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Verily, Jon Voight once set sail as NBC's Noah


Jon Voight fought off pirates at sea in NBC’s Noah’s Ark.

Note to readers: The ballyhooed March 28th big-screen release of Noah stars Russell Crowe in the title role. But other productions of biblical proportions set sail earlier, including NBC’s 1999 Noah’s Ark miniseries starring Jon Voight and Mary Steenburgen. It definitely took a few liberties. Here’s the review, originally published on May 2, 1999.

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And so it is written . . .

“For dramatic effect, we have taken poetic license with some of the events of the mighty epic of Noah and the flood.”

And so it comes to pass.

NBC’s four-hour Noah’s Ark all but capsizes from the extreme liberties taken in pursuit of mainstream entertainment. Biblical scholars might be surprised, for instance, to see ugly, filthy pirates attacking the ark early in Part 2. This apparently is the little-known Waterworld portion of the Good Book. Whatever floats your boat.

Ark, starring Jon Voight as stoic Noah, also seems intent on replicating elements of Mortal Kombat, Mutiny on the Bounty, The Alamo, Animal House and even Titanic (watch out for that giant rock!).

Other times this seems to be the Old Testament according to Monty Python. The overall result is a loopy, crazily crafted yet beautifully produced lark. Most of the special effects are splendid, some considerably less so. You can see the money on the screen throughout this lavish production.

But hey, kids, try telling your Sunday school teacher that Noah and his brood encountered a colorful peddler (James Coburn) aboard a pedal-powered mini-boat.

“I’m running a special this week,” he says before selling them a variety of accessories, including a funny little hat for one of the ark’s two resident penguins.

Then again, all of this could have happened. Or as executive producer Robert Halmi Sr. (Merlin, Gulliver’s Travels) said in a recent interview: “A lot of things are unsaid in the Bible. The whole world is unsaid. So it leaves a lot to the imagination and you’re pretty much free to do anything you want with it if you don’t steer the wrong way.”

Ark keeps sideswiping, though, with its laughable efforts to humanize and adventure-ize the story. Even God, voiced by Voight, sometimes sounds like a Catskills comic. Hear the Almighty get off a one-liner after informing Noah that he intends to sink his ark and make a “clean sweep” of the ungrateful human race.

“It was a difficult decision,” He says. “I would have liked a second opinion, but who could I ask?” Hi-yo!

Filmed in Australia, with some of the animal footage shot at the Fossil Rim Wildlife Center in Glen Rose, Texas, Ark also features Mary Steenburgen as Noah’s supportive wife, Naamah, and F. Murray Abraham as rambunctious Lot. His kvetching, unnamed wife, played by Carol Kane, thankfully is fated to be a pillar of salt early in Part 1.

It’s her punishment for ignoring God’s instructions and looking back on his firebolt-powered demolition of Sodom and Gomorrah. Her last words -- “I want some fun!” -- foreshadowed Cyndi Lauper’s clarion call of the 1980s. All lives apparently serve some purpose.

The Bible says -- but what does it know? -- that Sodom and Gomorrah became toast long after God commanded Noah to build his ark. On NBC, the events are reversed. Sayeth Halmi: “We had to do Noah’s Ark in an imaginative way and put the point through that God was really mad at the world and the people. And obviously Sodom and Gomorrah was the time in the Bible when he should have been the maddest. And so we combined the two stories.”

Pish tush. At least Adam and Eve aren’t interjected.

Noah, earnestly played by Voight, is first seen witnessing a bloody, muddy battle between Sodomites and Gomorrahns. It looks more like a self-contained tournament, though, with townies cheering on their favorites as though they were video game combatants.

Noah is repulsed, and God has seen enough, thank you. He declares Noah His “chosen one” and orders him to vacate Sodom, located adjacent to Gomorrah, before the biblical twin cities are torched from on high.

Noah, Namaah and their soon-to-be-strapping sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth (Mark Bazeley, Alexis Denisof, Jonathan Cake), make a long journey to verdant Gerar, where they take up farming. The locals treat them as outcasts, which is OK until they decide to offer Ham’s girlfriend, Ruth (Sidney Poitier’s daughter, Sydney Poitier), as a virginal sacrifice to the pagan rain god Mole. It’s Shem, Ham and Japheth to the rescue, with assists from Noah, a frying pan-wielding Naamah and, of course, God.

“Ya ha, missed me,” says one of the infidels before he’s struck blind. Wah-wah-wah.

It’s become high time for the giant ark to take shape. Noah’s skeptical about constructing a sailing vessel that’s 500 feet long, 83 feet wide and 50 feet high. But the Creator is bullish. “I think big,” He proclaims. “I made the world in six days.”

That God, what a card.

During construction, Lot returns. He’s been running with a bad crowd, but still has a semblance of goodness. When a crumbum exhorts his cohorts to rape and pillage, Lot stabs him in the gut.

“I didn’t expect that,” he says. “I was tricked. You caught me with my britches down. I want to tell you something with my last dying breath.”

Instead, he expires comically during one of Ark’s veers into Monty Python territory.

