this early a.m. hour -- to meet Carson. As he arrived, Carson dismissed the person with whom he had been drinking, Ed McMahon. As Bushkin slid onto the barstool next to Carson, the late-night host said, “I’m not surprised Joanne did this to me. But it hurts. Hurts like hell.”
This account is from Bushkin’s book “Johnny Carson,” which was published several months ago by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.The day after this encounter that Bushkin writes about, he became Carson’s lawyer and one of his closest confidants for the next 18 years, until Carson fired him. And while this compelling page-turner is a no-brainer last minute stocking stuffer that you can purchase as an e-book, I must say I found it one of the more loathsome tell-alls I’ve read.
Here’s the rest of this 1970 incident, as told by Bushkin in the book:
“That [Carson] was devastated was obvious. ‘Maybe I drove her to it. I wasn’t the best husband in the world.’ He stared at the ceiling as though reflecting on the accuracy of this statement and then pounded the bar for emphasis when he apparently reached a judgement. ‘I shoulda been home more,’ he said with a drunk’s certainty. ‘Not running around.’“
A few moments later, Bushkin says, Carson “shifted on his stool. Anger rose in his voice. [Talking about his mother, Carson said] ‘She’s the toughest son of a bitch of them all. There is no goddamn way to please that woman. She’s Lady Macbeth! My marriages failed because she fucked me up!’“
Several minutes later Carson lit another cigarette and, Bushkin recalls, spit out the following; “I can’t quit smoking and I get drunk every night and I chase all the pussy I can get. I’m shitty in the marriage department. Make sure you understand that.’“
And then, a few minutes after that, Bushkin writes, “From the front of the bar, the creak of the door opening and thrum of a passing car broke the silence of the room. We turned to see a woman enter. As she drew closer in the dim light, one could gradually see she was a young woman -- tall -- with long brunette hair -- and even longer legs, in a short skirt and thigh-high boots -- and nearly as famous as Johnny was.”
Bushkin -- who, frustratingly, never tells us who the woman was -- left, saying that Carson’s “trauma and misery” seemed to instantly vanish when she appeared.
For the next 240 pages or so, Bushkin mostly regales us with stories illustrating that the man who so many of us found to be the perfect late-night tonic to take the edge off our stressful days was, basically, a spoiled asshole.
Here’s what Bushkin writes about 200 pages into the book, at the conclusion of Carson’s 1985 divorce to his third wife, Joanna:
“Johnny changed during the divorce proceedings, and I don’t know if he ever entirely changed back. He was always capable of being a miserable prick. The nasty remark, the stony silence, the surprising indifference -- they had been part of his repertoire ever since I knew him, but they were usually interruptions in a generally more genial mood. Now these stormy moments came more frequently, and there was an overall harshness, an impatient tolerance, that wasn’t there before.” “He became oddly imperious.” And: “It even got to the point where it seemed he couldn’t recognize a joke.”
Heretofore, the most well-known article about Carson was a very long profile that was published in the Feb. 20, 1978, issue of the New Yorker by the English theater critic and essayist Kenneth Tynan. Though two years younger than Carson, Tynan died at age 57 of pulmonary emphysema, just two years after writing his Carson profile.
By the time Tynan talked to him, Carson said he had given up alcohol. But as much as Tynan tried to reveal the “inner” Carson, not too many of the characteristics Bushkin writes about are exposed in Tynan’s piece.
In one exchange, the late Hollywood super-agent Irving “Swifty” Lazar tells Tynan, “He doesn’t drink now. But I remember Johnny when he was a blackout drunk. A couple of drinks was all it took. He could get pretty hostile.”
So on that score, Lazar seemed to be right on. And Lazar added that Carson had an “extreme ego,” which also seems to be true. But then, Tynan writes, “‘I’ll tell you something else about him,’ [Lazar] says, with italicized wonder. ‘He’s celibate.’ He means ‘chaste.’ ‘In his position, he could have all the girls he wants. It wouldn’t be difficult. But he never cheats.’“
This, according to Bushkin, could not be further from the truth. Reading Bushkin one gets the feeling that Carson, especially in the 1970s, was the king of the zipless fuck, though Bushkin never actually uses the term. The zipless fuck was a cultural phenomenon defined by Erica Jong in her 1973 bestseller “Fear of Flying.” Wrote Jong: “It was a platonic ideal. Zipless because when you came together zippers fell away like rose petals, underwear blew off in one breath like dandelion fluff. Tongues intertwined and turned liquid. Your whole soul flowed out through your tongue and into the mouth of your lover.” “Another condition for the zipless fuck was brevity,” Jong added.
Carson’s most notorious playground, according to Bushkin, was Las Vegas, from 1972-1980. For some of that time, Carson spent “up to ten weeks a year” performing in Vegas, not because he needed the money, but because he liked to. Bushkin writes about Carson in Vegas: “He liked hanging with the guys. He liked the excitement of new women.“ Except for a period of a few months, during this entire time Carson was married. But as Bushkin pointed out, “There weren’t a lot of limits on a headliner in Vegas, but there was one rule: No wives or girlfriends in the hotel or casino.”
Bushkin recounts this Vegas hook-up from early 1980 at Caesar’s Palace, where Carson was playing at the time. Carson had met two fans from Nebraska, whom Bushkin described as “very good-looking girls.”
Bushkin himself, no longer with his wife, was with a friend, Susan. Susan, Bushkin and the “Cornhusker girls” had dinner with Carson. The three women got drunk. Bushkin wasn’t feeling well and went back to his hotel room to take some medicine for a bad headache before returning to the group. He writes that upon his return, “To my surprise, the three girls were skinny-dipping in the rooftop swimming pool, while Johnny, wearing nothing but an apron, served them wine from a silver platter. ‘Ze white is a 1968 Chassagne-Montracher,’ he said, in a cheesy accent plucked from the Mightly Carson Art Players, “and ze rhedd is a 1966 Petrus. …’
“‘Come on Henry,’ Johnny shouted. ‘Take off your clothes! Join the fun!’
“Well, I did take off my clothes and I did try to join in, but something in the bacchanalian nature of the moment brought my headache back. Unable to enjoy myself, I had to leave. No one else did, not even Susan, the girl I’d brought with me, although I assumed she’d follow me back to our room soon enough.”
She didn’t, and Bushkin says the next morning he felt “humiliated,” “resentful” and “really pissed.”
Elsewhere in the book Bushkin writes about a year earlier, in 1979: “My many years as Carson’s one-man entourage had taken its toll on my family life. Many of the heady, heedless pleasures that come to kings as a matter of course also fell in my lap. I have enjoyed many adventures in Vegas and on the road that did nothing to reinforce marital bonds. Unlike Joanna [Carson], Judy [Bushkin, Henry’s wife] did mind the other women, and as a consequence, Judy and I split up that summer.”
What an a-hole. Is this guy for real? “Heedless pleasures that come to kings as a matter of course also fell into my lap” is his excuse for repeatedly cheating on his wife?? And he is shocked and surprised that his wife “did mind the other women”!!
And there’s something distasteful that the author of this unflattering tell-all is Carson’s former lawyer, whom Carson made a very rich man. One big difference between this tell-all and another tell-all written by Frank Sinatra's valet that I recommended earlier this year, is that the one about Sinatra is not full of the mean-spiritedness that marks Bushkin's book. What a grinch.
Ultimately, having been fired by Carson -- the details of which are too long to get into here -- Bushkin says at the end of his book, “When Carson died, just like the character Diana in ‘A Chorus Line,’ I thought I ought to be feeling something, but nothing emerged. The news media deluged me with calls, no doubt thinking that I would be a Vesuvius of memories, insights and emotions, but I refused them all. I couldn’t work up any noble sentiments about the man, and I did not want to look like I was taking a cheap shot.”
Finally, some honesty. On the second to last page of the book. Why Bushkin decided, eight years after Carson’death, to finally take that cheap shot by writing this book -- besides the financial rewards -- is an unanswered question. The irony is that Carson had told New Yorker reporter Tynan back in 1977 that Bushkin was “probably my best friend.” If you haven’t read Tynan’s portrait of Carson, I highly recommend you do.
The most memorable part of Tynan’s article is these comments he got from the late movie writer-director Billy Wilder: “‘By the simple law of survival, Carson is the best. He enchants the invalids and the insomniacs as well as the people who have to get up at dawn. He is the Valium and the Nembutal of a nation. No matter what kind of dead-asses are on the show, he has to make them funny and exciting. He has to be their nurse and their surgeon. He has no conceit. He does his work and he comes prepared. If he’s talking to an author, he has read the book. Even his rehearsed routines sound improvised. He’s the cream of middle-class elegance, yet he’s not a mannequin. He has captivated the American bourgeoisie without ever offending the highbrows, and he has never said anything that wasn’t liberal or progressive. Every night, in front of millions of people, he has to do the salto mortale’ -- circus parlance for an aerial somersault performed on the tightrope. ‘What’s more’ -- and here Wilder leaned forward, tapping my knee for emphasis -- ‘he does it without a net. No rewrites. No retakes. The jokes must work tonight.’“
Bushkin addresses this fact, that on air, Carson was nearly always pitch perfect. “But for the rest of the time when he had to be Johnny Carson,” Bushkin writes, “he accomplished that by making his world smaller, or simpler, or harder to reach.”
That may be true. But it’s also true that in the 17 years between the time Carson fired his lawyer and Carson’s death, Carson never conducted any interviews or wrote any articles or books telling us what a small person is one Henry Bushkin.
February 2014 will be a massive month for sports on television -- with Super Bowl XLVIII slated for Feb. 2 on Fox and the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, opening five days later with wall-to-wall coverage running through Feb. 23 on NBC networks.
But just about any day of the week is a big one in the television sports industry, because sports is one of the few categories of programming that doesn't lend itself to delayed viewing or binge-watching. It just about must be seen live.
That primacy was the timely theme in the final installment for 2013 of the Hollywood Radio & Television Society’s Newsmaker Luncheon Series, "Sports on TV: The Drive for Live," held earlier this month at the Beverly Hilton's International Ballroom.
Much as she does as a commentator and host on ESPN, Sage Steele tried to get to the heart of the matter with the players in the room, whose uniforms were unnumbered, but generally consisted of sport jackets with dress shirts. The score was 2-2, tie vs. no tie.
The team consisted of Peter Guber, chairman and CEO of Mandalay Entertainment Group; Mark Lazarus, chairman, NBC Sports Group; David Rone, president, sports, news and local programming, Time Warner Cable; and Eric Shanks, president, COO and executive producer, Fox Sports.
"Sports, TV and money are my favorite things," Lazarus admitted off the top, talking about why he loves his job, after revealing his proudest moment was instituting and integrating all of the digital coverage on NBC platforms at the London Olympics last summer.
Rone had an Olympic backstory to tell as well, recalling that as a production assistant in 1994, he was the guy who was somehow able to get everyone's underwear washed at Lillehammer, ensuring a promotion that led him up the ranks to where he is today.
For Guber, who owns the NBA's Golden State Warriors and is an owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, his extensive background in the film business allows him to overcome the omnipresent fear of failure in sports.
There is always a fear of failing in new ventures. But that didn’t stop Shanks, the EP of all Fox Sports productions, who with COO Randy Freer was the driving force behind the successful launch of Fox Sports’ new networks this past summer.
Sports has it all: drama, suspense, anger, comedy, jubilation, amongst a range of other human emotions. Despite the plethora of reality competition shows that solicit viewer voting, it may be the one area where audiences really feel that they make a difference in the outcome.
As for the dominance of live programming, witness the recent ratings success of the live performance of "The Sound of Music” on NBC. A vast majority of viewers knew the story and how it ended, echoing how research showed that viewers who watched Olympic competitions on digital platforms were more likely to watch them on television again, despite knowing the outcome.
