Friday, March 30

Not-So-Happy Talk

I had the great good fortune to work at WABC in New York in the early 80s—the tail end of the ”Eyewitness News” glory years. And I was honored to have had the chance to work with and know what was then (and may still hold the title, posthumously) America’s greatest anchor team, Roger Grimsby and Bill Beutel.

“Hoping your news is good news, I’m Roger Grimsby.”

“And I’m Bill Beutel, good luck and be well.”

Bill was the courtly gentleman journalist, a truly classy guy. Grimsby was the crochety curmudgeon: he entered his “cranky old coot” stage early, and played the role well. When Howard Cosell was anchoring local sports and had a night off, it was Grimsby who quipped, "Howard Cosell isn't here tonight: he's out walking his pet rat."

And there’s a good chance you’ve already seen his famous sign-off the night reporter Mara Wolinsky flipped the bird on camera: it’s been a gag-reel staple for a quarter-century now. Poor Mara, sitting on-set for a story at 5:00 p.m., was getting conflicting hand signals from the floor director. Not knowing the camera was “hot” (and boys and girls, take note, treat ALL cameras as if they’re hot all the time) she gave him a little hand signal of her own, and brought the show to a screeching halt.

That left it to Grimsby to put a capper on the evening. He signed off the 6:00 p.m. news with, “As Mara Wolinsky would say, ‘We’re Number One.’”

The perfect Grimsby put-down? Not so fast. I'm not even sure it was his best Mara Wolinsky zinger. Try this one on for size.

I don’t know why he had it in for Mara, but he never took to her, even though she did good work. One day she went to Brooklyn to catch up with Lou Ferrigno, TV’s “Incredible Hulk,” body-builder turned actor (like his nemesis, Arnold Schwarzenegger). He was returning to his old high school to give a weightlifting demonstration and motivational talk.

We get to the end of the story—to the “standup”—and the camera is tight on Mara’s face. She speaks—the camera pulls out—and we see that she’s sitting in the upturned palm of Lou Ferrigno’s hand. He’s balancing her over his head like a waiter lifting a tray of dishes. Is it politically correct to say Mara was a little slip of a thing? Maybe not, but it’s true. She was, maybe 4’11” and 95 pounds, tops. Ferrigno can hold her up there all day. She gives the standard sign-off, “Mara Wolinsky, Eyewitness News in Brooklyn.”

Cut to Grimsby on the set for THE LAST WORD (his prerogative).

Long pause…deep stare…hint of a grin at the corner of his mouth…Grimsby speaks: “Talk about lifting dumbbells! Hoping your news is good news…”

Not exactly “Happy Talk.” More like a corkscrew stiletto with a left-handed thread, inserted six inches deep, right between the shoulder blades. The master at work. No reason for it, really. Just Roger being Roger. God Bless You, Roger Grimsby, goddammit!

Thursday, March 29

I Could Have Been Gelman


In the early 80s I was Director of News Operations (read "assignment manager") for WABC-TV in New York. One day the late Bill Fyffe, Vice President and General Manager, called me into his office and said, "I want to offer you a new job, 'Executive Producer of Non-News Programming.'"

I looked at him and said, "We don't DO any non-news programming except that Regis and Cindy Garvey thing." His answer? "That's it."

Those were the days before Kathie Lee Gifford, and before syndication. Regis Philbin was teamed with Cindy Garvey (the wife of the baseball star) for a program that aired only in NYC. I asked Bill for 24 hours to think about it, and talked to my boss, News Director Cliff Abromats; the next step would have been a sit-down with Regis, but my mind was already made up. What did I know about booking guests and handling stars, about entertainment and showbiz? I turned the job down.

Just as well. Some time later Michael Gelman took over the show. I'm not saying I'd have failed miserably, but I wouldn't have had the comfort level he brought to the show and the hosts. I think I would have lasted six months, tops.

No regrets: but hey, I coulda been Gelman!

Bob Dole was Raping Me, but Jerry Ford Stopped Him

It was 1972, and I was a producer-still-hoping-to-be-a-reporter in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Long-time Congressman Jerry Ford was campaigning for what would be another shoo-in re-election in November, and he brought in a national heavy-hitter to carry the water for him. Welcome to Grand Rapids, Republican National Chairman Bob Dole, Senator from Kansas.

So at the obligatory (even in those days) news (not "press") conference The Kid asks a question about this "Watergate" break-in thing. Something along the line of "Golly, gee whiz, your holy high honorableness, whaddaya make of these guys sneaking around in that there office building, huh, whaddaya, whaddaya?"

That's when it happened.

Remember, Senator Dole was a World War II hero. He lost the use of his right hand in the war. That's why he always clutched a pen, to downplay the awkwardness as people tried to shake his hand.

As I remember it, Dole (spry for an older guy) vaulted over the podium in a single bound and tried to stab me in the jugular with the pen! Spittle was spraying from the corners of his down-turned mouth, and he was growling something about "third-rate break-in" and "running-dog media lackeys" and "This one's for Spiro." I felt the hot breath of hell and knew I was about to die.

And that's when Jerry Ford stepped forward and stepped in, feeding raw meat to the snarling beast while at the same time performing CPR on my near-lifeless form. .

At least that's the way I remember it. Others might think that Dole simply turned his famous temper loose and teed off on a dumb rookie reporter, and that Ford recognized it as overkill and stepped to Dole's side at the podium to prevent The Kid (with whom he had had dealings before) from being made to look like the uninformed fool he was.

Truth is, The Kid was the "unarmed man" in this battle, and Jerry Ford was just having mercy.

And that's why I always thought of Jerry Ford as the most honorable politico I've ever met: a decent man.

I'm no historian, but my guess is that decades from now the history books will record that there were two (and only two) GOOD MEN who held the presidency in the last half of the 20th century: Harry Truman and Jerry Ford. I was saddened the day President Ford died, but I also couldn't help smiling. He kept Bob Dole from killing me.