There’s much, much more, including an apparent TV movie first when a koala bear gently defecates aboard the ark while being held by Shem’s girlfriend, Miriam (Sonya Walger). The actors maintain straight faces, which should qualify them for Emmys.

Much of this is very picturesque, though. And the kiddies surely will enjoy seeing all the animals troop aboard before later helping Noah and company scare off the mean pirates with help from a giant funnel cloud.

For these reasons and many more, Noah’s Ark seems destined to be a goofy, camp classic in league with C.B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments.

Still, if a few well-placed lightning bolts hit the homes of certain actors and producers, we’ll have a pretty fair idea where they came from.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Rewinding to 1995 pre-Hugh Grant times in which Leno had momentum but hadn't yet caught Letterman


Jay and Johnny back when they seemed to enjoy one another.

Note to readers: It was mid-March, 1995, just a few months before Jay Leno exploded his Tonight Show ratings by asking Hugh Grant, “What the hell were you thinking?”

At the time of this interview, though, Leno was steadily gaining on CBS’
Late Show with David Letterman, but hadn’t yet surpassed it. I talked to an accommodating Leno in his office on NBC’s Burbank lot after attending the previous night’s show. Now we’re nearing the night -- Thursday, Feb. 6th -- when he’ll be leaving Tonight behind for a second time, again not by choice. Here’s the way it was nearly 19 years ago. (This article was first published on April 2, 1995.)

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BURBANK, Calif. -- Early to bed -- 3 a.m. -- and early to rise -- 7:30 a.m. -- Jay Leno is in his smallish NBC office by 8:15 a.m. on most weekdays.

The latter-day hardest-working man in show business is soon digesting the first batch of some 250 to 300 jokes submitted for his latest Tonight Show monologue. A new pageful arrives every five minutes during our midmorning interview. Twenty-some jokes will make the cut.

“My credo, that nobody here agrees with, is that anybody can have a life, but careers are hard to come by,” Leno says. “You can’t spend time with your family! You can’t do anything! You just make jokes all day. That’s what you do. And if people aren’t willing to do that . . .”

His voice trails off, but don’t get the idea that Leno is a maniacal taskmaster. “If people aren’t willing to do that” basically refers to himself. At age 44, he is married without children and unswervingly single-minded about what it takes to keep hitting in the big leagues. Your “tunnel vision” must be 20/20. You can’t waste a minute of your time. In the end, David Letterman’s worst enemy may be Jay Leno’s sheer determination to be the last guy standing.

“You always have to be in the mode of writing down the ad-lib or the joke,” he says. “You listen to music, you watch CNN and you say, ‘Ah, there’s a joke.’ “

The Tonight Show, which Leno inherited from Johnny Carson on May 25, 1992, lately has been coming closer to getting the last laugh on CBS’ Late Show with David Letterman. The ratings gap between the two programs shrank to seven-tenths of a point during the February “sweeps.” In the May 1994 sweeps, Tonight trailed Late Show by 1.3 points. And in their first week of head-to-head competition -- Aug. 30-Sept. 3, 1993 -- Leno emerged a badly beaten four points behind Late Show.

Tonight’s comeback is somewhat illusory. Leno’s ratings have remained in place while Letterman’s are slowly sliding south. NBC’s resurgence in prime-time this season lends a firm helping hand. Leno is being promoted during hot new shows such as ER and Friends. He also is much more comfortable on a new, intimate Tonight set that bears little resemblance to Johnny’s old digs. The makeover, on Sept. 27, coincided with NBC’s unexpectedly strong liftoff last fall. Meanwhile, CBS has dropped from first to third place in the prime-time ratings. Anyone who doesn’t know that hasn’t been watching Late Show of late. Many of Letterman’s monologues, even when he hosted on Oscar night, include a jab at his downtrodden employer.

“We’re doing fine. Actually, we’re doing terrific,” Leno says. “Obviously the NBC prime-time lineup has improved, and that’s helped us. But you really kind of stand on your own for the most part. If you don’t do a good show, people don’t watch.”

Early on, he didn’t blame them for tuning out Tonight.

“The first year of our show we made some huge mistakes,” Leno says. “And I was just kind of standing around watching the world go by and thinking, ‘Well, all right, these people know what they’re doing.’ And that was not the case.

“The first six months was Tonight Show by committee. The network would say, ‘OK, we want to keep Johnny’s audience, and we want to bring in new people. Why don’t you get your hair cut this way and wear this kind of suit? Consequently, the show kind of lost its edge. And I realized that suddenly I was getting blasted for not being a very good comedian when I always got really good write-ups for doing clever material. I thought, ‘Well, what am I doing wrong?’ “

He reacted by dumping his longtime friend, Helen Kushnick, who was producing the new Tonight. Her abrasiveness reportedly had split the show’s staff into warring camps.

“There was a lot of yelling and screaming going on,” Leno confirms. “I realized we were at the point where even people who worked on the show didn’t mind the show going down if it brought their enemies down, too. I said, ‘Let’s just put an end to that right now.’ Everybody seems to get along real good now. We don’t have those leaks that go out into the press. You know, little back-stabbing things. Because now everybody feels they’re a part of the show. You try to make it a relaxed and comfortable atmosphere.”