"Roughly 30 million watched a night,” Lazarus said of the London Olympics, and he then went on to wax euphoric about the upcoming games in Sochi. "They’re pop culture, they’re nationalism. With packages and curated stories, we make you care about someone you don't know. We've added digital abilities that allow you to embrace technology and to use it to your advantage. The ability to monetize is a good deal for our shareholders."
All of the panelists hold strong opinions about the role of social media and sports that certainly seem applicable to other areas.
"I'm always there, whether it's on Facebook or Twitter. Re-tweeting you makes you more than a sideline reporter," said Shanks.
“It is life. To not be there is to be irrelevant," Rone said, remarking that Google and Netflix would probably soon be (high-paying) customers of sports product.
It was Guber who may have summed it up best. "The objective is to get butts in the seats," he said. "How do you connect audiences who want your product and migrate them to sponsors? I have to find a product and connect emotionally with audiences who are the best advocates in growing your business. We are social beings. Facebook didn't create this. There are infinite calls to action asking you to spend your time watching them -- a lot of moving parts. We need to provide a robust way of connecting."
Jimmy Smits Opens Up About 'Sons of Anarchy' ... and Being Kept 'Off Kilter' by Show Creator Kurt Sutter
It’s been 27 years since Jimmy Smits burst onto the scene as one of television’s most memorable characters, attorney Victor Sifuentes on “LA Law.”
In many of his award-winning roles, including those on “The West Wing,” “NYPD Blue” and “Dexter,” Smits has operated on the enforcement side of the law, as a cop, a legislator and an assistant district attorney. Even in one of his very first roles, on “Miami Vice,” he played a vice detective in one episode of the iconic 1980s crime drama.
But in FX’s “Sons of Anarchy,” which concludes its Season 6 with a two-hour finale Tuesday at 10 p.m., Smits is firmly in the outlaw camp. He portrays Nero Padilla, a pimp and former gangbanger who runs a house of ill repute near the fictional Northern California town of Charming. His softer side is seen in his relationship with his disabled son.
Smits’ Padilla, whom he calls a “companionator,” made his first appearance last season in Kurt Sutter’s motorcycle gang drama -- in bed with Gemma Teller Morrow -- and now a good portion of the main action revolves around him. Spoiler alert: With Clay Morrow gone, he’s rid of his main rival for the affections and attention of Gemma (Katey Sagal). He’s also still navigating his relationship as a mentor, protector and father figure of sorts to her son and the MC’s president, Jax Teller.
Smits sat down with reporters recently to talk about his experience on the show, and the shifting relationships among the volatile and violent characters created by Sutter. Here are excerpts from the conversation.
Q: It’s been evident for a few episodes now that Nero is feeling a lot of confusion over his relationship with Jax and his affiliation with the motorcycle club. So where is Nero’s head now?
Jimmy Smits: Just where Kurt Sutter likes to keep all of his characters -- off kilter. He’s navigating between what the character started out with was with this kind of goal to have some kind of exit strategy, and that’s not working at all, and now it’s combined with this pull between his past and what the characters are each calling the streets and these new affiliations that he has with the Sons, and specifically with Gemma and Jax. So there’s a real kind of pull there. And as in Kurt Sutter style, all of the characters are left kind of off kilter.
Q: So if he does decide to break away from that partnership with Jax, do you think that it will be enough for him to break away or will he want to teach Jax a lesson?
Smits: One thing that I’ve noticed just in watching the shows previous, being in fan mode of the show, is that Kurt’s been really good about people getting their comeuppance and things that you do tend to come back and bite you. That’s been this recurring kind of shade that he’s had going through all of the six seasons, I think, and you’re seeing with the loss of different characters that that is a big thematic force with regards to the show. I do think it’s another kind of deep resonant chord that goes through the show, is that this sense of family and betrayal and what betrayal means when you’ve “sacrificed” something and the person transgresses in a way.
So I don’t know where it’s going. It’s going to materialize in some heavy-duty fashion. But he’s definitely torn right there because, as Gemma has said in the previous episodes to the Nero character, there’s an affinity that Jax has for him. He has many kind of consiglieres in this show that offer advice or that he gets wisdom from in different ways, and I think that Nero realizes that, and with the relationship that has developed with Gemma’s character it’s become even more solidified. But, having said that, his past and where he came from and what all that means is very, very strong as well.
Q: Is there anything about Nero that you added to this character that wasn’t originally scripted for you?
Smits: When Kurt writes these characters that have some grit to them, that are on the wrong side of the law, and when you’re doing somebody like that, even when I was involved in “Dexter” a couple years ago, I’m always trying to find people just don’t do bad things because they want to just do bad things. There’s some kind of reason behind it that they feel justified in doing that makes them feel in their minds morally right. So that’s been a constant with me in terms of Nero in trying to find out what makes him tick.
So I don’t know if because of that there’s a certain vulnerability that came out that I don’t think that they expected, and they’ve kind of been writing to that. My job is just to keep -- and we talk about this constantly -- is that to keep the edge going with him at the same time, because you want the character as much as possible to be fleshed out. So that’s the whole thing about a television show is that there’s a fluidity to it, and then the writers they’ll write something and they’ll see a spark there, whether it’s, “Hey, I didn’t know that there could be a comedic aspect to this particular character,” and they will start writing towards that. And so then it’s your job to keep things in moderation, too, because you want the character to be as flushed out as possible within the scope of the show.
Q: What have been some of your favorite scenes to film this season?
Smits: The little physicality that Jax and I had a couple of episodes ago was great for me, because I literally and figuratively got to exercise a different kind of muscle. So that was fun to do. And they had some great stunt people there that did a lot of work, and they wound up using not a lot of that. So we really, Charlie and I that day, that was a long night, and fun, fun to do.
Charlie’s work has been really superb, and I really give the guy a lot of props as an actor. He’s the lead on this particular show and the way he comports himself really kind of funnels down. And he’s a very bright guy and loves to talk acting, so there was a kind of good rapport that we’ve had. But when you get involved in some kind of physical thing like that it manifests itself in 30 second of a fight scene or whatever, but there’s something that transpires between the two people that are involved that brings the relationship literally to another kind of level. That’s the only way that I can explain it. So I really feel much closer to him as an actor and as a supporter.
Q: As you continue to delve into this character is there anything that you’ve found that you’ve been surprised to learn about yourself?
Smits: Kurt casually mentioned the aspect of the son, and I didn’t realize where that was going to -- you haven’t really seen the kid a lot -- but I didn’t realize how important that element was going to be. I just started to realize his essence and what he represents, because of his disabilities, plays so much into where that character and where Nero kind of lives and breathes and the choices that he makes. So it was kind of like serendipity that the make-up artist chose to put the kid’s name so prominent on the guy’s neck and just little things like that that you kind of go, “Oh, this makes sense on another kind of level.”
Q: Fans of the series are very notorious about what they like and what they don’t like, so how happy are you with how the fan reaction has been to your character?
Smits: I’m not really a social media person, so I’m not on Twitter and I don’t have a Facebook page. I’m not down on it, because I really see the value of it. But I’ve been told that they are very vociferous, they really are engaged in the show. And I’m amazed that they’ve kind of like embraced him the way they have, and we’ll see what happens when things turn.
Q: If 2013 Jimmy Smits could talk to mid 1980s Jimmy Smits about like the stuff that’s available on TV today, could you ever have fathomed that this type of show would even exist and that you would be part of it?
Smits: That’s a great point and a great question, because I have traversed a lot of genres and I’ve gotten to do that in the television arena. Certainly like Steven Bochco will say that for him to pitch “NYPD Blue” now on network television he would be hard-pressed to get that particular show on the air. But now, with the advent of cable and such, it’s like different branches of a big tree TV’s become. And they’ve found these great outlets for writers to be able to paint these very broad canvases, as Kurt has done here. You’re getting an insight to a particular culture thing with regards to this motorcycle “club” that people haven’t seen before. So they’re learning about all of that, but they’re getting engaged in this whole thing about family and this kind of like Shakespearean undertones that Kurt has put in there. It’s just great to see that we’ve been able to find these kinds of different outlets.
I’m going to be fascinated to see what happens with the different platforms like Netflix and all of these other stations, all of these other arenas that are happening where people will be able to see television in different ways.
Q: It’s very obvious how much Nero cares about Gemma and how important that relationship is to him, but is it enough to keep him from doing something he may wind up regretting?
Smits: I think you hit the nail on the head right there. What has developed over these past two seasons between these two characters is you’ve watched them kind of do this awkward, different kind of courtship that’s happened. I mean they’re saying “I love you” to each other now, and who would have thought that would have come out of Gemma’s mouth. Not just to her son and stuff, but to another relationship guy. We’ll see how that all plays out. I guess his way of dealing with the opposite sex is definitely very different from what you might normally think of when you think of the P-word, the pimp word. So I think that floods over in terms of the way he deals with everybody, and that includes Gemma.. But there’s a kindred spirit there; it’s no accident that they both have these like cuts where their heart is, and they’re trying to keep that repaired. Since they’ve met, they kind of have found a way to fill in that missing piece, that void that each of them had in their own way. And I’ve liked the way they’ve had to kind of negotiate their lives realizing what each of them bring to the party and they’ve found ways to navigate through all of it.
Certainly it was not easy for me to rationalize in my head how a guy would accept some of the things that have happened to her this season and not go off about it. Again, I think that speaks to the whole process of them completing each other in a way.
Q: When you signed on, was it with the understanding that it could be a multiple season thing or did it grow once you got into it?
Smits: No, when I signed on I really thought we were going to do what we did when I signed on to do “Dexter,” which was like 10 episodes and we’re out. I was surprised that it kind of morphed into what it has. Last season there was a point where I did kind of have to shift gears a little bit, because we started having these conversations about the possibility of staying on. We’ve had many conversations about this in terms of keeping the character’s edge going. So it’s important for me not to become this just kind of like functional character for one specific aspect of the show. I’m not down with that, so we talk about that a lot. Now we’re going to have serious conversations in the next month or so to determine what happens.
Q: So what was it like working with David Milch back in the day and how does it compare to working with Kurt Sutter?
Smits: David has a certain way of working that is kind of unorthodox because of the pace of television, but that man is a genius with regards to what he puts down for characters to do. And whatever his process is, or was with regards to “Blue” specifically, after whatever it was that it took to get to where we got to it was always better. So if it was late or whatever, last minute or on set changes or like that, there’s not a day that I can walk away and say, “Well, damn, we went through all of that shit and look at this.” It was always better. It was always gold, actually. So we had to go through what we had to go through to get to where we got to, but it was always better. I don’t have enough superlatives for the way he has his characters voice their inner thoughts.
And with regards to Kurt, although the shows might be long, and I don’t mind that and FX has to deal with that and it’s great that they give him that kind of leeway, and whatever kind of madness he has you can’t ever say the working relationship on set that doesn’t affect at all. The scripts are always on time, and it’s a different kind of way, it’s more your traditional kind of like what you would expect in a television show. Now the other kind of stuff that happens when they’re in the writer’s room I can’t speak on. But Kurt’s madness is controlled madness, which I like; it’s cool.
Q: Do you see for Nero that every decision he makes now means maybe there can be an end game for him?
Smits: That light at the end of the tunnel that he thought he saw -- there’s a realization that he has this relationship now that it’s very kind of real, he has this business partnership with the club and the relationship with Jax and that’s very real, and this tug with his past, where he came from, what the streets mean to him, and that is very, very real. In one of the episodes he alludes to something in a kind of jovial way about it’s the Godfather syndrome, I keep getting pulled back in, and I think that’s very much the case with a lot of the characters on the show.
