Tuesday, February 12

Happy Birthday, John Hambrick


Happy Birthday John Hambrick, born February 12th, in…uh…well…hmmm.

Huh, isn’t that funny?...it says here in 1941 [See Comments below for discussion]. That would make this his 67th birthday, right?

But wait, didn’t John frequently brag about his acting career, and the time he appeared on the old Playhouse 90 TV series? But Playhouse 90 only ran through 1961. So even if he appeared in the final season John would have been in his teens—and no older than 20—when he appeared in a drama on CBS. Really?

And how about this ad that ran in the Cleveland daily newspapers in December, 1967, announcing John’s debut that very night ("TONIGHT A NEW NAME MAKES NEWS IN CLEVELAND") as the new lead anchor on WEWS-TV. If John was born in 1941, that would have made him 26 when he became the top-dog anchor at the big-dog station in Cleveland. But Scripps Howard didn’t just pluck him off a Hollywood sound stage and say, “Here, kid, you’re an anchor now.” He had a career in TV news before WEWS—back in Memphis, or Nashville, I believe. Was he in TV news someplace else, sometime earlier? Don't know.

But John turns 67 today? Only six years older than me? Just another mystery about the most troubling anchor I ever worked with, and (in my opinion) one of the most troubled.

John had tremendous success at every station he anchored: certainly he “owned” Cleveland when he was at WEWS. I used to kid John that I grew up watching him, but of course that’s not the case. Strangely, I do remember his first days on the air in Cleveland. It’s my hometown, and I was on Christmas break during my sophomore year studying TV & Radio at Michigan State. Such a big deal was made of the “new guy” on 5 that I had to watch. And it was a big deal. He was terrific. He had presence. He had the anchor version of a Bible-thumping preacher's charisma: Elmer Gantry for the television age. That first week he made a believer out of me, and out of Cleveland. I think that to this day if you put a decent-sized ad in the Cleveland Plain Dealer saying that John Hambrick was going to appear on the corner of East 9th and Euclid downtown at Noon on Saturday—you’d draw a crowd. He defined news for a generation in Cleveland.

But John apparently wanted more. Cleveland wasn’t a big enough pond for him, and he went west in the mid-70s. I don’t know which came first—KRON in San Francisco, or KABC in Los Angeles, but he was on the west coast until he was hired at WNBC in New York.

A pattern was starting to emerge. As big a success as he was, if I’m not mistaken after Cleveland he was “invited not to stay” at each of those stations when he came to the end of a contract. That’s how he got to Miami, to WTVJ—like WEWS in Cleveland the first on the air in town and the most dominant of the stations. At the end of his contract—he was “invited not to stay” at WTVJ. That’s how he arrived at WCIX (now WFOR) in 1990, checkered past and all. The independent station had just been purchased by CBS. I was Assistant News Director at the time, not really part of the hiring process, and I was flattered when the station brass (GM Allen Shaklan and Station Manager Jay Newman) asked my opinion. I told them I knew Hambrick brought a lot of baggage—but that as a station that had recently gone from being an independent with only one half-hour newscast each day, we needed to establish ourselves; and one way was to hire “name” talent, folks already established in the market. I told them WCIX was the “scratch and dent sale” of local TV: if we were willing to overlook a ding or two, we’d get a far better (and better recognized) anchor than a “startup” like WCIX was entitled to.

Parenthetically, I carried that thinking over to my days as news director. Being a bit dented myself (Oklahoma City!) I saw the value in hiring people who had something to prove, who had might have been underappreciated in previous jobs. It worked out pretty well.

But when it came to Hambrick, I didn’t know that I was soon to be John’s boss—and that he was going to be the bane of my existence for the next couple of years.

There’s something about the red light on a studio camera—it gives off some weird ray, I think—that grows egos and shrinks inhibitions. High maintenance? I’m reluctant to make further reference to the only completely obscene posting on this site. You can look up Dietary Preferences if you wish. Let me just say that the advice given to me at the start of my tenure as WCIX news director turned out to be prophetic and true. Every day. A gallon.