Tonight’s flailings and failings dovetailed with NBC’s indecisiveness on whether to replace Leno with the discontented Letterman, who had outgrown his Late Night program. NBC entertainment president Warren Littlefield, who championed Leno and prevailed, endured the slings and arrows of those who thought he was nuts. He is feeling much better these days.

“I don’t want to go out there and gloat, but you make your own conclusion as to what kind of tail wind the Oscars gave Dave,” Littlefield says from his car phone. “Jay is really focused, and he’s having a lot of fun. Take the late-night challenge. Watch the shows back to back and tell me who’s giving the audience the best entertainment. We feel very good about the product right now.”

Debbie Vickers, who worked on Carson’s Tonight Show for 12 years, replaced Kushnick as producer in September 1992. She is not so much a show doctor as a holistic healer.

“I wish we did have a vision, if visions are what you’re supposed to have,” she says. “The one thing that we’ve tried to do is just make the show more free-flowing. More comedy, looser interviews and let Jay drive the boat a little more. He needs to go and do what he wants, and we’ll follow him. It takes time. It is slow to maneuver the ship.”


Leno and his first Tonight Show successor, Conan O’Brien.

The ship’s captain is in his unvarying civilian uniform on this drizzly March morning.

“I always wear the same stuff,” Leno says. Namely, that’s jeans and a blue denim work shirt unbuttoned to the breastbone. His lone non-show business passion -- motorcycles -- is represented by two miniature choppers on his office windowsill. He laughs easily and frequently uses the phrase “It makes me laugh.” Sources of amusement range from his cronies -- who convene on work nights at his house to bounce jokes off one another -- to a “harried laptop kind of guy” who asked him on an airplane, “Are those girls really naked in those Prell commercials?”

Tonight tapings usually begin at 5 p.m. Los Angeles time. Leno heads for home at about 7:30 p.m. Preparation for the next night’s show begins with a kitchen table joke-around that generally adjourns between 2 and 3 a.m. Mavis, his wife of 15 years, mostly comes into the picture on weekends and road trips.

“Saturday night is sort of date night,” he says. “We go to a restaurant. Sometimes Friday night, too. She really likes to travel. I don’t like it. So if I go on the road, she always comes along. So whatever town you go to, she can go crazy and have a good time. So we have a lot of fun.”

The public’s view of quintessential “show business life” -- wild parties, wilder spending -- is science fiction to Leno. Not that there aren’t temptations.

“I mean, it’s fun to do a show like this and have these attractive women come out, and you go, ‘Ooooh!’ Like Tori Spelling comes on the other night. Did you see that skirt she had on? (During a commercial break) she said, ‘You know, I’m not wearing any underwear.’ I said, ‘Really.’ And that’s about as far as it goes. In your mind you can do whatever you want. But if you take it any further than that, you’re dead! You’re a dead man! You’re screwed! So you just learn to keep things at a distance and have a good time. People think it’s a lot of pressure. I supposed it is. But it’s piecemeal.”

Leno’s first Tonight appearance, as a guest on the March 2, 1977 show, came after years of failed attempts.

“I finally asked someone why I couldn’t get on,” he recalls. “And I was told, ‘Well, you’re not very good.’ “

It’s still as simple as that, he says.

“When I first took over the show, a comedian who wasn’t very good told me he never could get on with Johnny, but now he’d be able to and this would be great. I told him, ‘Why is it great? You have to get better first. You can’t come on just because I have the show. You have to come on because you’re good enough to be on the show.’

“I have many friends in show business. But I don’t expect them to come on this program because they’re my friend. I expect them to come on because the show is good and they want to come on. And they look at the ratings, and they see that this show can help them sell whatever it is they’re trying to sell.”


Leno and second Tonight Show successor, Jimmy Fallon.

Leno in turns sells himself both off- and on-camera. Unlike Letterman or Carson, he gladly poses for pictures and signs autographs before and after Tonight tapings. While warming up the audience for the March 9 show, he even agreed to ask Paul Reiser to autograph a fan’s copy of his bestselling book, Couplehood. Mission accomplished during a commercial break.

“That doesn’t make him a bad guy!” Leno exclaims when told of Letterman’s comparatively impersonal hellos and goodbyes at Late Show tapings. Mingling with fans is “something you kind of learn from the country-Western stars,” he says. “They’re real good at that. And I come from a real small town (he was born in Rochelle, NY and raised in Andover, MD). Famous people hardly ever came there. And when they did, it was like a huge deal.”

Win or lose the late-night wars, Leno says he’ll roll with the punches in the press or otherwise.

“You’d go nuts if you hold grudges. You’d go batty!” he says. “I know so many people who just get eaten up by bitterness and anger.”

He compares media coverage of late-night television to the ups and downs of “big-time wrestling.”

“I don’t complain about it. I don’t think, ‘Oh, they’re being terribly unfair.’ I’m terribly unfair to people every night of the week during the monologue. The press gives you a little jab. So what? You have good guy-bad guy. They beat you up for a while. And then it turns around and then they beat up the other guy.”