And we’ll see how the tugs that he has on either side what direction that takes him to, because it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be a straightforward path towards the end game; there’s going to be a lot of like curves that he’s going to have to take. And certainly this transgression that he’s found out that happened with the death of that young woman and what that meant to him and what he feels about that transgression with Jax and what that means is going to take a lot of different turns. And it looks like that this underlying chord that Kurt has in his writing about betrayal and people getting their comeuppance and all of that stuff biting you back, that the turn, when it happens, it’s not going to be pretty as far as Nero is concerned.
Q: We were talking earlier about it being a golden age of TV, and clearly “Sons of Anarchy” is part of that. Personally, what shows do you like to watch?
Smits: Since I work in television I check in a lot on a lot of different shows just to see what’s going on in the landscape. So I like “The Blacklist” on network television and “Scandal” has become something that I’ve kind of gotten into because my family is really into it. I saw the first couple of episodes and I went, “OK, this show, that’s good,” but I’ve gotten back into it. And then on cable there’s just good stuff happening all over the place, so I’m a big “Boardwalk Empire” fan and into “Breaking Bad” and love “Ray Donovan” this year. And then I’m a news junkie, so I’m watching my boys on CNN and MSNBC.
Q: You founded the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, to promote the advancement of Latinos in the media, telecommunications and entertainment. How far do you think things need to go in that regard as far as Latinos in the entertainment industry?
Smits: I think we’ve made great strides, but it’s nothing for nothing, because it all relates to the fact that our population numbers have increased so much. And with regards to the entertainment industry the bottom line is it’s a business, so the fact that when you look at opening numbers of grosses for weekends in terms of like big tent pole movies and the Latinos are very involved in that first weekend, business- wise it just makes good sense that more opportunities are there. In terms of the landscape of actors since I started out, that has increased exponentially. Because there were always four or five different actors for every decade or generation that you could rattle off names, Ricardo Montalban or Raul Julia, Andy Garcia, there were always four or five, but now it’s exponentially grown in all of the different genres, all of the different arenas of the entertainment industry.
The next move has to be to jump on the other side, and what I mean by that is to be much more in control of the product with regards to writers, directors, producers, studio people. And once we make that kind of achievement, we’ll be much more in control of the product and be able to really tell stories that are much more relevant.
Q: What has “Sons of Anarchy” done for you as an actor? Has it ignited something different in you now for the future?
Smits: Certainly, I’m touching a different audience than I did when I was involved on “Law” or “Blue.” I definitely feel that, and that’s a good thing. I like the fact that this world is dark and gritty in a lot of ways, so that’s accessing something different for the performer. When I signed on to do “Dexter” a couple of years back it was with that kind of conscious intention to take the perceived television image and flip it on its head, and I felt like in a lot of ways we were able to do that and walk away from that experience having done what I set out to do. And this is kind of like I initially went into this with that expectation, and it’s kind of morphed into something else because I’ve stayed on, but I’m happy that it’s worked out the way it has.
(“Sons of Anarchy” airs on FX Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT.)
As predicted by just about everyone on the planet, Carrie Underwood sang beautifully on last night’s live version of NBC’s “The Sound of Music,” in a production that was torpedoed and sunk by her lack of acting experience. To call her performance stiff and wooden would almost be generous.
Any production of “The Sound of Music” lives or dies by who plays Maria, and it was gutsy of Underwood to take the part. But NBC should have had the guts to nix her casting. It was unfair to both her and us to use this huge platform to see whether she could act. One could have given her a screen test and then politely told her to come back after she learned how to act.
“The Sound of Music” is the musical version of the story of the von Trapp family singers. If only NBC had listened to the suggestion of Francoise von Trapp, made in a blog entry a year ago.
Francoise, the real granddaughter of Maria von Trapp, wrote: “Carrie Underwood as Maria? Seriously? I mean, I have nothing against her personally -- she's an extremely talented country singer, but I'm pretty sure my father is repeatedly rolling over in his grave. Since the movie version of ‘Sound of Music’ won an Academy Award the year I was born, it's always been easy to identify with Julie Andrews' portrayal of my grandmother. It's a little harder to envision Carrie that way. (But I do realize that's what happens when Hollywood freezes time.) And while the girl can sing (although her voice lacks the soprano purity of Julie Andrews) can she act? I'd like to know who else was in the running. Personally, I'd have put my money on Anne Hathaway, who in her upcoming role as Fantine in ‘Les Miserables,’ proves that she can act and sing.”
Brilliant. Why isn’t Francoise working in Hollywood?
The irony about NBC blowing it by miscasting the crucial lead part in “The Sound of Music” is that the original Broadway star of that show, Mary Martin, starred in another live musical on NBC, originally in 1955. The network finally was able to put it on videotape five years later and today, almost 60 years after it was first broadcast, that musical still sparkles in its dazzling buoyancy. It was “Peter Pan,” and it is among the fondest TV memories of millions of baby boomers.
The original, live version of “Peter Pan,” starring Mary Martin as that boy who never grows up, was seen as part of NBC’s "Producer’s Showcase” on Monday night, March 7, 1955. Before airing, the show had had a limited run on Broadway. When it was shown by NBC, it was seen by 65 million viewers, at that time the largest audience to ever have watched a TV program. It was so successful that NBC had Martin and the cast -- including Cyril Ritchard as a wonderfully over-the-top Captain Hook -- perform it live, on-air, again the next year.
By 1960, videotape and color were working pretty well, so NBC recruited Martin -- then appearing on Broadway as Maria in the original stage version of “The Sound of Music” -- to stage “Peter Pan” one last time. From then on this color videotape version was repeated several times on TV, and then later transferred to VHS and DVD for us to see it anytime we want, at home.
Jack Gould, who was the first TV reviewer for The New York Times, had watched and reviewed hundreds of TV shows between 1947 and that Monday night in March 1955 when 'Peter Pan" originally aired live on NBC. He wrote that the show was an “exhilarating tonic. ... The magic of TV and the wonder of make-believe were joined in an experience not soon to be forgotten. What made ‘Peter Pan’ so supremely delightful? Miss Martin, yes; many times yes. Cyril Ritchard as Captain Hook too. Sir James M. Barrie [who wrote the original play] as well. But there was something elusive and indefinable, a quality and a heart. Call it sublime fusion of skill and inspiration. … The greatness of the ‘Peter Pan’ telecast stemmed from a marriage of media under ideal circumstances. The advantages of ‘live’ television and the advantages of living theatre were merged as one. Alone neither medium could have offered the miracle of Monday evening.”
“Peter Pan” also worked so well, Gould wrote, because of the brilliance of the production, in “the heavenly flying through the air of Miss Martin, in her glorious performance that had spontaneity and yet was so professionally perfect and assured. The dances of Jerome Robbins? How different in their originality from the TV norm. And the style of Mr. Ritchard, so sure and deft and magnificent fun. There were, in short, many jewels, each brought to its own distinctive sparkle by patience, imagination and fantastic hard work.”
If you can, give yourself and your family a gift this holiday season and check out this “Peter Pan” on DVD.
Ah, if only NBC had listened to Francoise von Trapp and had cast Anne Hathaway as Maria. If it had, then all the TV critics would probably be singing NBC’s praises this morning as Gould did 60 years ago: “The National Broadcasting Company is entitled to unstinting praise for its wisdom and vision in forgetting formula-thinking in television and opening up its schedule to accommodate ‘Peter Pan.’ In the jargon of the trade it may be called ‘big television’ but far more accurately it is sensible television, even elementary television. … Excitement. That was what ‘Peter Pan’ had …”
Instead we got a “Sound of Music” that seemed more like a hail-Mary pass to a receiver going long downfield, an act of desperation from a network that is struggling to reclaim the greatness it once had.
Reading CNN President Jeff Zucker’s comments yesterday about the future of CNN, I was struck in particular by one paragraph. Here it is, quoted from CapitalNewYork:
“The 48-year-old Zucker initially faced internal resistance to his experiments beyond the realm of hard news, but he now has an irrefutable retort: The No. 1 show on CNN is now ‘Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,’ a travel-adventure show featuring the bad-boy celebrity chef. Zucker said that inside CNN, his formula has finally been accepted 'because people have seen the results.'”
What struck me about this paragraph -- and kudos to Washington Post news media blogger Erik Wemple for noticing this as well -- is that Bourdain was recruited to come to CNN from the Travel Channel BEFORE Zucker was hired at CNN.
Here’s an excerpt of a report by David Carr of The New York Times that appeared on June 3, 2012, which was five months before it was announced that Zucker was going to CNN. And the person who hired Bourdain to come to CNN wasn’t Zucker, it was Mark Whitaker:
“Mark Whitaker, managing editor of CNN Worldwide, has been working to decrease the network’s reliance on politics, where its middle-of-the-road approach often suffers in comparison to the edgier, more partisan offerings of Fox News and MSNBC. He began talking with Mr. Bourdain back in March in the belief that the chef’s penchant for traveling to far-flung places like Thailand and Saudi Arabia was a fit with CNN’s international credentials. More important, Mr. Whitaker wanted CNN’s first move out of its lane to come with a ready-made audience attached. CNN has no trouble attracting eyeballs, it just has trouble persuading them to stick around when the world is not on fire.
“‘Tony is appointment viewing and sticky in a way that we need to be,’ Mr. Whitaker said on the phone. ‘We are big fans of what he does and what he stands for, which is global and smart, but he goes beyond politics and war coverage. We need to be broader than that and we are looking hard to make that happen. Tony was the first person that came to mind.’“
In the CapitalNewYork interview Zucker reiterates much of what he has previously said, most particularly that CNN needs to broaden its audience and attract viewers who don’t usually tune in to the network: He wants the network to attract “viewers who are watching places like Discovery and History and Nat Geo and A&E,” the story said. Furthermore, Zucker added, “The goal for the next six months, is that we need more shows and less newscasts.”
Zucker also said HLN is in for a complete overhaul: It will be “‘rethought, reimagined, and rebranded’ to get away from the wall-to-wall courthouse coverage that earned HLN massive viewership during big events like the Jodi Arias and George Zimmerman trials. HLN ‘really just had a great year from an audience standpoint,’ he said, but: ‘it's not as strong a business proposition, and it's not really what advertisers are looking for. If we wanted to be in the court business, Time Warner would have kept Court TV.’“
That’s when it dawned on me that Zucker reminds me of another TV executive, our friend Frank Hackett, the Robert Duvall character in Paddy Chayefsky's brilliant 1976 movie "Network."
Hackett, as many of you will recall, was a top corporate TV executive at the UBS network.
People tell me -- OK, no one told me this, but I have a healthy imagination to make things up -- that when Zucker recently told some of the veteran CNN staff that he was going to reshape the network in the image of Bourdain’s show there was a big brouhaha and -- either consciously or subconsciously (no one could tell) -- Zucker started channeling Hackett and began shouting at the meeting, “You were hoping I'd fall on my face with this Bourdain show, but I didn't! It's a big, fat, big-titted hit, and I don't have to waffle around in any of your shit anymore!”
Zucker, on a roll, continued: “And if you don’t like what I’ve done with Bourdain, you’re really going to hate what’s coming: The Network News Hour with Snooki the Soothsayer, weather with Miss Kellie Pickler, and commentary we’re calling Vox Populi, starring the mad prophet of the airwaves, Keith Olbermann. I’ve hired the Duck boys to come over here to do sports and commentary about our new Dress Like a Zombie hour. Already sponsored for the whole damn season by Urban Outfitters.
"Listen, come next year at this time I’m going to be standing up there at the annual Time Warner management review meeting, and I'm going to announce unprecedented projected earnings for this network. That we’ve never had advertisers more pleased. That HLN now stands for the Holy-shit Louis C.K. -- Lady Gaga Network.“
At that moment Anderson Cooper got up to protest. Hackett, er, Zucker, basically told him that if he didn’t like the changes he could leave the company.
Cooper shot back: “Well, let's just say, fuck you, Jeff. You want me out, you're going to have to drag me out kicking and screaming. And almost everyone here will walk out kicking and screaming with me.”
