By Lee Alan Hill
Special to TelevisionWeek
In her 10 years on “Access Hollywood,” Nancy O’Dell has landed an exclusive interview with Halle Berry after the Oscar winner had a car accident on the Sunset Strip and got her to open up about the woes of her marriage to singer Eric Benet. She has interviewed first lady Laura Bush and managed a much-watched session with Teri Hatcher, who dispelled reports of strife among the leading ladies of “Desperate Housewives” after an article in Vanity Fair hinted at catfighting behind the scenes at a photo shoot.
Yet Ms. O’Dell never expected to have a career interviewing celebrities or to even work in Hollywood. When she graduated summa cum laude from Clemson University in her native South Carolina she had ambitions, but to work in TV sales, not in front of the camera.
“I went to work in TV sales at WPDE-TV in Florence-Myrtle Beach, South Carolina,” she recalled. “It was a small market, and they asked me if I would do on-air news cut-ins on the weekends, local things. It was a real learning curve for me because I had not considered being in front of the camera and I had to learn how to do broadcast journalism.”
She must have done it well, because she was spotted by an agent and picked up by WCBD-TV in Charleston as a morning news anchor and crime reporter, a position she took, she said, “because I always wanted to live in Charleston. It’s the largest city in South Carolina and a great one.”
From there she was hired by WTVJ-TV in Miami as co-anchor and investigative reporter.
“It was all a different path for me,” Ms. O’Dell admitted. “But I was intrigued by it. I did crime reporting for three years and learned how to ask questions and get the story.”
Fate intervened at that point. Ms. O’Dell was engaged to Dr. Richard O’Dell, who would become her first husband, and he was going to move to Las Vegas for his career. She wanted to be on the West Coast to be closer to him, but she was under contract to WTVJ. Because it was an NBC station, she negotiated to have her contract transferred to a new show NBC was going to own and produce out of Los Angeles about celebrity news: “Access Hollywood.”
“I was intrigued to go into celebrity journalism,” she said. “And the show has certainly kept me intrigued. I also get paid to go to the Oscars and the Emmys and the other award shows, and that’s not bad either.”
Ms. O’Dell has been the co-anchor of “Access Hollywood” since January 1999, but began as weekend anchor and correspondent at the show’s September 1996 premiere.
“Nancy is first and foremost a tough interviewer,” said Linda Finnell, senior VP of programming for NBC Universal Domestic TV Distribution. “She can ask the tough questions without offending anyone. As such, people open up to her. They feel safe with her.”
For her part, Ms. O’Dell said that while she has nurtured relationships and friendships with celebrities, they know when the camera is on she is going to do her job.
“They know you have to ask the hard questions,” she said. “I consider Halle Berry a friend, but I’ve also done interviews with her at difficult times in her life. She knows what I have to ask. You just want to handle it gingerly.”
Ms. O’Dell has parlayed her “Access Hollywood” recognizability into occasional acting gigs on TV series, and she returned to her Southern roots to host and serve as a consulting producer on the first season of the USA Network reality competition series “Nashville Star.” She is a member of the Academy of Country Music. She can be seen doing the arrival show on NBC for “The Golden Globes,” and she has handled similar duties for the Emmys as well as for ESPN’s “ESPY Awards” telecast.
Ms. O’Dell has also been a co-host of the Tournament of Roses Parade on NBC since 2000, and this year hosted the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants. She was named one of the Twenty Hottest Stars Right Now by Shape magazine.
She also contributes both her name and her time to numerous charitable causes. Ms. O’Dell is a member of the Red Cross National Celebrity Cabinet and serves as a national spokesperson for the March of Dimes. She has also been a celebrity ambassador for Childhelp USA, an organization meeting the needs of abused and neglected children.
Perhaps less known is her involvement in the Best Buddies organization, which seeks opportunities, employment and empowerment for developmentally disabled people. She speaks enthusiastically about finding a job for one such person on the crew of “Access Hollywood.”
She received that organization’s Spirit of Leadership Award in 2002.
Ms. O’Dell was inducted into South Carolina’s Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame in 1998, the youngest inductee ever recognized for success in journalism.
But the bulk of her time is spent preparing for her daily interviews and telecast.
“One of the selling points with the audience of our show is that our presentation has the air that we don’t take ourselves too seriously,” Ms. O’Dell said. “We know we’re reporting on entertainment, that this is fun.”
“On the other hand,” she said, “it takes a lot of work to prepare because we take what we do seriously. There are films to watch, TV shows to see. You have to be prepared for the Oscars and the TV season.
“One of our worst moments-and I admit it has happened-is when you see a celebrity you know and ask who they are with and the person they are with turns out to be a cast member on some new TV series. This is especially true with the people who have become known for being on a reality series. It’s hard to know who all of them are.
“Those moments are awkward, but you move on and try to be prepared so they don’t happen. That’s my job.”
Ms. O’Dell’s boss may be her biggest fan.
“She’s fantastic,” said Rob Silverstein, executive producer of “Access Hollywood.” “Nancy has a great look, a great voice, and she’s the best at what she does. On top of that or more than that she can get the key interviews, the exclusives, because the celebrities trust her. They know she’ll ask the tough questions, but they also know she won’t trick them. That’s our mantra here, and she’s been doing it the longest.”