At long last, it might be the other guy’s turn.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Twenty years removed, network news luminaries recall TV's impact and coming of age on the day JFK died

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Dan Rather and the late Peter Jennings were in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. Rather later was a key player in CBS News specials that investigated whether Lee Harvey Oswald could have acted alone.

Note to readers: On the 20th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination in 1983, The Dallas Morning News published a 78-page commemorative magazine. My contribution was headlined “The Emergence of Television News: How assassination coverage moved TV into a new era.” I interviewed Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, Robert MacNeil, John Chancellor and Edwin Newman for the piece. Only Rather and MacNeil have survived until the 50th anniversary of that dark day.

The entire magazine was heavily edited to ensure accuracy and a very matter-of-fact approach. So that’s how this reads. But these interviews still resonate -- for me at least. And 30 years later, they, too, have become part of the historical record.

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CBS’s Walter Cronkite was the first television newsman to break the news.

At 12:40 p.m. (Dallas time), he interrupted the soap opera As the World Turns with a bulletin that President John F. Kennedy had been “seriously wounded” in Dallas.

ABC followed at 12:42, while CBS resumed its soap for seven minutes. At 12:46, NBC caught up with Don Pardo, now the announcer for the network’s Saturday Night Live, telling viewers that Kennedy had been rushed to an emergency room.

Within an hour, the White House had announced Kennedy’s death and the three commercial networks had begun their marathon stretches of commercial-free coverage.

By the time regularly scheduled programming resumed on Tuesday, Nov. 26, NBC had broadcast 71 hours of assassination coverage, the last 41 hours and 18 minutes of which was continuous. ABC broadcast 60 hours, and CBS, 55.

Although the networks had lost a combined total of about $40 million in commercial revenues in four days, they had gained immeasurable respect.

The verdict was almost unanimous. Television news had, in the words of historian Theodore H. White, “achieved greatness by reporting true drama with clarity, good taste and responsibility in a fashion that stabilized a nation in emotional shock and on the verge of hysteria.”

Even before the assassination, television news showed signs of having come of age.

In early fall 1963, for the first time, Americans chose television over newspapers and radio as their primary news source, according to a Roper Organization survey commissioned by the Television Information Office.

Two months before Kennedy was assassinated, CBS became the first commercial network to expand its nightly news broadcast from 15 minutes to a half hour. The opening story on the new CBS Evening News was Cronkite’s exclusive interview with Kennedy.

On the day of the president’s death, a shaken Cronkite couldn’t stop his voice from catching after informing the country that Kennedy was dead. Later that night, in a short commentary that aired just before midnight Dallas time, one of his principal competitors, NBC anchor Chet Huntley, spoke of “pockets of hatred in our country, areas and communities where the disease is permitted or encouraged.”

Huntley, Frank McGee and Bill Ryan took turns anchoring NBC’s breaking news coverage of the assassination. ABC’s anchors were Ron Cochran and Ed Silverman, whose names have been largely forgotten.

Many of today’s television viewers get their news from three men who reported from Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963: Dan Rather, who replaced Cronkite as anchor of the CBS Evening News on March 9, 1981; Peter Jennings, who succeeded the late Frank Reynolds this summer as anchor of ABC’s World News Tonight; and Robert (Robin) MacNeil, co-anchor of public television’s MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour.

John Chancellor, resident commentator on the NBC Nightly News, and Edwin Newman, longtime NBC anchor-reporter, also played important roles in their networks’ assassination coverage.


Dan Rather was the 32-year-old chief of CBS’s New Orleans bureau at the time of the assassination.

Rather, a native of Wharton, Texas, who had grown up in Houston, was coordinating the coverage of Kennedy’s Texas trip. When the shots were fired at the motorcade, Rather was stationed along the route. After the presidential limousine sped past him, he raced back to CBS affiliate KRLD-TV (now KDFW) and took charge of the network’s coverage from Dallas.

A month later, CBS sent Rather to Washington to cover the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson.

“It was a concentrated maturing process for me,” says Rather. He describes the immediate aftermath of the assassination as an “extended blur” during which he kept his emotions in check and strove to match the resiliency of a boxer.

“A professional fighter,” he says, “can go in there and take punch after punch and not show pain, and do the job at hand. Every reporter prays to God, I think, to get a world-class story just once . . . and you pray that you’re at your very best on it. That’s the sense in which I was lucky. It’s difficult to talk to anybody about this who’s not a reporter -- because it sounds terrible -- but I never expect to have a bigger story than the Kennedy assassination. How can you?

“I do think that television news was different after that,” he adds. “After that day -- and forever more -- broadcast journalism operated with a somewhat higher sense of purpose and with more confidence. Not only did our friends in print doubt that television could do it, but I think we doubted it ourselves.

“After the assassination, a lot of people in print felt that television could do it.”

Until the Kennedy assassination, radio seemed to be the medium that “strengthened the bonds of community” during a crisis, Rather says.