Zucker didn’t blink: “You think they're going to quit their jobs for you? Not in this economy, buddy.”
As Cooper was storming out of the meeting he turned to Zucker and said, threateningly, “I'm going to spread this whole reeking business in every paper and on every network, independent, group, and affiliated station in this country. I'm going to make a lot of noise about this.”
Without missing a beat Zucker replied, “Great! We can use all the press we can get.”
And the really funny thing is, while Paddy Chayefsky -- whose dialogue I've mostly borrowed above -- met plenty of TV executives over the years to use as the models for those he wrote about in “Network,” I don’t think he ever met Jeff Zucker.
Dan Rather, JFK, Edward R. Murrow and the Business of TV News, Part 3: Is a Dream a Lie If It Don't Come True or Is It Something Worse?
[Today's entry is the final part of our series that we began last Friday. It ends as it began, with Dan Rather. We started our longish -- yet still abbreviated -- journey through the history of CBS News with documentaries made in the 1950s by Fred Friendly and Edward R. Murrow. Part 2 saw Howard K. Smith leaving CBS and the behind-the-scenes battle to replace Walter Cronkite as the anchor of the “CBS Evening News.” In tracing some of the history of CBS News thus far we’ve seen a number of major conflicts between the news division and CBS corporate. We begin today’s entry with the transition from Cronkite to Rather.]
As Walter Cronkite, the Most Trusted Man in America, ended his final broadcast anchoring the “CBS Evening News” on Friday, March 6, 1981, here’s what he said:
“This is my last broadcast as the anchorman of the ‘CBS Evening News.’ For me, it is a moment for which I long had planned, but which nevertheless comes with some sadness. For almost two decades, after all, we have been meeting like this in the evenings, and I’ll miss that.
“But those who have made anything of this departure, I’m afraid, have made too much. This is but a transition, a passing of the baton. A great broadcaster and gentleman, Doug Edwards, preceded me in this job, and another, Dan Rather, will follow. And anyway, the person who sits here is but the most conspicuous member of a superb team of journalists -- writers, reporters, editors, producers -- and none of that will change.
“Furthermore, I’m not even going away. I’ll be back from time to time with special news reports and documentaries, and, beginning in June, every week, with our science program, ‘Universe.’ Old anchormen, you see, don’t fade away, they just keep coming back for more.
“And that’s the way it is, Friday, March 6th, 1981. I’ll be away on assignment, and Dan Rather will be sitting in here for the next few years. Goodnight.”
As it turned out, when it came time for Rather to sit in that chair the following Monday, he chose not to. Here’s that story.
Bob Schieffer and Dan Rather have both said they have remained friends since first meeting many decades ago. But that doesn’t mean they are above being critical of one another.
When Schieffer came to work the day after Cronkite had left he was already “surprised … how the Rather crowd purged the broadcast center on West Fifty-Seventh of all remnants of the Cronkite regime,” wrote Douglas Brinkley in his authoritative 2012 biography “Cronkite.”
Brinkley continued, “Cronkite’s old beige set backdrop was repainted blue-grey, because Rather thought it enhanced his complexion. He even had the ‘Cronkite Newsroom’ plaque taken off the wall. ‘I would have had the “Cronkite Newsroom” sign plated in gold,’ a disgusted Schieffer scoffed. ‘I came to work that Saturday morning, March 7, after Cronkite quit. I was slated to do the “Evening News” that weekend night. And to my utter surprise, Walter’s anchor chair was gone from the set. “Where’s the chair?” I asked. I was told it had been moved to storage. “Go get the damn chair,” I told a stagehand. This being CBS it took all day to find it. But I broadcast the news from Walter’s chair.'”
Brinkley also wrote, “Rather, for all his great reportorial skills, was paranoid that Cronkite, after going on his global junket [to promote] ‘Universe,’ would plot a return to the anchor chair.”
We pick up the story with a blog post by Sandor Polster that was posted on March 7, 2011. Polster had been a writer on the “CBS Evening News” when Cronkite was the anchor, and he continued in this position when Rather took over:
“During weekend rehearsals following Cronkite’s last sign-off, Rather had indicated that he wanted to do something different to distinguish his reign, to set him apart from a person everyone knew could never be replaced. He said that he wanted to deliver the news perhaps standing up, or sitting on a bar stool, or walking on to the newsroom set. Nothing was resolved that weekend, and it was hoped by those working on the broadcast that by Monday he would forget the craziness.
“As the stage manager, Jimmy Wall, hollered out in his magnificent baritone voice, ‘Two minutes. Two minutes to air,’ Rather stood up from the chair and declared, ‘I want to sit here,’ and moved the typewriter and perched himself on [a] shelf [behind the desk and chair]."
The director, in the control room, went nuts, Polster wrote.
Then he added: “On the newsroom floor, it was a bit calmer, but panic nevertheless was present. With fewer than 100 seconds until Dan Rather was to say, ‘Good evening,’ his decision had sent Mickey Fox and other stagehands scrambling to readjust lights, and cameramen racing to refocus cameras, a process that under the best of circumstances should take many minutes. But true professionals as they were, the changes were made; the ceiling klieg lights went on as the other lights dimmed, and the newsroom fell silent.”
Sandy Socolow, long Cronkite’s executive producer, was also Rather’s executive producer that night, and he told Cronkite biographer Brinkley about Rather’s last-moment decision not to sit in the chair, “It was so disrespectful to the crew; it makes me sick to my stomach.”
And how did Rather look sort of half leaning on the shelf? Schieffer told Brinkley, “Quite frankly, Dan looked like he was going to the crapper.”
Brinkley said Cronkite, watching Rather’s debut at home, also thought it was weird: “Why was [Rather] embarrassed to sit in [what had been Cronkite’s] chair? It seemed to Cronkite rude and immature, like cooties in grade school.”
Rather himself must have realized it was pretty dumb, because after the first commercial break he was back in Cronkite’s old chair.
At least on that very first day Rather stayed on the set. A better-known incident occurred six years later, on Friday, Sept. 11, 1987.
Here’s Rather recounting what happened in his 2012 memoir, “Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News”:
“Dead air in Miami. This is one of those incidents that has stuck to me like a wad of old chewing gum on the bottom of my shoe. … I had left the set because we’d been put on notice that a semifinal tennis match at [the U.S. Open] between Steffi Graf and Lori McNeil was going to run long. … We were set to go on the air at 6:30 with special coverage of Pope John Paul II in Miami. … We had a tightly scripted half-hour, and the first we’d heard about the tennis problem was about 18 minutes before airtime. If we were going to have an abbreviated broadcast, we would need some time to determine how to cut it down. And, of course, until the match ended, there was no way to know how much time we’d actually have. The only way to buy time to figure it out was to have CBS Sports stay on the air at the conclusion of the match.
“Let me be clear: I did not walk off the set in a snit. Was I unhappy that tennis was being allowed to preempt the pope? Absolutely. I thought it set a very bad precedent, in effect telling viewers that sports was more important than news. But going black is one of the great cardinal sins in broadcasting and not something I would have done just to make a statement. Not ever.
“As we got closer to airtime, what I said -- several times -- was, 'If tennis isn’t off and you don’t come to us at 6:30, don’t come to us. I’ll be in place, ready at 6:30, but not immediately after that if our newscast doesn’t start. Give us a chance to regroup and get ourselves together. Have Sports hold it until we can know what we’re doing.'
“I was in the chair at 6:30 but was told that the tennis match was still going on. Since I thought the plan was clear, I unhooked myself and went out of the studio. I understood that CBS Sports was still running the show. Sports understood no such thing. When the match ended at 6:33, Sports put us into black. There was no wrap-up, they just tossed the broadcast to News.
“This was not anyone’s finest hour. Within both the Sports Division and the News Division, there was surely enough blame to go around among executives, producers and directors. Some of it belonged to me, but I was urged to hold my peace and let our corporate spinmeisters deal with damage control. Their way of doing that was to lay the incident squarely at my feet.”
What follows next is the account of the dead air incident that appeared, in full, in The New York Times on Sunday, Sept. 13, 1987, just two days after it happened. It’s written by Peter Boyer, the reporter who was then covering the TV beat for The Times.
It seems to me Boyer’s account pretty much includes how Rather says the incident went down -- though Rather didn’t speak to him. And importantly, Boyer’s account also includes some facts Rather didn’t mention. And, like most good reporters who are doing their job and who take their job seriously, it’s clear that Boyer spoke to some of the principals involved and not just some “corporate spinmeisters.”
By Peter Boyer
Dan Rather, angered because CBS decided to shorten the ''CBS Evening News'' to broadcast the end of a tennis match on Friday, walked off the set and caused the network to ''go black'' for six minutes.
The occurrence -- six minutes without a picture being transmitted -- was unprecedented, according to many CBS members, and prompted a flurry of angry telephone calls Friday and yesterday between officials at CBS News, CBS Sports and network management.
Mr. Rather, the anchor, and the ''Evening News'' staff were broadcasting from Miami on Friday night to cover the visit of Pope John Paul II.
A special ''Evening News'' studio was set up at the CBS Miami bureau, and the ''Evening News'' staff was preparing to go on the air when someone from CBS Sports indicated that the U.S. Open tennis tournament, which CBS Sports was televising, was running longer than had been planned.
The call came at 6:15 P.M., just 15 minutes before the first transmission of the ''Evening News'' was scheduled to begin. Most of CBS's affiliated stations around the country use that early feed although a second broadcast is made at 7 P.M. for some stations, including WCBS in New York.
When Mr. Rather was told that the tennis match between Steffi Graf and Lori McNeil was closer than expected and that the ''Evening News'' would be truncated, he telephoned New York to protest to Howard Stringer, the president of CBS News, according to several CBS staff members.
Mr. Rather told Mr. Stringer that if his broadcast did not go on at 6:30 as scheduled, he would not be in his anchor chair and that CBS Sports should fill the rest of the half-hour, according to the staff members and CBS officials. Mr. Stringer then telephoned Gene Jankowski, the president of the CBS Broadcast Group, to negotiate an earlier end to the tennis coverage.
Mr. Stringer apparently succeeded in getting some of the time back, but the sports crew in New York still needed a couple of minutes of ''Evening News'' time to wrap up their coverage.
It has been a difficult summer for Mr. Rather, whose broadcast slipped into third place in the ratings after nearly five years in first place. There has been heated discussion inside CBS News over the past few months about proposed changes in the Evening News, and there was for a time speculation that a co-anchor would join Mr. Rather on the broadcast. But last week, a new ratings system took effect, and it showed Mr. Rather back in first place, and many in the organization hoped that the broadcast was past its difficulties.
When 6:30 came, Mr. Rather was in his anchor chair, his microphone on and ready to go. But when CBS Sports did not yield the network air, Mr. Rather disconnected his microphone and walked out of the studio, according to CBS people in Miami.
A moment later, at just after 6:32, CBS Sports went off the air, and the network switched to Miami for what it thought would be Dan Rather and the ''CBS Evening News.'' But Mr. Rather wasn't there.
For six minutes, the network was black -- no picture was transmitted. Tom Bettag, the executive producer, told Mr. Rather outside the studio that CBS News had won its point and had gotten most of its time back from sports, but Mr. Rather said, ''I told them to have sports fill the time.''
Television stations around the country that carry Mr. Rather's broadcast at 6:30 were dismayed. The Miami station finally broadcast several minutes of a game show to fill the time.
The scene at the CBS bureau in Miami was frantic, but finally Mr. Bettag was told that the network had ''gone black.'' He found Mr. Rather and said, ''Dan, we've got to go on the air, we can't let the network be black,'' and Mr. Rather agreed, according to sources on the scene. Mr. Rather returned to the set, put his microphone on, and at 6:39, the ''Evening News'' went on the air.
