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!