“Television was beginning to do some of that, but it passed from adolescence to adulthood during the assassination period,” he says. “There were these constant images of who and what we are as people. That’s something that television is very good at. But I’m not sure that before November 22nd we realized how well we could do that, or how important it was to do that. The shots of Washington during the funeral, the riderless horse -- these things just jumped off the screen at you.”
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TV news stalwarts John Chancellor, Edwin Newman, Robert MacNeil.

Robert MacNeil, a 32-year-old correspondent with NBC News at the time, made the official announcement of Kennedy’s death during the network’s first hour of coverage.

“I think the thing that impressed me,” he says today, “was how careful everybody was to be absolutely sure of what they were talking about and not to just sort of throw it all out there.

“When Reagan was shot, there were reports out of the hospital that were just grossly inaccurate. In some cases, they were prepared to go with just about any rumor.

“I don’t think you’re ever hurt by being conservative, because the American public isn’t interested in whether CBS had it two minutes before NBC. What’s important is the event and whether you can rely on the information.”

MacNeil heard the shots that killed Kennedy. He was riding in the first of two press buses following the dignitaries’ limousines. His first dispatches for NBC were filed from the Texas School Book Depository, which had the nearest telephone.

“The dominant emotion was, ‘My God, what a story!’ “ MacNeil says. “It wasn’t until about three days later that my own sort of personal feeling about what had happened really caught up with me. Then, when I got back to Washington, I was very depressed. It really cast me down. The assassination ended all our innocence about a lot of things, and it created the first suspicions about whether the government was telling us the truth. It was much easier to believe everything before Kennedy was assassinated.

“I think television provided a wonderful sense of national unity and catharsis,” he says, referring to the assassination coverage. “It fed the insatiable appetite of the nation and the world that weekend. It provided a kind of eloquent wake during a time of fantastic events. Most of them didn’t need to have very much said about them. They just needed to be shown.”


Peter Jennings, like MacNeil, a native of Canada, was a 25-year-old reporter with the Canadian Television Network when he heard the startling news over the public address system at the Toronto airport. Without checking with his boss, he caught the first available flight to Dallas and began telephoning dispatches to the network. Jennings’ audio reports were accompanied by wire service photos taken in Dallas. He stayed in the city for a day before catching another flight to Washington to cover Kennedy’s funeral.

“I did not have any really weak moment until the funeral was over,” Jennings says. “I went back to my hotel and then I just sat on my bed and cried.”

In the 20 years since Kennedy’s death, Jennings has been around the world covering wars and other assassinations. His experiences have diminished the impact of his first day in Dallas.

“It’s probably going to sound very pompous,” he says, “but I have been witness to so much history over the years. It was a stunning moment to have been there in Dallas, but there’s just been so much more. I’ve covered seven wars; I have seen countless people die and governments change. The thing I remember most about that time is the strength of the nation. The nation gathered itself up and proceeded.”


NBC’s Edwin Newman, then 44, was having lunch in New York the day Kennedy was slain. He heard the news from a CBS correspondent, who joined him in the race back to their respective offices. After anchoring NBC’s radio coverage for several hours, Newman was told he would be going to Dallas. He wanted to change clothes first because he was wearing a light-gray plaid suit “that just wasn’t appropriate.” His supervisor said there was no time.

During the chartered bus ride to the airport, Newman learned that Kennedy’s body was being flown to Washington. That suddenly became the reporter’s destination.

“One of the things that has been said, with some justice, is that television brought the country together,” Newman says. “I think there was a sense of gratitude at the time that probably would not be present now, because it would be taken for granted that we ought to be able to do these things. We did demonstrate that we could cover it -- cover it with some dignity, competence and thoughtfulness. It was a great national injury, a great humiliation.”

The most jarring image was Lee Harvey Oswald’s shooting, which NBC captured live with correspondent Tom Pettit shouting, “There is absolutely panic! Pandemonium has broken out!”

At the time Newman was at Dulles International Airport in Washington interviewing foreign dignitaries arriving for Kennedy’s funeral.

“Suddenly, you have this thing erupt,” he says, “when you’re putting microphones in the faces of presidents and prime ministers. That was extraordinary. There was a feeling that you were out of touch with reality.

“There were people during that time who were moved to tears on the air,” he says. “I was not one of them. You’re detached from the event, but, at the same time, you’re involved in it. How far do you go in joining in the national mourning or in promoting it, in a sense?”


John Chancellor was a 36-year-old NBC correspondent in Bonn, West Germany, on the day Kennedy died. He remembers hearing “an enormous clap of thunder” shortly after the Associated Press reported the death.

“A lot of us thought the war had started,” he recalls. “For an hour or so, it was very scary.”

After reporting West Germany’s reactions to the assassination, Chancellor decided he wanted to return home.

“You felt that you had discovered some kind of flaw -- or some kind of cancer -- in the United States,” he says. “I just felt that there was something more than my career that was tugging at me, making me want to go home.”

Nine months later, NBC granted his request. Upon returning, Chancellor made a point to watch some of the powerful television work he had missed while in West Germany. “I watched some of the coverage of the funeral, and it was just majestic,” he says. “I’d never thought of this, but it was an interesting test of television’s ability to cover a very complicated story and to do it with taste.”