As it happened, the first three minutes and 50 seconds were on tape, and CBS News producers could have filled some of the empty time by transmitting that portion of the broadcast while trying to get Mr. Rather, who is also the managing editor of the ''Evening News,'' into his anchor chair. But that option was dismissed, said one producer, who asked that his name not be used.
''The managing editor had told the president of CBS News that we were not going on at all if we couldn't go on at 6:30,'' the producer said. ''Under those circumstances, you can't just take the air.''
Mr. Rather was on a fishing boat in Florida yesterday and could not be reached for comment. Mr. Stringer declined comment.
These two incidents are just some of the relatively few bumps in the road that Rather has had over a stellar career that included a 24-year stint anchoring the “Evening News” for CBS. But I do think they offer some clues into his personality. Douglas in “Cronkite” wrote: “Nobody at CBS ever mastered the riddling essence of [Rather’s] character” and, “He sometimes came across as simultaneously loopy and wooden, edgy and insecure.”
Rather has said about himself that he’s a workhorse, not a racehorse. Newsday, the newspaper on Long Island, N.Y., once wrote this about Rather: “To many viewers, this anchorman has looked like he is about to explode right into their living rooms. The tight-lipped smile, the stiff bearing, the hard forced friendliness always have seemed to many a form of blatant phoniness, but to people that know him, Rather is simply out of his element as anchor.”
I agree with that assessment. I’ve always thought that Rather was much more in his element when he was reporting, either live or on tape, as opposed to when he was behind the anchor desk on the evening news.
And it’s absolutely true that he’s far more relaxed when you speak to him face-to-face. Over the years I’ve probably spoken to Rather a half-dozen times, including when he was the featured interviewee whom I interviewed at a TVWeek event. He’s smart, thoughtful, has a trademark quirky wit -- I’ve never heard him utter a Dan Ratherism that hasn’t brought a smile to my face -- and he is unfailingly polite.
Over his 44-year career at CBS News he could not have been more high-profile, yet he survived myriad sea changes in management.
That someone such as Rather, with his on-air personality that so many find perplexing if not down-right uncomfortable, and who has clearly been controversial, could have such a long run in the treacherous quicksand that paths the halls of CBS is remarkable. He lasted there years longer than his mentor, Murrow, and such news giants as Howard K. Smith and Roger Mudd and many others.
Ultimately, Rather took the bullet for a “60 Minutes” report about George Bush’s time in the Texas Air National Guard that was aired in 2004. At the time I heard that some at CBS felt Rather had done some things to embarrass them into running another story that some of them had not particularly wanted to run, so he was vulnerable to their not trusting him when questions came up about the Bush/Guard story. I don’t know whether that’s true or not.
What is true, as Rather has pointed out several times, is that it’s never been proved whether the documents used in the Bush/Guard story were forgeries or not, and if they were fake, who would have forged them.
So Rather is fired and later he sues CBS for $70 million. The court threw it out because CBS paid Rather his then $6 million annual salary, per his contract. Thus, as Rather himself wrote in his book “Rather Outspoken": “As long as CBS paid me according to my contract, which they had, I had absolutely no grounds to bring suit. ‘Contractually,’ wrote Judge James Catterson, who authored the unanimous opinion, 'CBS was under no obligation to use Rather’s services or to broadcast any program so long as it continued to pay him the applicable compensation.'”
One of the issues that Rather says most bothered him was a discussion Rather’s agent, Richard Liebner, had with CBS chief Leslie Moonves. Rather wrote Liebner told him, “I believe Moonves is under extraordinary heat from Sumner [Redstone, Moonves’ boss] to have you out [of the anchor chair at the ‘CBS Evening News’] the day before yesterday, but I can work with Moonves. He really does have your best interests at heart, Dan. He likes you, and he’s very sorry this has happened. If you agree to make the announcement that you’re stepping down, you’ll segue into working on ’60 Minutes’ Sunday and everything will be fine.”
Of course that’s not what happened, and Rather left CBS. Before his lawsuit was thrown out, Rather and his lawyer had deposed Moonves.
Rather wrote, “The issue was raised of the agreement that had been reached with my agent, Richard Liebner, to extend my contract and to keep me on at ’60 Minutes,’ and the letter of intent that Moonves signed to that effect. Moonves acknowledged that he had signed that document, but he maintained that it was not a contract and that he’d only signed it to get Liebner off his back. He said he never considered it binding and never had any intention of honoring it.”
Then Rather added that when the deposition was over, Moonves came around the table to shake his hand. “I shook it; I thought it was the gentlemanly thing to do. I didn’t feel good about it, but I did it …”
It reminds me of what Roger Mudd wrote about what happened when Bill Leonard, then president of CBS News, told him that Rather would be succeeding Conkite instead of Mudd. It turned out to be Mudd’s last few moments at CBS News after being there almost two decades. “We shook hands," Mudd wrote, "I don’t know why.”
Having read myriad memoirs about newsmen who spent large chunks of their careers with CBS News, it seems they never get over leaving the place. And Leonard said CBS News Presidents Richard Salent and Bill Small always felt they were first and foremost CBS newsmen, though both went to NBC when they left CBS.
Clearly Rather feels that same connection to CBS, where he spent the vast majority of his career. And for him, leaving -- especially not leaving on his own terms -- continues to bother him like a open wound, festering.
And having his lawsuit thrown out before it was heard before a jury was clearly throwing salt in the wound.
And there are hurt feelings among those who still admire Dan at CBS. And there are others there who just don’t like him.
So do I think CBS is trying to erase Dan from its history, as Dan suggests? I think when they don’t have to mention him they don’t and won’t. Why would they? What do they have to gain? Perhaps that’s not unlike the feeling Dan had when he replaced Cronkite.
It’s not a rewriting of history. Dan’s record of what he did at CBS has been well documented.
Dan is also concerned about journalistic independence. But I think as this long entry has demonstrated, the conflict between CBS’s corporate interests and CBS News goes back to the earliest days of TV. Somehow, though, great journalists doing great journalism seems to survive in our democracy.
Do we need to be vigilant? Absolutely.
Same as it ever was.
I think if Mr. Springsteen were able to have a chat with Ed Murrow and Howard Smith and Roger Mudd and Salent and Small and Cronkite and the list goes on and on and on, and, yes, even if Dan Rather were in the room, and Springsteen were to ask all of them if a dream is a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse, they would all reply that, for whatever short time it was, the dream did come true for each of them, and it was better than any of them dreamed it could have been.
Here is a list of some of the books I used in preparation for this three-part essay. I recommend them all. They all can be purchased in both print and electronic versions except Bill Leonard's 1987 memoir "In the Storm of the Eye: A Lifetime at CBS" and Howard K. Smith's "Events Leading Up to My Death: The Life of a Twentieth-Century Reporter," which are only available in a print editions. Both Dan Rather and Bob Schieffer have written a number of other books as well, all of which are worthwhile.
"Cronkite" by Dougles Brinkley. HarperCollins. 2012.
"Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control..." by Fred W. Friendly. Random House, New York. 1967
"Events Leading Up to My Death: The Life of a Twentieth-Century Reporter" by Howard K. Smith. St. Martins Press. New York. 1996
"In the Storm of the Eye:A Lifetime at CBS" by Bill Leonard. G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York. 1987.
"Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News" by Dan Rather. Grand Central Publisher, New York. 2012.
"The Place to Be: Washington, CBS, and the Glory Days of Television News" by Roger Mudd. PublicAffairs, New York. 2008.
"This Just In: What I Couldn't Tell You on TV" by Bob Schieffer. Berkley Books, New York. 2003.
Dan Rather, JFK, Edward R. Murrow and the Business of TV News, Part 2: Is a Dream a Lie If It Don't Come True, or Is It Something Worse?
[In part 1 of this piece, posted last Friday, Nov. 22, 2013, we spoke about the bad blood that continues between Dan Rather and CBS News. This led into a discussion about the sometimes very contentious relationship between CBS corporate and CBS News that dates back to the beginning of serious news coverage on TV in the 1950s. At the end of part 1, the journalist who was responsible for presenting and hosting, for the first time, the most thoughtful documentary programming on TV -- Edward R. Murrow -- was, for all intents and purposes, forced out of CBS by the man who built the network (including CBS News) into a radio and TV powerhouse, company Chairman William S. Paley. Murrow’s last day at CBS was Jan. 31, 1961.]
When CBS news producer Fred Friendly had argued in vain to get Paley to allow Edward R. Murrow to become his co-producer and host of CBS’s new documentary series “CBS Reports," Paley countered, “What do you have against Howard K. Smith,” Friendly wrote in his 1967 memoir “Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control.”
Friendly replied that he didn’t have anything against Smith, and in fact was a big fan of his. Smith was then a 20-year veteran with the company, first hired by CBS radio in 1941 as a war correspondent. He was one of the original “Murrow boys,” those men reporters who, like Murrow, kept Americans glued to their radios during World War II by reporting, primarily, what was happening in Europe.
With Murrow no longer an option, Friendly agreed that Smith would become the host of “CBS Reports.” Several months later, in May 1961, “CBS Reports” was filming a report about civil rights unrest in Birmingham, Ala. Smith was there as the CBS cameras caught civil rights workers being brutally beaten as the police just watched, Friendly wrote, and “in recording the closing piece for the program Smith quoted Edmund Burke at another time of crisis: ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’"
CBS News President Richard Salent and Paley went ballistic. Paley, who had had his fill of “stomach aches” from Murrow’s various commentaries, wouldn’t allow Smith’s quoting of the line to be aired. CBS management was also upset with “several other incidents about the forth-rightness of Howard’s commentary,” Friendly noted, which, in turn, angered Smith. CBS also had some issues about Smith in his new position as Washington, D.C., bureau chief, according to Friendly.
After arguing his case to no avail with Salent, Smith met with Paley. According to Smith, in his 1996 memoir, “Events Leading Up to My Death,” after Smith defended his commentaries, ''Paley reached into an inside pocket and drew out my brief. He narrowed his eyes as he looked at me. Then he threw the document across the table to me. 'I have heard all this junk before,' he said. 'If that is what you believe, you had better go somewhere else.'”
According to Friendly, “A brief, unsigned public notice was the only tribute to Howard’s 20 years of devoted service: ‘CBS News and Howard K. Smith announced today that their relations are being terminated because of a difference in interpretation of CBS News policy.'”
Fortunately for the rest of us, Smith went onto a long career delivering news and commentaries for ABC News.
Friendly wrote that he could not believe that in the space of a few months both Murrow and Smith were gone from CBS. When Friendly argued with Paley to try and have the CBS chief reconsider firing Smith, Friendly said Paley came up with the brilliant, ironic line, “What’s your objection to working with [Eric] Sevareid or [Charles] Collingwood." Such was the depth of the CBS News bench with distinguished “Murrow boys.”
In Smith’s short tenure as the Washington, D.C., bureau chief for CBS News, he had time to ask only one person to come on board as a correspondent. On May 31, 1961, Roger Mudd joined CBS News.
Bill Small became the Washington bureau chief in 1962. The next year, on Sept. 3, 1963, Walter Cronkite made this announcement to the nation when his evening newscast began: “Good evening from our CBS newsroom in New York, on this, the first broadcast of network television’s first daily, half-hour news program.” Prior to that day, regularly scheduled network newscasts ran only 15 minutes.
Mudd, in his 2008 memoir, “The Place to Be: Washington, CBS and the Glory Days of Television News,” says that landmark telecast “set off the seismic shift that moved television news ahead of the newspaper as the country’s main source of news.”
Nine years later, Mudd wrote, when Lesley Stahl joined the CBS News Washington bureau in 1972, it was THE powerhouse TV news bureau. Besides Stahl and Mudd, Small’s Washington bureau included Dan Rather, Daniel Schorr, Marvin Kalb, George Herman, Robert Pierpoint, Ike Pappas, Barry Serafin, Phil Jones, Bob Schieffer and others I’m sure I’m leaving out.
