Wednesday, March 22, 2006
I was so sorry to learn of the death this week of veteran ABC newsman Bill Beutel at age 75.
He was the network's London correspondent for many years and he hosted an early version of ABC's morning TV show that became "Good Morning, America," but I remember him best as co-anchor of the local "Eyewitness News" team that I used to watch religously when I was a kid.
His death brought back so many memories of growing up in New York during the Seventies.
It's been a long time since I've had anything nice to say about local TV news. Maybe all these years as a newspaperman has built up a deep and unbreakable prejudice; or maybe I've seen one useless, pandering, dim-witted "news" story too many, but I find it a struggle watching these clowns on a daily basis.
But back in the 70's, when I first started watching "Eyewitness News" it was all so different.
Film At 11
Arguably, the informal, sometimes jokey approach to TV news, which was new and daring back then, spawned the witless McNews programs we have today. But they were innovators in those days, breaking away from the stuffy, deadly dull delivery of other news teams, and letting everyone know they were human beings.
The Eyewitness News team cracked jokes, zinged each other with wisecracks, and had what seem to be a genuinely good time covering the sprawling open-air madhouse that was and is New York City.
Bill Beutel's served as the voice of reason for this group of talented young reporters, letting them and the viewers know that they were professionals.
Every night my family would gather around the TV--kids watching the news willingly!--to hear the latest one-liners from the team.
I remember the reporters the way other people remember great baseball teams: Roger Grimsby, the head honcho, John Schubeck, the entertainment reporter, Bob Lape, the restaurant reviewer, Tex Antoine, the weatherman; Roseann Scamardella, and the black correspondents, Gil Noble, Melba Toliver, and later John Johnson.
Milton Lewis, their investigative reporter, used to include the phrase "now listen to this..." when he wanted to tell the viewers something shocking. I dimly recall Lewis describing how he had been harassed at some politcal rally, where a mob of rowdy was calling him a queer because he was using a cigarette holder.
"So I put away the cigarette holder," he said with a shrug.
There was a young Hispanic reporter named, oh, yes, Geraldo Rivera, who went from doing forgettable features to breaking the Willowbrook scandal, where the residents of a mental institution were being kept in the most horrifying conditions.
That story actually forced a change in state law. It's hard to believe the twisted turns that Geraldo's career has since taken, but back then he really was a good reporter.
And then there was Howard Cosell.
Good Evening, Sports Fans
What can I say about the famed sportscaster? An egomaniac? No doubt. A bloated windbag in love with the sound of his own voice? Amen, brother.
That droning, nasal voice still plays in my mind to this day. It was so easier to imitate and mock. But the guy also stuck it to the powers that be when most others in his profession wouldn't say a word.
I recall one time when a reporter did a story about elderly people in New Jersey who were reduced to eating dog food because their benefits could not cover the costs of meat and vegetables.
When Cosell came on, he mentioned how the State of New Jersey couldn't take care of its seniors, but somehow found the money to build a news sports arena. A lot of people didn't want to hear that, but Cosell didn't care.
He had Muhammad Ali on the show one night, when Ali was preparing to defend his title. Ali brought howls from the whole staff when, referring to his opponent, he angrily declared, "I don't like fighters who talk too much!"
After the segment ended and one of the co-anchors started reporting a story about a man threatening people with a gun, Ali shouted from off-stage, "I'll get 'em!"
"Thank you, Muhammad," the reported said without missing a beat.
And oh, those verbal duels between Grimsby and Cosell.It seemed Grimsby would always find some bizarro story to read just before he introduced Cosell.
The long-winded sportscaster would retaliate with his thesaurus blazing, prompting Grimsby to once declare, "Howard, if birds were words, you'd be covered in white."
Breaking the News
Jim Bouton, the renegade ball player who wrote the sports tell-all "Ball Four," came on board to fill in for Cosell, and he was quite funny in his own way. He even filled in as the weatherman, clearly making it up as he went along.
Schubeck, the movie critic, once tried to track down George C. Scott, after the actor had refused to accept the Academy Award for "Patton." Scott was in some New York medical facility, so Schubeck donned a white smock in an attempt to gain entry. He didn't get past the front door.
Tex Antoine was the resident weatherman and he worked a lot of humor into his reports. He, too, with match wits with Grimsby.
One night it was so cold, Antoine advised viewers to bring in their brass monkeys, a none-too-subtle reference to the "cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey" line.
Grimsby responded by saying "thank you for that well-digger's report." My father explained that one to me, repeating the line "it's cold enough to freeze a well-digger's ass."
All the good times ended one night when Antoine came on after a report about the rape of a five-year-old girl. For some bizarre reason, Antoine actually said something to the effect of "when rape is inevitable, sit back and enjoy it." He was fired a short time later. The party was over.
That's the problem, I'm afraid. People are so intent one being outrageous, on pushing the envelope, or being edgy, that they don't know when to stop. It's not about wit, it's about shock, and as John Simon once said, shock is the last bastion of the impotent.
Bill Beutel never went for shock. He just did his job exceedingly well. I was nearly in tears on Sunday when ABC showed its retrospective of Beutel's life. It was hard to believe so vibrant man had grown old and died.
I'm trying to find a specific memory for Bill Beutel, but I can't seem to put my finger on one. I remember him more as a presence, a co-anchor who made you watch, made you listen, and made you think. He just seemed like such a classy guy, back when "class" had some meaning.
All of this was in another age, before the abomination of Fox "News," right-wing hate radio, and the blogosphere.
We lost a fine reporter, a good friend and decent man this week. We lost an eyewitness.