In November a year later, Chancellor returned to Bonn to prepare a retrospective that will be broadcast Nov. 22nd during the Today program’s two-hour remembrance of Kennedy.

“I’m sorry for the people of Dallas,” Chancellor says. “I know what they’re going to go through. A lot of Dallasites will say, ‘Oh my God, why do you have to dredge that up again?’ But that’s wrong, because Dallas simply happened to be the stage on which this drama occurred.”

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Liberace's last call in Dallas -- less than three months before his death


Note to readers: Just a few months before his Feb. 4, 1987 death, Liberace appeared in Dallas to promote his book The Wonderful Private World of Liberace. He continued to live the fiction of his heterosexuality throughout an entertaining, quotable press conference. As HBO’s Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra nears its Sunday, May 26th premiere, here’s a look at how he was back in mid-fall, 1986. This article was originally published on Nov. 17th of that year.

Vladziu Valentino Liberace, who broke into show business using the name Walter Busterkeys, is dragging on a filterless cigarette, wearing a black leather jacket, but not looking like Marlon Brando in The Wild One.

He has four rings on his fingers, but no bells on his toes. The immaculately white teeth are obviously capped, the hairpiece is a dead give-away and the 67-year-old face is unlined, save for a pair of designer creases in the forehead. The voice is firmer than fey.

“Do you mind if I smoke?” he asks. “I’m a strange smoker. I quit for six months and then I start in again. I figure that way at least I cut down to half. But I can quit any time I want.”

A small collection of reporters is unresponsive, leading Liberace to press on.

“Tonight I’ll be reunited with four of my dogs,” he says. “They’re coming in from Palm Springs to meet me at the airport.”

His other 22 dogs remain in Las Vegas. Some of them, he says, are Chinese fighting dogs; they attack strangers, so they don’t travel particularly well. Liberace also has a West Highland Terrier, “which we call my West Highland Terrorist.”

He is in town to promote his new book, The Wonderful Private World of Liberace, by Liberace. It’s a lavish, 224-page, oversized volume, loaded with pictures of the author and his surroundings, and retailing for $29.95.

“As much as people think they know me,” he says, “they really don’t. They don’t really know Liberace the person, and this is what this book is all about.”

Chapter 3 is something of a revelation. Titled “I Lost My Virginity at Sixteen,” it details his deflowering at the hands of a nightclub blues singer named Miss Bea Haven. The chapter seems somewhat out of sync with the rest of the book, which includes long discourses on Liberace’s dogs, housekeepers, houses, his sainted mother, Frances, and cooking. In Chapter 9, readers are shown how to make Liberace Sticky Buns. “Believe me, there’ll be none left over,” he writes.

“The fact that I lost my virginity at 16, I don’t think is all that sinful,” Liberace says, noting that other, gamier reminiscences were excised by the book’s publisher, Harper & Row. “I think sooner or later you have to lose your virginity. Otherwise I’d be some kind of freak.”

Liberace’s publicist for the day says that he once romanced figure skater Sonja Henie, who left him and “broke his heart.” Save for the misbehavin’ Miss Bea Haven, the book is mum on the author’s sex life.

Liberace, who punctuates his speech with “ya knows,” has been a nationally known figure since 1952, when The Liberace Show premiered on NBC. Lately, he has been breaking attendance records at New York’s Radio City Music Hall and playing Vegas regularly. He has endured because he is a genuine original. Show business has many flamboyant entertainers, but they can’t hold a candle, or a candelabra, to Liberace.

“I was fortunate to come along at a time when I had no competition,” he says. “Now people are pitted against each other to create a competitive atmosphere that didn’t exist when I was on TV. People accepted me for what I was and didn’t say, ‘Ah, I don’t like him, let’s turn on that other fella who does the same thing.’ There was nobody that did the same thing.”

On the piano player front, only Elton John comes even close. But Liberace describes John as “bizarre, where I have never been bizarre. With him, the headdresses and the glasses and all of that, you really have to be told who it is. But with me, there’s no question.”

Liberace has been the subject of two other authorized books, Liberace Cooks and Liberace.

“I try to beat them to the punch,” he says of Kitty Kelley-type bios. “Those books are exposes, and I think they’re very devastating. But I will admit, I enjoy reading them, like I enjoy reading the rags. When I go to the market, I’ll buy the rags, The Enquirer and all that. It’s kind of fun . . . It’s gotten to the point where you can tell who’s hot and who’s not. All of a sudden, you start reading every week about Vanna White, and this one and that one. Then all of a sudden they’re replaced by other people who suddenly make some kind of an impression. For a while it was Michael Jackson. Then it was Prince. It’s always tinged with a little scandalous material.”

Liberace disapproves of entertainers who bring their scandals onstage with them.

“If I’m sitting in an audience, and I pay $25 or $30 for a ticket, I don’t want to hear that ‘Thanks for giving me another chance’ talk. I want to be entertained by that person’s talent. It’s amazing how many of them say, “I’m straight now and I’m doing well’ and so forth. I really think it’s asking for sympathy, to be understood. I don’t think it enhances their talent any . . . I think I would like to be remembered for making people happy and bringing some comfort and joy into their lives without preaching or getting on any soapbox or anything.”