Even five years before that, in 1967, Mudd wrote that when Small tried to hire Doug Kiker to work in CBS’s Washington bureau, Kiker said, “If your entire first string was killed in a single plane crash and your second string came down with the flu and couldn’t work, I still wouldn’t get on the air.” Kiker, who wanted to move from being a print journalist to an on-air role at the time, instead joined NBC, where he stayed for 25 years.
In 1964, two years after joining CBS News, Dan Rather was assigned to the CBS News Washington bureau. Mudd wrote: “During his first year in Washington we became friends. I knew what he was going through, fearful of failing, anxious about being accepted, nervous about being beaten (to a story). We had connections to, or affinities for, the South -- its courtesies, its humor, and its sense of the absurd." Rather was born and raised in Texas; Mudd was born in Washington, D.C., and spent a lot of time in the South.
Mudd added that Rather was “strikingly handsome … . Gordon Manning, a news vice president, said when he walked through an airport with Rather young women would stumble to get a good look at him.”
Mudd also noted that Rather’s “Depression-era childhood in Texas had naturally left him scrambling for a better and perhaps more glamorous life. He once said he had always dreamed of going to the Metropolitan Opera -- not so much to see the opera as to arrive in a long, black limousine.”
Mudd continued, “We were about the same age, had married the same year, and had young families” and their families hung out together.
A year later, when Rather was transferred to London, the Mudds gave the Rathers a goodbye party, Mudd wrote.
After 10 months in London, Rather spent another 10 months as a war correspondent reporting from Vietnam. He then returned to Washington.
By 1965, with the war blazing in Vietnam, Fred Friendly, Murrow’s old co-producer, was president of CBS News. Mudd wrote that when Friendly asked him to leave Washington -- where Mudd was CBS’s go-to congressional correspondent -- to become a war correspondent in Vietnam, Mudd refused. Mudd wrote that he refused because “I had a young family and I was a political reporter who believed Congress need a full-time correspondent," just as other Washington beats had full-time correspondents.
When Rather returned from Vietnam, Mudd wrote, “He was a different Dan Rather. He returned to Washington more aggressive, more confident, more polished, more suspicious of his colleagues, and more skeptical of the powerful. He was tough, hard-working. ... But no White House correspondent in CBS history attracted quite as much lightning.
“As he began to challenge me on specials, during instant analysis, on the year-end wrap-ups, I discovered that he had become less my friend and more my rival."
Mudd wrote this in 2008. One might want to take Mudd’s remarks about Rather with a grain of salt because of a life-changing event that happened to both men in 1980.
By the summer of 1979, there was a major decision to be made within CBS News. Bill Leonard, who had first joined CBS at the end of 1945, had recently replaced Richard Salent as president of CBS News.
Almost simultaneously, the Most Trusted Man in America -- Walter Cronkite -- told Leonard he wanted to leave the “CBS Evening News.” Leonard tried unsuccessfully to talk him out of it.
In his memoir, “In the Storm of the Eye: A Lifetime at CBS,” published in 1987, Leonard wrote that he had three candidates to replace Cronkite.
One was Charles Kuralt. Wrote Leonard, “When he substituted for Walter on the ‘Evening News’ during the ‘Who’ll succeed Cronkite’ period in the summer of ’79 he seemed so relaxed, comfortable and old-shoe that hundreds wrote urging his selection.”
Another candidate to replace Cronkite was Mudd. By this time Mudd had become Cronkite’s regular substitute. Leonard wrote, “An unpopular choice in the executive suites at CBS and among our affiliates, circles in which he was unwilling to glad-hand, but probably the odds-on choice among senior news people. ... A good political and election-night reporter. Not much field experience outside of Washington. A superb news reader."
The third candidate was Rather. Wrote Leonard: “Clearly up-and-coming. He had most recently blossomed as a correspondent on ’60 Minutes,’ and the ratings of that program confirmed it. He has shown he was a superb convention-floor reporter and a cool hand in crisis. As an election-night studio reporter, he seemed to me and others to be perhaps the very best we had ever had, hardly even excepting Walter himself.
“There it was. Those were the only choices, really -- bearing in mind that NO ONE could replace Walter Cronkite.”
As critical a decision as this was to be, when Leonard was deciding who should succeed Cronkite he said he never discussed it with Paley, until he had already decided who he wanted. And, as chance would have it, the contracts of both Rather and Mudd were expiring as the successor to Cronkite was being decided.
Leonard’s initial idea was a double anchor. This had proved very popular at NBC with Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. Rather could be based in New York, and Mudd in Washington.
Leonard decided to sound out the idea with Rather and Mudd. Wrote Leonard, “Rather told us he had nothing but high regard for Roger, and if that’s the way management wanted to slice the pineapple it would be all right with him, all other things being equal (all other things being the right contract).”
Leonard had one of his lieutenants, who was closer to Mudd than Leonard was, ask Mudd how he would feel about co-anchoring with Rather. Wrote Leonard: “Mudd didn’t even miss a beat. ‘I wouldn’t do it,' he said. ‘That’s final?’ And Mudd said ‘Yep.’ And that was that.”
Mudd, in his memoir, wrote that the reason he turned down the idea of co-anchoring with Rather was “mainly because I saw only trouble in harness with a man about whom I had professional misgivings."
For one, Mudd was critical of Rather over Rather’s famous confrontation with President Nixon during a Nixon press conference:
Nixon: Are you running for something?
Rather: No sir, Mr. President, are you?
Mudd opined in his memoirs that in this confrontation Rather “violated a central rule for journalists: never become more important than the story and never get in the way of the story.”
After CBS inquired whether he would co-anchor with Rather, Mudd wrote: “At that point I told my agent, Bill Cooper, that the next move was up to CBS and that I did not want him calling Leonard. Neither did I want him calling other networks, shopping me around. Negotiating with the competition while still under contract to CBS struck me as underhanded. I considered myself above the fray and was, in effect, dealing myself out.”
As you’re about to read, this strategy -- many would say it was an arrogant non-strategy -- was incredibly ineffective, bordering on being absurd.
Here’s Leonard’s account of the same event. Leonard, who died in 1994, published his memoirs 21 years before Mudd (who is now 85) published his memoirs in 2008. Leonard wrote that Mudd was uncomfortable with his bosses. He added that after asking Mudd if he would co-anchor with Rather, “In the months that followed, while the negotiations with Dan Rather swayed back and forth, there never was a word from Roger Mudd, not even a visit from his agent. It always remained a mystery to me why Mudd stayed so aloof from a process that deeply involved his career. Was it pride? Strategy? I never knew then and I do not know to this day.”
Rather, on the other hand, through the auspices of his agent, Richard Liebner, was very active, not only with Leonard and CBS News, but with testing the waters to see whether there was interest in Rather elsewhere.
Meanwhile, with not a word from Mudd or his camp, Leonard had a decision to make. Mudd would not agree to co-anchor with Rather. So who should he pick?
The highly respected Salant, who had just left CBS News, clearly would have picked Mudd, Leonard wrote. According to the 2012 biography “Cronkite” by Douglas Brinkley, “Cronkite pushed for Rather to be his successor because he was a terrific international correspondent. Mudd, by contrast, had just worked the D.C. beat.” Later, Cronkite became unenamored of Rather.
Leonard said he made up his mind about who should be Cronkite’s successor based on “three qualifications desirable in a network news anchor.”
No. 1, the winner should “have excellent journalist credentials and be an attractive, convincing broadcaster.” Leonard thought Mudd and Rather fit the bill for this, but not Kuralt.
No. 2, “He should be at his best in a crisis, quarterbacking a major story.” Leonard thought only Rather qualified on this score.
And No. 3, the winning candidate should be good “ambassador from CBS and CBS News to the public and to the hundreds of CBS radio and television stations.” Leonard thought Kuralt and Rather would be excellent ambassadors but not Mudd, who he wrote was essentially “a very private person.”
So Leonard decided that Rather needed to follow Cronkite into the anchor chair on the “Evening News.”
Rather’s agent, Richard Liebner, at the same time was doing a stellar job of selling Rather, both to CBS News to succeed Cronkite, and to become ABC’s premier newscaster. How much did ABC want Rather, who was currently making $300,000 a year, according to Leonard’s memoirs? Well, four years earlier, in 1978, they had signed Barbara Walters away from NBC at a salary of an astounding $1 million per year for five years. And they were willing to pay twice that much for Rather.
So the package Liebner presented to Leonard for CBS News to keep Rather and to promote him to succeed Cronkite as the anchor and managing editor of the “CBS Evening News” was, at the time, mindboggling: $2.2 million a year for 10 years.
Leonard describes the moment on Feb. 7, 1980, that he shook hands on the deal with Liebner: “‘Richard,’ I groaned … ”you’ve got every damned thing you want. Everything. You haven’t left us with a single thing.’“
To which Liebner replied, “Oh yes I have, baby. I’ve left you Rather.”
But the deal wasn’t quite done. Leonard and his boss, Gene Jankowski, called a meeting to inform Paley and John Backe, then president of CBS, about the deal.
When the moment in the meeting came when Leonard had to tell Backe and Paley the price to keep Rather, Backe exploded, Leonard wrote.
“You made this deal!” Backe screamed at Leonard. When Leonard confirmed that he and Liebner had a handshake deal, Backe said: “Then unshake it. That’s the most obscene, indecent, irresponsible thing I have ever come across. You vastly exceeded your authority. Vastly. I’ll never OK something like this as long as I’m president of this company. Never.”
Then Backe went on about how it would ruin the salary structure of the news division. Leonard said he was worried about that too, but that he felt Rather going to ABC and not replacing Cronkite was more important, financially, to CBS, and thus “worth any kind of money.”
Backe exploded again: “This company doesn’t have ANY KIND OF MONEY!” We have whole divisions that don’t make $22 million in 10 years.”
Then Backe said Rather was not the right replacement anyway. Jankowski and Leonard defended their choice.
Finally, Paley spoke. He said that at one time he paid Jack Benny to move from NBC radio to CBS radio and it was the biggest deal of its kind at the time. Then Paley added, “I never thought I’d live to see anything approaching that for one man. It’s too much money for one man. Particularly a newsman.”
And, of course, Cronkite himself wasn’t making anything close to $2.2 million a year.
The argument went on and on for about an hour. Finally, Jankowski slipped a note to Paley that said simply that each rating point was the equivalent of $5 million. And Cronkite had at least a 2 point rating lead over his rivals.
Leonard wrote, “Paley read it and looked over at Jankowski. “Is that really true, Gene?” “Absolutely, Mr. Chairman.”
Leonard then said he had to get back to Liebner in less than an hour and he needed a decision. Backe said, “We’d be making a big mistake. I’m still dead set against it.”
They all looked at Paley.
The chairman spoke “slowly and deliberately,” Leonard recalled. “‘It’s been my experience in life,’ Paley said, ‘that some of the cheapest things turn out to be the most expensive and some of the most expensive things turn out, in the long run, to be the cheapest.’ He stopped, got up, said thank you, and left.”
Leonard flew down to Washington to tell Mudd. The two hadn’t talked in months. Here’s Mudd’s account of what happened:
Leonard: "We’re going with Rather. Of course we want you to stay, but you won’t be substituting for Walter anymore.”
Mudd: "Do you really think I’d want to?
Mudd wrote: “I told him his decision hurt, because it was such a sudden and public humiliation. His decision had been leaked and was on the radio even before I got the word. Leonard said he was sorry he hadn’t been able to keep me posted but he hadn’t known for sure until that morning whether Rather would stay at CBS. I found out later he had had a handshake deal with Rather’s agent for more than a week.
“I asked to be released from my contract immediately. He refused.
“He suggested that I was bitter. I agreed. He said the bitterness would pass in a week or two. I disagreed.