John was in my office every day—for 30 minutes, 60 minutes, even longer—needing constant care, his ego needing constant feeding.

Most of those sessions started the same way: “I know I’m coming to the end of a long and mediocre career.” If he didn’t get his way—“IKICTTEOALAMC.” It was his mantra. We were looking to establish a team—John and Giselle Fernandez. And our slogan was “Earning Our Reputation One Story at a Time.” That meant aggressive coverage of big stories wherever they occurred. So we alternated anchors on the big assignments. Giselle went to Haiti—“I know I’m coming to the end of a long and mediocre career, that's why you didn't send me.” Giselle went to Israel during the missile attacks in the first Gulf war? Forget that it was her turn, “IKICTTEOALAMC.”

Every day. In my office. The hang-dog look. The need for reassurance. The “IKICTTEOALAMC.”

Station GM Allen Shaklan (a great guy) and I got into the habit of taking him out to lunch or dinner roughly once a month. If the guy was playing Willy Loman in Death of an Anchor, attention must be paid, we thought. We alternated the chore. Allen came in one morning complaining that dinner the night before had left him exhausted. “You know how celebrities have a way of blending into crowds, looking over the heads of passersby, never making eye contact? John struts down the street looking every person in the eye, even staring—staring—into cars, looking for a hint of recognition. Being with him while he turns the spotlight on himself is so tiring.”

If that were it, that would be manageable. John wasn’t. He was a bully. He bragged about the fistfights he had had in newsrooms, at least one (to hear him tell the story) with a former news director. He hinted that the threat was always there, that he was a dangerous man to cross. He believed in shouting to make a point.

I wondered where his combative nature came from. One day he told a story from his hard-scrabble Texas boyhood, and of the day (as an eight-year-old) he got whipped in a fight and went home to his mother. He didn’t get the sympathy he wanted. Instead she sent him back out with instructions to find the other boy and beat him, or not bother coming home at all. “Why, Momma?”


That explained a lot. Everyone was an adversary. Every day was a struggle. Every person had to be bested. All authority had to be challenged. He was Johnny, and he had to fight—even if he had to pick the fight.

And then there's this: I think John was bored as an anchor. He was an actor forced to play the same role over…and over…and over again. He had to find ways to keep his performance “new,” and one way was to be constantly at odds with those around him. Also, he didn’t seem to believe much in TV news. I guess he thought it was beneath him. Maybe it wasn't just self-pity, maybe "long and mediocre career" encompassed self-loathing too.

He didn’t seem to be proud of his success in TV: “IKICTTEOALAMC.” He was prouder of the country and western album he cut, Windmills In A Jet Filled Sky, produced in 1972 with the help of some top-notch Nashville session people. I went looking and found a copy on eBay the other day, “Buy it Now” for $299.99. But I also found a copy elsewhere on the Internet for $16.80.

Either way, actor or singer, the old performer was always lurking in the background. You can’t spell “Hambrick” without H-A-M.

We decided to shoot our afternoon news teases in the newsroom instead of on the anchor desk; to show the hustle and bustle of the news environment. Certainly not a new concept. But the promotion folks had this idea for a bit of “business:” John would walk down the two steps from the assignment desk during the voice-over open, and up to the camera. John resisted. “What’s my motivation?”

But here’s a clip of John from 1991, behind the news desk, delivering an Action News tease. Notice the scowl, the mannerisms, the rolling, raspy baritone, leaning toward you, looking at you over the top of his glasses, the clipped cadences, the hand gesture at the end. Here’s a man who should be playing a U.S. Senator (or the President) in some big-budget flick, instead forced to “play” the role of anchorman in Miami. “IKICTTEOALAMC.” Hambrick or Hamlet, you be the judge.

Once, in the middle of a rating period, John came to my office saying he desperately needed time off. Here we were, trying to gain a foothold against our established competition, and John wanted to walk away from the anchor desk for several days in the middle of an important “book?” He explained that his daughter Mignon, in Los Angeles, needed his help. He was worried about a relationship she was in. He seemed beside himself. When I gave him the time off and promised to run interference with the higher-ups, he shook my hand with (I thought) a tear in his eye, saying he’d never forget me.