Today’s audiences, he adds, are “quick to forgive. Years ago, if you made a boo-boo of any kind at all, you had to live with it for the rest of your life. I don’t think that exists anymore.”

Liberace’s book pictures him with several of today’s trendier personalities, including Cyndi Lauper, Rick James and “my young friend” Michael Jackson, for whom he planned to cook a “real Southern soul-food meal” until learning Jackson was a vegeterian. He fell back on a vegetarian dish smothered with a packaged Hollandaise sauce. Michael reportedly loved it.

He has been offered, he says, a part as himself on Miami Vice, but declined because, “If I’m going to play myself, then I’m not really adding to my prestige.” Cast him as a district attorney or a “sidekick to Don Johnson” and he’d be on the set tomorrow, Liberace says.

He’ll probably endure for as long as there’s a flounce in his step. At this stage of his career, overstaying his welcome has become a principal concern. Lucille Ball comes to mind.

“She had so much going for her already with the old I Love Lucy series,” he says. “I’ve watched her new show (Life With Lucy) a few times and I think she still has the know-how and the ability. But I look at her now and I think, ‘If that was my mother up there, would I like it? Would I want her to do pratfalls and things like that?’ I think her series should have a little more dignity to it, because she is a respected 75-year-old woman. And I don’t think she can do at 75 what she did 35 years ago.

“I think George Burns is a one-of-a-kind octogenarian,” he adds. “I saw him do a show in Vegas just recently, and he was very sharp and he didn’t miss a cue, didn’t miss a joke. But when he walked off that stage, he was an old, old man. Took those tiny little steps.

“I don’t ever want to be caught in that same situation. I want to bounce off.”

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

20 years later: a rewind to how local media covered the 51-day standoff in Waco


Note to readers: It’s been 20 Springs since a 51-day standoff between federal law enforcement officials and followers of Branch Davidian cult leader David Koresh ended in a shocking April 19th conflagration shown on live television. I chronicled the exhaustive local and national media coverage from beginning to end.

The below two stories, originally published on March 11, 1993 and April 21, 1993, are divided by video of Fox4 reporter Richard Ray’s excellent look back at the tragedy in a recent piece tied to the 20th anniversary.


WACO -- Sundance the swaybacked horse, gratefully nibbling on just about anything offered to him, seems at home on his range with TV satellite trucks, tents and RVs.

The increasingly heavyset palomino is part of the feeding frenzy along a middle-of-nowhere road lined with modern-day tools of the TV trade. For $150 a day, Sundance's owner has been renting a corner of the horse's pasture to Dallas' KDFW-TV (Channel 4), KHOU-TV of Houston and the CBS network. Sundance has become a mascot -- and only an occasional irritant -- in an ongoing electronic stakeout two miles from the compound of Branch Davidian cult leader David Koresh and his followers. The horse occasionally has been known to nibble on the television cables snaking his turf.

"We'll be the first station to lose a live shot because of a horse,” joked Channel 4 news director Mike Sechrist, who flew to Waco via helicopter Wednesday.

"You want to let your people know you appreciate what they're doing,” said Sechrist, who had just returned from a food run into town. Law enforcement officials manning the entry-point to the media village took a liking to his white KDFW gimme cap. Sechrist said he promised to have a fresh supply flown in when the Channel 4 chopper arrived to pick him up later Wednesday.

Tank-sized, techno-vehicles from Dallas-Fort Worth's three network affiliate stations have been joined by the likes of StarCam 5 from KOCO-TV in Oklahoma City, SpaceLink from KTRK-TV in Houston and Challenger 5 from KENS-TV in San Antonio. A bright, balmy, breezy Wednesday marked Day 11 of the standoff between the Davidians and an army of federal agents.

"During the day it's just scratching for stories. The slightest little change becomes a big deal,” said veteran WFAA-TV (Channel 8) reporter Doug Fox.

Wednesday's principal itch was Ron Engelman, host of a talk show on Dallas' KGBS radio (1190 AM). During his Tuesday program, Engelman asked the Davidians to display a white flag if they wanted legal and medical help. A white banner was displayed the same afternoon from a top-floor window of their compound. They later unfurled a printed message -- "God help us. We want the press” -- on a second white banner.

Engelman's next step was a trip to the media village, where he arrived at midmorning Wednesday. He quickly was surrounded by reporters and cameras.

"Are you concerned at all about being used by them (the Davidians)?” asked Channel 5 reporter Mike Androvett.

No, said Engelman, who in turn accused the media of "not asking the right questions” of federal agents.

During that day's regular 10:30 a.m. news briefing, FBI special agent Bob Ricks criticized Engelman's efforts as "counterproductive.”

Some reporters assigned to cover the standoff haven't been as conciliatory toward Engelman.

"This guy's a nut. He gives us all a bad name,” said a Dallas TV correspondent who asked not to be identified. "Instead of covering the story, he's become a part of it. And that violates every journalistic ethic. He's gonna prolong the standoff. He's gonna get people killed.”