“We shook hands. I don’t know why. He was gone in 15 minutes, jetting back to New York to announce the news. A newspaper reporter asked him at his press conference why there was such a rush. Couldn’t he have waited until the next day, Friday. Leonard said it would have been a weekend story -- always the worst time for major press and TV coverage.”
In his memoir, Leonard also wrote of his meeting with Mudd that day, calling it “short and ugly. I have no idea whether the news that Dan would succeed Walter came as a surprise to Roger. I find it hard to imagine that he had no inkling of what might be coming.
“At any rate, he took it very hard. I told him that I had let him know as quickly as I possibly could, but he said it had been handled in a manner that was extremely embarrassing to him and his family, who apparently heard the news on the radio just before I arrived. His face was pale and his lips bitter and thin. And he asked me if he could be relieved of his contract, which had the best part of the election year to run. I said, as I recall, that I didn’t think so. And I stuck to that. I am very competitive and I did not want Roger Mudd, a first-rate -- perhaps the best -- network political reporter, working for the opposition during a presidential campaign. … He was deeply hurt and felt publicly humiliated …”
Mudd, in his memoir, picked up what happened that day after Leonard left. “In a quiet fury, I went back to my desk, gathered up my personal belongings and walked out of the bureau for good. … There was not a sound in the newsroom as I left. No one said a word. It was eerie.”
Mudd had been with CBS News for 19 years. He had been Cronkite’s full-time substitute for seven years.
It was three o’clock in the afternoon. After killing time by going to a used bookstore for a few hours, Mudd made his way home. He wrote, “The news I brought [my wife] E.J. that evening outraged her -- more than it did me, I think. Not so much the decision itself, but the way the whole affair had been handled and the callous disregard for her husband’s dignity.
“The questions neither of us could answer were: What were all those years of totally loyal service for? Why had I stayed on that ascending escalator for so long only to be pushed off one step short of the top? We sat in our kitchen near the big fireplace, stunned and bewildered, trying without much success to comfort one another.”
Eventually, E.J. said they had dinner plans and had to go. Most likely Roger Mudd, who had just turned 52 the week before, had forgotten the occasion. E.J. reminded him. It was the Feast of Saint Valentine.
To which Mudd wrote in his memoir a bitter chocolate response: “What a sweetheart of a day.”
He remained on the CBS News payroll until just after the November elections, though he remained off the air. It was the first national election he hadn’t covered in years. Eventually Mudd joined NBC, then PBS, followed by the History Channel.
Cronkite’s last night as the anchor of the "CBS Evening News" came 13 months later, on Friday, March 6, 1981. CBS News management, always mindful of the bottom line, had asked Cronkite to stay with the newscast through the February sweeps, which he did, according to Douglas Brinkley in “Cronkite.”
Dan Rather, who was 49, began his run as the anchor of the “CBS Evening News” the following Monday, March, 9, 1981.
Part 3 of this column will continue tomorrow.
Dan Rather, JFK, Edward R. Murrow and the Business of TV News, Part 1: Is a Dream a Lie If It Don't Come True or Is It Something Worse?
Dan Rather is still clearly upset that he was fired from CBS News after working there for 44 years, and there remains bad blood between him and the network. Most recently he’s pissed that CBS didn’t mention him in the press material it released about a show it aired on Nov. 16, 2013, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. (The assassination was 50 years ago today.)
In an AP story published several weeks ago, on Nov. 5, the reporter wrote that “Rather expressed concern about an effort by CBS to ‘airbrush this guy out because we don't like him,’" since he wasn’t mentioned in the press release about the JFK show. (CBS told the AP that clips of Rather -- who was on the scene in Dallas when Kennedy was shot -- were in the show.)
Last Thursday, on Nov. 14, 2013, Rather held a telephone press conference to promote his own show about the JFK assassination that airs tonight, Nov. 22, 2013, on AXS-TV, where Rather now works.
During that press conference Ed Bark, who has covered the TV beat for years, noted that he saw Rather’s remarks in the AP story. But, Bark asked, wouldn’t the fact that Rather was doing his own special on AXS end up being a lot better for Rather than being included for a few minutes in a CBS special?
Rather reiterated that he wasn’t mentioned in the original CBS press release about its special, and then he said: “This follows the pattern that they've had for some years of, in effect, trying to airbrush me out of their history. That doesn't bother me all that much, nor should it. If anybody is to care about it -- and I'm not saying anybody should -- it's one thing for the corporations, for their own purposes, to say, ‘Look, we just want it as if Dan Rather was never here.’”
Rather continued: “But as a news organization responsible for history, I think the consumer, the news consumer, might want to question whether you want large corporations trying to change history for their corporate interests. It's not a big issue. It may not be an issue at all, but if there's anything to be concerned about how [CBS] handled it, that would be it.” And then Rather added that he has moved on and said, “My focus is not on what CBS is doing or not doing.”
I wish Rather would just drop the facade of “aw shucks, this really isn’t anything” that he tries to temper these remarks with, when clearly he cares a lot about what CBS says and thinks about him, and thinks we should too. Someone who doesn’t really care a lot about a company that fires him or her after a 44-year run that enriched him or her by millions of dollars doesn’t then turn around and sue that company for $70 million, as Rather did.
For the past several years, at least, Rather has been concerned with big business being in bed with big government, and how that can be bad for journalism when news organizations are owned by big businesses. News is in crisis, he says, due to its corporatization, its politicization, and its trivialization. It's one of the points he makes in his most recent book, “Rather Outspoken: My Life in News,” published in 2012.
Rather has always considered himself as a latter-day version of one of “Murrow’s boys,” referring to legendary CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow and those reporters who worked with Murrow and followed in his footsteps. Rather joined CBS News in February 1962, about a year after Murrow had left the company, and Rather has said that Murrow is his “North Star.” Similarly, he puts William S. Paley, the man who built CBS into a radio and TV giant, and Richard S. Salant, an early president of CBS News, high on pedestals as almost saint-like figures but who weren’t quite perfect. Rather isn’t as generous when talking about current CBS chief Leslie Moonves, or Moonves’ boss, Sumner Redstone.
And while Rather is clearly familiar with what, in reality, has at times been a very strained relationship between CBS corporate and CBS News in past years, it’s not something he appears to dwell upon. But let us dwell upon it for a while.
At its core it’s a tale of influence and money, as these things usually are. And perhaps more than Rather would like to admit, what happened between him and CBS was more part of a linear continuum than an aberration.
We’ll begin with “See It Now,” one of the great documentary series in the history of TV. It debuted 62 years ago this week on CBS. It ran regularly from 1951 through 1955, and then occasionally, until July 1958. Murrow was the host and co-producer, along with Fred Friendly. The “See It Now” episode about Sen. Joseph McCarthy was the subject of the movie “Good Night, and Good Luck,” which starred David Strathairn as Murrow and George Clooney as Friendly.
Besides McCarthyism, “See It Now” often dealt with controversial subjects. And Murrow would often make some editorial remarks at the end of the show that were also controversial, driving CBS chief Bill Paley to distraction.
Here’s Friendly, from his 1967 memoir, “Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control” referring to the climate at CBS in 1954: “We could feel CBS’s support for ‘See It Now’ fading ever so gradually. For all its honors, the program had become as controversial as most of the conflicts we were reporting. ...
“During the 1954-55 season we did a two-part report on cigarettes and lung cancer, and both CBS and [‘See It Now’ sponsor] Alcoa aluminum felt the pressures of the tobacco industry, which buys both air time and aluminum foil. The attitude at CBS was: ‘Why does Murrow have to save the world every week.’"
[Ironically, Murrow was a heavy smoker and smoked on the air. Friendly says Murrow smoked 60-65 cigarettes a day, and Murrow died in 1965 of lung cancer. He was only 57 years old when he died.]
At the end of the 1954-55 TV season, Paley met with Murrow and Friendly. He told them that the show was losing its weekly time slot and would become hour-long, but not scheduled on a regular basis. As Friendly explained, “The new arrangement took long- and short-range scheduling out of our hands. ... No longer could we alone decide to do a McCarthy broadcast … or a report on lung cancer.”
He added that from the CBS corporate point-of-view, the freeing up of the “See It Now” time slot was “a business calculation to create more financial yield from the time period” by putting in an entertainment show rather than a documentary series.
Even with the irregularity of the hour-long shows, a number of the episodes still drew controversy. In March 1958, there was a “See It Now” program about making Alaska and Hawaii states. After its airing, a congressman demanded that CBS give him equal time because he was mentioned derogatorily by someone in the program. Friendly and Murrow were against giving the congressman any airtime, and wrote Paley notes saying so. Murrow even wrote a memo saying that if the network did give the congressman equal time it might make the continuation of “See It Now” problematic. CBS management gave the congressman the airtime he requested.
Soon after, Friendly and Murrow met with Paley. Murrow suggested a plan wherein in the future he and Friendly could participate more fully in decisions about demands for equal time due to anything said in episodes of “See It Now.”
Based on the notes Murrow and Friendly had written, Paley said to Murrow, “But I thought that you and Fred didn’t want to do 'See It Now' any more,” Friendly wrote.
There then ensued a 45-minute argument between Paley and Murrow and Friendly. Friendly wrote, “One brief burst of dialogue told it all:
“'Bill,' Murrow pleaded [with Paley] at one point, 'are you going to destroy all this? Don’t you want an instrument like the "See It Now" organization, which you have poured so much into for so long, to continue?'
“'Yes,' said Paley, 'but I don’t want this constant stomach ache every time you do a controversial subject.'”
Friendly then added: “Nothing else that was said mattered. After seven years and almost two hundred broadcasts, ‘See It Now’ was dead.”
A few pages later Friendly wrote more in-depth about the cancellation of “See It Now":
“Production costs had something to do with it; the rising price of television time was also a major factor, for each time 'See It Now' came on the screen there were too many empty seats in the largest and most expensive auditorium in the world. That Murrow and I were difficult to handle was another factor. It is true that we might have worked more diligently at getting along with management, but it was our independence and Ed’s sure-footed confidence in an era of groping and decision-making by consensus that made 'See It Now' the force it was. Our autonomy did not exceed that of such independent souls as Ed Sullivan, Arthur Godfrey and Jackie Gleason, but impatience with them was tempered by their high ratings and sales value.
“The fatal complication -- all the other symptoms could have been treated -- was the very strength that made Murrow unique. The man who could decide to do a program about McCarthy … or to do a report on smoking and lung cancer, could only do these broadcasts because of his fortitude and independence, and those same virtues which gave CBS distinction also brought it controversy, enemies and ‘stomach aches.’"
Friendly continued: “It can be argued, perhaps with some justification, that a commercial business should not take a strong stand on, say, McCarthy. ... What such a company can afford is a Murrow, a man of credentials and integrity who has his management’s respect and confidence and who can go out on a limb. When the criticism came, CBS management could always say, 'We may not agree with everything that Murrow and “See It Now” do, but his job is to call his shots as he sees them.'
“[No] reporter or production team at CBS was ever again given such complete responsibility for 'program content' or 'expression of opinion' and the stomach aches and much of the luminescence created by Murrow ended when ‘See It Now’ was extinguished.”
Three months after Paley killed “See It Now,” Murrow made his famous speech in Chicago at the meeting of the Radio-Television News Directors Association decrying that there was too much escapism on TV vs. the amount of news programming that was aired. Parts of that speech make up the opening scene of the movie “Good Night, and Good Luck.” In one portion of the speech, as Friendly noted, Murrow said that the responsibility for fixing television rested “on big business and on big television, and it rests at the top. Responsibility is not something that can be assigned or delegated. And it promises its own reward -- good business and good television.”
The end of “See It Now” also marked the beginning of the end for Murrow at CBS. In February 1959 he announced that starting in July he would take a one-year sabbatical from broadcasting.
