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Friendly Persuasion

Dec 19, 2005  •  Post A Comment

The first time Ruth Friendly met George Clooney, who plays her late husband, legendary CBS newsman Fred Friendly, in “Good Night, and Good Luck,” she said, “I looked into that gorgeous face and I said, ‘So, are we related?’ which earned me a nice bear hug and a kiss.”

It was last February, just before production started on “Good Night,” the black-and-white retelling of the 1954 face-off between Edward R. Murrow (portrayed by Golden Globe-nominated David Strathairn) and Sen. Joseph McCarthy about the latter’s scarifying campaign to root out real and imagined Communists in this country.

Those who knew Mr. Friendly know he was, well, pricklier in real life than in Mr. Clooney’s quietly steadfast big-screen portrait of Mr. Murrow’s executive producer. Mr. Friendly resigned from his job as CBS News president in 1966 because the network preferred to carry a repeat of “I Love Lucy” rather than live coverage of the first Senate hearings examining the country’s role in the Vietnam war.

“‘Prickly’ I’d include, but he was also overwhelming, larger than life, driven, relentless, caring-all those things,” said Mrs. Friendly after “Good Night’s” good showing in last week’s Golden Globe nominations, including one for best dramatic movie and two for Mr. Clooney-as director and co-writer of the screenplay.

Mr. Friendly, she said, “filled a room, even if it was outdoors. He was a take-charge guy.”

“I said all that to George and he said to me that he really wanted to focus on the Murrow-McCarthy confrontation and he didn’t want to distract from that. So he [played] deferential.

“So I said back to him, ‘But Fred was anti-deferential.'”

Mr. Clooney deferred to Mrs. Friendly when she pointed out that her husband never smoked.

“He had my dad smoking in the first script,” said Andy Friendly, a longtime TV producer and one of the children of Mr. Friendly’s first marriage. He vividly remembers hanging out in smoky CBS News offices and control rooms as a youngster. He also remembers how the cast of “Good Night” would race outside the smoke-filled studio at every opportunity during production. “Very few, if any, smoke in real life,” Mr. Friendly said.

Fred Friendly didn’t meet Ruth until 1967, but she heard the tall-but-true tales “about 800 times” during the 30 years they were married. Mr. Friendly died in 1998. By serving as senior editorial adviser of the Fred Friendly Seminars, with which he was associated during the last two decades of his life, Mrs. Friendly maintains his legacy.

Both Mrs. Friendly and Andy Friendly are confident Fred Friendly would have been much more pleased with Mr. Clooney’s portrayal of him than he was of Edward Herrmann’s performance in “Murrow,” the 1986 TV movie in which Mr. Murrow was played by “Hill Street Blues'” Daniel J. Travanti. (Mr. Friendly twitted Mr. Herrmann for having played him “like Fred Friendly as if he were on Valium.”)

And they both deeply appreciate that in spite of some poetic license taken in the spirit of storytelling, Mr. Clooney captured many Friendly traits (down to the type of undershirt Mr. Friendly wore) and, most importantly, stayed true to the issues that drove Mr. Murrow (who signed the loyalty oath) and Mr. Friendly (who never signed the loyalty oath), et al.

“I can’t think of anybody else who could have done this movie,” Mrs. Friendly said. “It has no sex, no violence, just issues that are very relevant today. For me, and for Fred, the important thing, I think, would be just getting the movie out.”

“My dad would have had a field day with it,” Andy Friendly said.