KXAS-TV (Channel 5) producer David Magana, who has coordinated on-site coverage of the standoff since Day 1, said Engelman's involvement had done far more than "blur the lines' between news reporting and newsmaking.

"This one has been dragged through the mud and the cow pasture,” he said.

Magana has returned to Dallas once, to wash his clothes, since the standoff began Feb. 28.

"It was chaos at first, complete chaos,” he said.

Channel 5 and other TV crews since have settled into something of a routine. During the station's noon newscast Wednesday, Magana stayed in touch with Dallas by simultaneously listening through an earpiece and speaking through a mike.

"This is my life,” he said matter-of-factly. "If I had any more orifices in my head, there'd be a phone in 'em.”

The cost of such coverage is imposing. Satellite time alone has a price tag of $8 a minute.

"This is like a hole you're pouring money into,” said Channel 4's Sechrist.

Some outfits are making a buck. Scott Lewis, a radio frequency engineer for Mississippi State University, drove the school's satellite truck 700 miles to Waco in order to sell time to interested parties. Clients, brokered through Satellite Management International of Dallas, have included A Current Affair and a station in Hamburg, Germany.

"Its main goal is to teach students,' Lewis said of the MSU truck. "But when it's available it's rented out.'

Lewis also has been contributing to the local economy. Cab rides from the media village to his motel room cost $25. He also has invested in a T-shirt with a "God Sez Wait” inscription.

One reporter -- Channel 4's Brett Shipp -- couldn't wait any longer Wednesday. He headed back to Dallas to join his pregnant wife, who is having a sonogram Thursday.

"I'm beat,” Shipp said succinctly.

Dallas News | myFOXdfw.com

Relieved that it's over, but shaken by how it ended, local television news operations are looking forward to life after the cult standoff in Waco.

Coverage of the 51-day siege was a budget-bleeding combination of constant satellite feeds, around-the-clock overtime and incidentals such as campers, hotel rooms and state of the art, high-powered camera lenses.

"I didn't add up the costs. I was afraid it would scare me too bad," KXAS-TV (Channel 5) news director David Overton said Tuesday. "Our company (LIN Broadcasting) just told us to do what we had to do."

Overton and the news directors at KDFW-TV (Channel 4) and WFAA-TV (Channel 8) said the extra expense of covering the standoff would approach or exceed six figures at each station. Satellite time alone costs an average of $8 a minute, Overton said. Stations had to reserve blocs of time in advance and pay the full price whether or not all of it was used.

"There's a wonderful sense of relief that it's finally over," Channel 4 news director Mike Sechrist said. "And then there's this horrible feeling about the way it got resolved. We sat here with open mouths when the fire started."

Live coverage of the Branch Davidian complex in flames was seen in about 725,000 homes in Dallas-Fort Worth between 12:15 and 1:30 p.m. Monday. Channel 8's coverage generally drew the highest ratings throughout the day, with Channels 4 and 5 usually running well behind. But Channel 5 had the first live TV reports of the assault on the compound by federal agents.

Channel 5 reporter Mike Androvett, tipped that "something might happen' early Monday morning, decided to spend the night in the station's on-site RV instead of a motel. He went on the air "literally half-asleep,' initially worrying about being incoherent.

Mr. Androvett, who covered the standoff full time with only a handful of days off since Feb. 28, said he "finally had a letdown" after Monday's 10 p.m. newscast. "I sat in my hotel room for a minute and tried to take inventory. Did we do everything we should have? What does it all mean?"

Channel 8 news director John Miller said he was "surprised by how much it got to me, the emotions and sadness I felt" when the Davidian complex became an inferno.

"News people are generally so immune to feelings," he said. "But this was different, because we lived with it so long. Some of our people probably made a dozen trips back and forth to Waco. It really became a part of our existence. I never met (FBI briefer) Bob Ricks. But I felt I knew him very well because I watched him every day."

Throughout the standoff, Channel 5 was the only local TV station to carry the 10:30 a.m. briefings daily. It more than made up for a lapse that left the station without a satellite hookup to cover the first briefing on March 3. Channel 5 instead had to rely on a KRLD-AM radio audio feed while competing TV stations brought viewers live pictures.

"If you're not always thinking ahead, the technology out there will kill ya,' Mr. Overton said.

Channels 4, 5 and 8 plan to keep their satellite trucks in Waco until at least the end of the week. Channel 5's Androvett, who became a star reporter in the past two months, hopes to take some time off before returning to the station's Austin bureau.

"For all the reporters out here, it's been a grind," he said.

"As it begins to sink in, I think we'll be more and more horrified at what we saw Monday," Channel 8's Miller said. "Everybody's now busy trying to find somebody to blame. Society always does. To me, that obscures the point that this is a dangerous world and bad things happen."

Meanwhile in Mounds, Okla., filming continues on NBC's In the Line of Duty: Assault in Waco, starring Timothy Daly of Wings as cult leader David Koresh. Scheduled to air May 23 on Channel 5, the made-for-TV movie will still end on the day shooting began between federal agents and the Branch Davidians. An epilogue will tell their fates.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net