Murrow returned to CBS full time in the summer of 1960. To combat NBC’s popular team of Huntley and Brinkley at the political conventions, CBS teamed, for the first time ever, Walter Cronkite and Murrow. Friendly characterized it as a “fiasco.”
By this time CBS had started its “CBS Reports” documentary series, and in the fall of 1960 Murrow’s last great CBS program aired. It was called “Harvest of Shame." It was about migrant farm workers. Friendly wrote: “It was Murrow’s kind of story, and as he stood in the rich Florida farmland describing the dawn shape-up, all the anger and eloquence of Steinbeck’s ‘Grapes of Wrath’ seemed to emerge. Together Murrow and [episode producer David] Lowe fashioned a document of man’s exploitation of man that was full of anguish and outrage. When it was broadcast the day after Thanksgiving, it shocked millions of viewers.”
At the end of “Harvest of Shame” Murrow looked into the camera and said, “The people you have seen have the strength to harvest your fruit and vegetables. They do not have the strength to influence legislation. Maybe we do. Good night, and good luck.”
Asking Paley a few days later what he thought of the program, Friendly got this response: “Excellent. … I liked everything but the ending.”
Friendly added, “Management was disturbed by complaints about such programs as ‘Harvest of Shame,' even though they knew it was done fairly; what they always wanted was a ‘balanced' hour. But though objectivity is part of responsible reporting, all arguments, as Murrow had said, are not equal. … As Murrow once asked, ‘Would you give equal time to Judas Iscariot or Simon Legree?’”
Now that Murrow had returned from his sabbatical, Friendly tried to get CBS management to agree to let Murrow co-produce and host all of the “CBS Reports” shows, as he had done with “See It Now.” CBS would have none of this idea. Wrote Friendly: “Clearly CBS wanted the competence of the Murrow unit but not his prestige and outspokenness; they wanted the finest, most comprehensive information program in all television, but they would not allow the giant in his field to preside over it.”
Murrow left CBS on Jan. 31, 1961, hired by President John F. Kennedy to run the United States Information Agency (USIA). The USIA’s purpose was to explain U.S. policy to those who lived in other countries, particularly third-world countries.
It was a year later, in February 1962, that Dan Rather was hired by CBS News.
Part 2 of this column continues on Monday.
Just two months out of the gate and in the midst of her first November sweeps, Queen Latifah is more than holding her own with her eponymous syndicated daytime talker.
It’s a competitive landscape with rivals including Bethenny Frankel, Ellen DeGeneres and Katie Couric -- as well as Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil.
Unique amongst them, Latifah comes to the hosting chair as a successful musical artist whose career as a breakout female rapper dates back to the late 1980s and whose resume encompasses an extensive filmography.
On her mantel, a slew of hardware she’s earned for her work, including a Grammy, a Golden Globe, two Screen Actors Guild Awards and two Image Awards.
This is actually her second go-round with a talker. Latifah, born Dana Owens, had a previous gabber from 1999-2001, which was billed at the time as a Dear Abby for the hip-hop generation.
The current incarnation of “The Queen Latifah Show” tapes at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, Calif., before a live studio audience.
With a steady diet of bold-faced names that this month includes LL Cool J, Kerry Washington, Johnny Knoxville, Vince Vaughn, Taye Diggs, Ray Romano, Ellen Pompeo, Will Arnett, Whoopi Goldberg and musical guests Janelle Monae, James Blunt, Gavin DeGraw, Jewel and Daughtry, “Latifah” also focuses on local heroes from the military, schools and communities.
Latifah sat down with reporters recently to talk about the many facets of the show, her philosophy for it and its multicultural impact. Here are excerpts from the conversation.
Q: The ratings have been pretty monumental. How does that feel?
Latifah: I mean it's fantastic. And I think it's a testament to some of the needs that needed to be filled in daytime television. In terms of just entertainment, warmth, fun, a little bit of craziness, useful information -- those things we always need.
And as someone who watches television, I'm just constantly striving, along with my staff and partners, to make sure that we continue to make it better -- that I become a better host and I'm able to really continuously inject Queen Latifah into “The Queen Latifah Show” and really make it mine. It has been a learning experience, a growing experience, and we've been having a lot of fun and getting great feedback from people. So I'm pretty excited about that.
Q: You have been embraced by all people -- not just people of color -- but why do you think you have such an acceptance?
Latifah: I think maybe part of it is the fact that I'm a black woman, but I grew up in a family that was very multi-cultural. I had a Filipino aunt, I had a white aunt, you know? I mean I had a couple interracial couples in my family.
I had gay people in my family. I had people who were on the right side of the law, people who were on the wrong side of the law. I had sober people, I had drug-addicted people. I've had square people and cool people and everything in between in my own family that I was exposed to at a young age.
I grew up in the city of Newark, but I also grew up in Maryland and Virginia in the country. So I kind of had a diverse background. And I'm the daughter of an art teacher and a cop, you know? So I've been able to experience a lot of things through my parents' lenses first. And having parents who, sort of, allowed me to see the world, and tried to expose me to different cultures and different kinds of things and at the same time know who I am as a female, as a human being having a connection to God.
All these different kinds of things that I was exposed to at young age kind of helped me become who I am today -- and more importantly, to look at people as people. So I think the fact that I was not intimidated by different kinds of people allowed me to embrace different kinds of people at a young age.
You know, my father taught me that “when in Rome, do as the Romans” kind of thing, so every place that I went in the world as a young rapper -- from here to all these different countries and Europe. All these different cultures and languages made me sort of embrace those cultures rather than try to be like some of my friends who were on the road with me eating McDonald's in every different country we went to.
So I think maybe it's given me an understanding of people to a degree. And it's made me comfortable in my own skin. So I'm OK being judged among my own people, let alone other people. I allow myself the freedom to change and become whoever I want to be.
Q: Obviously anything can happen taping a show and there probably have been some surprises that may or may not have been on the air. What are challenges that you face that perhaps were unexpected?
Latifah: I think the challenges for me probably range from getting really comfortable being the person interviewing my peers because I'm much more used to being the one answering the question as opposed to posing the questions that we ask our guests.
So that's been a bit of a learning curve for me, which I'm adjusting to and becoming much more comfortable with. And just being really comfortable -- a comfortable chair, a comfortable outfit -- things that allow me to relax and not think about what I'm wearing, what I'm doing, and really just enjoy the person that I'm speaking to or enjoy some of the games that we're playing, or enjoy some of the musical performances or our human interest stories that we get into, and really connecting with those people.
Q: What about this experience did you not expect?
Latifah: Some of the surprises have been our crazy audience -- and a lot of that stuff doesn't make air -- and some of the crazy things that come out of my mouth when we're off air. It's much more relaxed, casual and zany than what you sometimes see on the show.
Audience members ask questions of our guests while we're taping or just say something as if we're all in the same living room together. See, people feel very comfortable around me. And they feel comfortable just responding and they feel very comfortable with a lot of our guests -- who they've known through television or film or their career -- for a long time.
But then we, obviously, have to kind of edit some of it so that it works for our viewing audience at home. But there's been a lot of fun stuff like that. Our audience has been great, and our guests have been fantastic.
And yes, probably one of the most fun ones was Cloris Leachman. She and I got it. We got the inside joke that she was going to do whatever she wanted to do that day. And so it was kind of funny trying to structure that for the TV audience, but it was so much fun and I think we were able to translate that.
Q: A lot of daytime talk shows seem to be based on trying to create controversy. What’s your take on that sort of philosophy?
Latifah: Well, the thing is that I didn't base this show on creating controversy or creating a spirit of negativity. If anything it was opposite of that. I think if anything we need more just entertainment and heart and fun.
So that's pretty much where we are. That's the space we want to live in. If people want to talk about controversial subjects, we're more than welcome to have that. They should be able to freely speak about whatever it is that they want to talk about.
And if there's questions that we need to ask -- if people are curious about -- I think we should be able to ask those questions. But everything doesn't have to be done in a salacious way that stirs up controversy intentionally. I just don't think that's the kind of show I really want to do on a regular basis.
So if it happens, it happens and we deal with it. And one of the things that I accepted a long time ago is that I'm going to be right and I'm going to be wrong. So as long as we're clear about that, then everything is all good. There's no such thing as a perfect show, a perfect host, a perfect person for that matter.
So nobody is going to do the right thing all the time. People make mistakes and that just has to be something that's accepted. If we can deal with that reality then I think everything will be fine.
Q: You have a lot of A-list guests this month. How much are you involved with the actual booking of talent on your show?
Latifah: I'm not hugely involved with the booking of the show but more involved with the approving of who gets booked on the show. But I mean I've definitely had a few of my friends on the show that I picked up the phone and called and said, "Hey, why don't you come on the show?"
And I have a couple other friends who are going to come on the show just because we’ve been talking and I'm like, "Why don't you just come on, you know, come on the show." Or they say, "Hey, I want to come on your show."
Q: So now that you're a few months in, how is it from a workload perspective? Is the daytime talk show more than you thought, less than you thought, and how are you adjusting to it?
Latifah: I'm really starting to get into a flow of it and getting into the rhythm of it. There's a lot of work involved. And that's one of the main challenges -- is just to be able to handle the workload of what you're doing and really be present at the same time and forward thinking.
So it was definitely a big load to carry, but it gets easier and easier as the days go by. And it gets more and more fun -- which is the goal -- to really make it something that's like old shoes eventually. And I think I will get there.
I think I'm already getting there. So I can see myself doing this for a very long time because it's a place where I can allow a lot of my different gifts or talents to land in one place and be able to share a lot and bring a lot to the world that others may not be bringing.
That sense of positivity that those great stories about everyday people who are doing amazing things every day on the front lines -- a message of positivity and hope that we don't always get in the news. We get plenty of bad news, but it's still great to bring some good news and cool people and fun stuff to people's sight every day, so that they know that there's a lot of great things going on in the world as well.
So as long as that continues to feed my soul, then I'll do it.
So I can become five different people on one day, you know -- from the host to someone doing a comedy skit, to being a partner in a business that is producing movies and television with Flavor Unit, to being my own musical guest on my own show performing a song, for that matter.
So luckily it's something that I naturally gravitate towards, wearing many hats in a typical day. And that's just been who I am since I was a young kid.
Q: Lenny Kravitz designed your set. What does he bring to your set that the other sets don't give us?
Latifah: What I think he's been able to bring is a mutual sense of style and peace. We both love modern architecture and I think we have one of the most gorgeous sets on TV, if I may say so myself. It's not the typical colors that you might see on some other shows that have been done in the past, or the same style of furniture.
It's really something much more modern and comfortable. We wanted something that felt sort of like my home. And my home is similar to the style that you would see on the show. A lot of people weren’t aware that he was even designing to the degree that he is. So it was a real honor and a pleasure to have him come on in and do our set as the first design that he's ever done for television with his firm. It's been pretty exciting to take that journey with him.
Q: One of the things that is so cool about this show is to see somebody who started out in the urban hip-hop community now sitting down and interviewing people like Carol Burnett and Dolly Parton and Cloris Leachman.
Latifah: I think the people who we actually interview -- especially people in my business -- tend to be exposed to a lot more different kinds of people than maybe an average person who is kind of in one area and grows up there, their family is from there, they don't really travel too much outside of that area.
I've found when you're exposed to different things you tend to open up your world a little bit and your lens gets wider because you see that there are different kinds of people. And at the end of the day people are people, you know.
And when you kind of break it down to the basics, then it doesn't matter how much money you have in your pocket, you still got to brush your teeth or you're going to have bad breath. And that's how it is.
I think we all tend to look for parts of ourselves that we can see in the media, and so it's been important for me to make sure that I'm places where people who look like me can see someone like me -- who has achieved an amount of success or that has been able to achieve in the ways that I have because then they know they can follow their dreams and goals and go for what they want in their own way, but know it's achievable.