Bradley’s Career Blazed Trails

Nov 13, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Founding “60 Minutes” executive producer Don Hewitt relishes his story about once saying he had hired correspondent Ed Bradley because he was “a minority.”

That drew a gasp from an industry audience, thinking he meant because Mr. Bradley was black.

“He was a great reporter and a gentleman,” Mr. Hewitt explained.

Mr. Bradley did open the door for minority broadcast journalists. There were few people of color in the business when he began reporting for New York’s WCBS-AM in the 1960s.

Throughout his career, there was no one quite like Mr. Bradley.

He was a masterful interviewer and storyteller (and storytelling is what Mr. Hewitt always said “60 Minutes” was about) and had a legion of fans and awards (starting with 19 Emmys) to attest to his talent and presence.

This was a man made for TV.

Mr. Bradley had a Steve McQueen kind of effortless cool that showed in everything he did, whether he was grilling a genocidal world leader or cooking and dishing with Aretha Franklin for “60 Minutes” pieces.

He died during his 26th year as one of the newsmagazine’s larger-than-life correspondents. His most recent story, an interview with principals in the case of the alleged rape of a stripper by Duke lacrosse players, made many headlines just weeks ago.

Current “60 Minutes” executive producer Jeff Fager nicknamed Mr. Bradley “the coolest man on earth.”

He was tall and good-looking and a dapper dresser who also opened the door for men to wear beards and earrings in the white-collar world.

He had a heart and soul and compassion that were the first things his devastated friends and colleagues talked about as they contemplated how much colder their world was going to be without him.

“He was one of the few people in this business who wasn’t a pain in the ass,” Mr. Hewitt said.

Mr. Bradley’s humane side showed when he waded into the ocean to help survivors of a Cambodian refugee boat disaster. It showed most memorably to his colleagues during the dark days when CBS management and “60 Minutes” were at odds over a story about tobacco industry practices and when “60 Minutes” stars were talking to the press more than they were talking to each other.

Mr. Bradley invited everyone to his apartment and said he would not let them leave until collegiality had been restored.

“He singlehandedly saved the show,” Lesley Stahl said more than once the day Mr. Bradley died.

He had a job he loved, but he had a rich private life he loved even more. He wasn’t a fixture on the New York social scene. The last time many people recalled seeing him in a tux was in September for the News & Documentary Emmys, at which he was a presenter.

Sometimes his job and his favorite things merged. His love of jazz wasn’t the only affection that showed in his legendary interview with Lena Horne. “I thought he was going to run away with her,” Mr. Hewitt said.

If the Neville Brothers were playing New York, Mr. Bradley was going to be in the audience. He was a regular at the New Orleans Jazz Festival and at New York Knicks games.

Among those who visited with him just before he died about two weeks after checking in to New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital were singer Jimmy Buffett and journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who rushed from her home in South Africa.

Ms. Hunter-Gault had introduced Mr. Bradley to the Rev. Jacques DeGraff, a member of One Hundred Black Men, who knew the “60 Minutes” correspondent as a cool man (“When he danced, he didn’t have to do the latest dance. He did the Ed Bradley dance.”), as a committer of random acts of kindness (“His heart made others want to do their best”) and as a role model.

“As an African American he made us proud by the way he did what he did without being the African American correspondent. He was an African American who was an American who made us proud,” Rev. DeGraff said.

His sense of humor was evident in so many of his “60 minutes” reports. He wasn’t known as a prankster, but he did once punk Mr. Hewitt when he sent a memo that he wanted to begin using his African name, Saheeb Sahab.

Mr. Hewitt had gone so far as to call Kay Gardella, the late New York Daily News TV columnist who was the doyenne of all TV writers, and tell her “I’ve got a great story for you” before Mr. Bradley relented and clamped his hands over Mr. Hewitt’s mouth.

“I kept imagining “I’m Mike Wallace,” “I’m Morley Safer,” “I’m Saheeb Sahab,” Mr. Hewitt said.

Mr. Bradley was part of a crew that shared a house on Shelter Island, off the southern coast of Long Island, in the summer of ’68, when they were all working at WCBS-AM radio in New York, which had just gone to an all-news format to compete with WINS-AM.

Dick Williams, then a writer and later a TV news director, remembered a touch football game in Central Park against a team from Mayor John Lindsay’s office. On the City Hall team was Sid Davidoff, inevitably described as the mayor’s “burly troubleshooter.” Mr. Davidoff was pretty much having his way with the journalists until Mr. Bradley, who had played football at Cheyney State College in Pennsylvania, signaled to Mr. Williams to “let Sid through.” No problem. Mr. Williams did.

“Ed clobbered him,” Mr. Williams said last week from Atlanta, where he and his wife, former ABC News correspondent Rebecca Chase, own the weekly Dunwoody Crier and the Dunwoody Body Works.

One thing the Shelter Island housemates quickly learned was that if they brought a date to the house and left her in a room with Mr. Bradley, by the time they came back to the room the woman was no longer their date.

But even in those days, Mr. Bradley was always very much the gentleman.

His death was felt far beyond the walls of CBS News. Former “CBS Evening News” anchor and “60 Minutes” man Dan Rather said, “With the passing of Ed Bradley we have lost one of America’s best. As a compassionate, sensitive person, as a gentle but strong man, as a lover of life and a great professional, he was an example of all a conscientious and dedicated journalist can be.”

In Washington, where Mr. Bradley had covered the White House for two years in the late ’70s, at least one Democrat stopped planning the party’s exultant takeover of both houses of Congress to release a statement. Senate majority leader-in-waiting Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said, “I am saddened to hear of the passing of CBS newscaster Ed Bradley. Mr. Bradley was a pioneer and trailblazer for African American journalists on network television. For over 25 years, his was a powerful voice presenting the stories that shaped our world. I extend my heartfelt prayers and condolences to Mr. Bradley’s family. We will all miss him.”

Mr. Bradley’s family was at once small (widow Patricia Blanchet) and vast.

He will be missed for a long time. And, as Mr. Fager said, “He already is missed.”

Josh Howard, the former “60 Minutes” producer now in charge of long-form programming at CNBC, remembered a story he had produced for Harry Reasoner about nuns who had started a medical clinic and community center in the Mississippi Delta town of Tutwiler, where impoverished women had begun to make quilts to earn money.

The day after the story aired, Mr. Bradley appeared in Mr. Howard’s office with a check for $1,000 he wanted sent to the nuns to help. He also hoped that someday he could get a quilt.

“I’ve kept in touch with the nuns over the years,” Mr. Howard said. “I got an e-mail from Sister Anne last night mourning the loss.”