A couple of weeks after his return he was in my office arguing about a decision I had made. He ended the “conversation” by saying, “There’s no use even talking to you, you’re mentally ill and should be committed.”

John, I’ll never forget you either.

After Hurricane Andrew in ’92—after I lost everything I owned when the roof of the home I was renting opened up—after I moved into a cheap furnished place an hour away from the station with all I owned (three suitcases worth)—after 18-hour days and 7-day workweeks—I was overwhelmed and exhausted. I talked it over with Allen, and he accepted my resignation. I needed to get my life back. Hambrick told the Miami Herald I had been fired, and said it was because of low ratings (ironically, my last night as news director our 11:00 p.m. was #1 in the market, driven by the lead-in ratings from a Frank Sinatra docudrama: so there!).

But I left on my own. One small factor in my decision was a disagreement Allen Shaklan and I were having about Hambrick. John’s son Jack, working as a reporter (in Tampa, if remember correctly), had applied for a job at WCIX. Allen thought hiring Jack would be a great move, that coaching his son would give John something to do, would keep him occupied and out of trouble. It might even keep him out of our offices.

I told Allen we’d wind up with the biggest yenta in the world on our hands, that Jack would be the only TV reporter in America with his own full-time, live-in agent making demands 24/7 on behalf of his son. Jack was already asking for more money than we were paying more experienced reporters who were established in the market (I wonder who gave him that idea?). I walked away from that one, and never looked back. Jack was hired, but I don’t think I ever saw him on the air.

I do know that Jack later sued the station claiming he had been cheated out of overtime pay. I don’t know how that ended, except that Jack Hambrick no longer works for CBS.

And I know that when John’s contract came up for renewal, he was gone. I think he was “invited” not to be at WFOR any more.

I thought he more or less retired. He and his wife owned a ranch in Texas: he called it “The Little House,” and he was always talking about their plans for a bed and breakfast. I was told later that he was anchoring in Beaumont, Texas (the market closest to “The Little House”), but I can find no record of that.

Now I see John is acting again, and doing commercial voice-over work. He’s got an agent. You can find his web page. The picture there shows him without his toupee. It says he appeared in an episode of the NBC series Friday Night Lights. Good for him. That’s probably where he belonged all along; that’s where his heart was, in performing. John was a terrific anchor—one of the best I ever worked with, almost at Tom Snyder’s level—but if you looked closely you could see he was acting. He knew how to play an anchor, but I think he kept at it only for the money and the strokes. Or maybe it was just too easy for him after awhile. The sad thing is that in his own way he was a cheat. He cheated on his talent, by not using it fully in his job. He cheated his audience by giving less than his best. His best was so damn good that settling for less—when you’d seen what he was capable of—was sad.

Last story. Hurricane Andrew brought out the best and the worst in John Hambrick. I pushed, prodded, wheedled and cajoled him into going into the field as a reporter—and he turned in a magnificent job of field reporting. He and his cameraman confronted a looter rifling through a bombed-out convenience store. John was so much in the guy’s face that the man quietly set down the goods and slinked away.

But then there’s this. All of us were working (it seemed) non-stop. In the early going many of us slept on blankets at the station. Even John was working nine or ten hours daily (with all the restaurants in the area damaged or without electricity, he couldn’t take his usual 2 ½-hour dinner break after the 6:00 p.m.!). After about two weeks, as things were settling down a bit, John came in to ask for two days off. I told him he was certainly entitled to them, and approved them on the spot. I was puzzled, though. I knew his home had suffered virtually no damage in the storm. A fence had been toppled and that was it. He had been without electricity for awhile, but bought two generators to power his house.

Before I could even ask, John volunteered that his wife had been at “The Little House” since well before the hurricane, and was headed home: “If I don’t get the floors waxed she’s going to kill me.”

Happy birthday, John, however many this is. Peace.