powered by FreeFind

Apple iTunes


Ed Bradley: Goodnight and Godspeed

Ed Bradley recently, with his wife, Patricia, and in 1969. CBS photos


Ed Bradley's hour had come. On Sunday night, 60 Minutes returned it to him in full with a tribute to his public and personal life.

"I don't have enough years left myself to ever get over missing Ed Bradley. Not ever," said Andy Rooney, 87. Bradley was 65 when he died of leukemia Thursday.

His quarter-century at 60 Minutes, for which he did 500 stories, made Bradley one of television's most enduring and important newsmen. He also ranks among the medium's all-time most influential African-Americans. As 60 Minutes showed, Bradley ranged far and wide. He covered wars, exposed corruption and sat down with some very big names in the world of crime, entertainment and athletics. They included Timothy McVeigh, Michael Jordan, Bob Dylan, George Burns, Laurence Olivier, Muhammad Ali and his favorite subject of all, Lena Horne.

Off camera he was a music buff and an onstage ham. Two of his very best friends were Jimmy Buffett and Wynton Marsalis.

"I got so much joy out of watching him attempt to be a shameless performer," said Buffett, who rushed to Bradley's bedside from Hawaii to be with him near the end.

Trumpeter Marsalis played Bradley off at the end of Sunday's 60 Minutes. "How could you not love him?" he asked rhetorically. "You couldn't help it."

Bradley wasn't much of a self-promoter. He didn't do many interviews with reporters. Nor did he let his colleagues at 60 Minutes know that he had been diagnosed with leukemia years ago.

I'll never forget my one up-close experience with Bradley. It was in 1976, and I was a political reporter for The Capital Times in Madison, Wis. For a half-day I got to travel with the national press corps covering Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign. By early evening we were flying from a stop in Illinois to Milwaukee, where Carter would be making a nighttime address.

Just before touchdown at Billy Mitchell Field, Bradley donned a gas mask and led a small V-formation of reporters onto the airport tarmac. He did so in support of a colleague who'd had his arm broken when a Milwaukee cop slammed a door on it during an earlier campaign visit. Bradley now approached a very unamused officer to inform him that this time the reporters were ready for action. Point made and lasting impression imparted.

Bradley always stayed his own man, wearing an earring on the air in later years just because he damn well wanted to do it. His sudden and very unexpected death also made me think about where he belongs on a list of television's 10 most influential African-Americans. As you might deduce, Bradley ranks pretty high. Here's how it came out:

10. Diahann Carroll -- Her 1968 sitcom Julia marked the first time a black woman had starred in a weekly TV series as something other than a white family's servant. Sixteen years later, she joined the cast of Dynasty to become the first featured black character in a prime-time soap.

9. Bernard Shaw -- He was CNN's first signature anchor, leading the cable upstart to a place at the table with CBS, NBC and ABC. His point-blank 1988 debate question to presidential candidate Michael Dukakis -- what if his wife, Kitty, were raped? -- is still the stuff of campaign lore.

8. Don Cornelius -- The black community's Dick Clark created the syndicated show Soul Train in 1971 and hosted it for 22 years. It remains in production today as a showcase for both new black artists and the latest dance moves.

7. Arsenio Hall -- Late night television's one and only successful black host endured for five years (1989-94) during times when Johnny Carson was winding down and Jay Leno and David Letterman were winding up. Bill Clinton's sax-playing appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show became the signature visual of the 1992 presidential campaign.

6. Robert Johnson -- He launched BET in 1980 as one of cable television's first signature networks. Some argue that Johnson enriched himself at the expense of creating a superior -- and more expensive -- scripted drama or comedy series. But BET remains entrenched on virtually every cable system in the country, which is no small feat.

5. Flip Wilson -- No black performer had fronted a successful variety series until NBC's The Flip Wilson Show rocketed to prime-time's No. 2 spot in its very first year on the air (1970). Catchphrases ("The Devil made me do it") and characters such as Geraldine Jones (Wilson in drag) kept the show in the top 20 for three seasons. It's the last time a variety hour has hit such heights.

4. Bryant Gumbel -- He co-hosted NBC's Today for 15 eventful years (1982-97), excelling as an interviewer while also making news with his own blunt-spoken opinions. A subsequent stint at CBS made Gumbel richer still, but otherwise paid few dividends. He continues to host HBO's distinguished Real Sports series and later this month will do play-by-play on the NFL network's inaugural batch of games.

3. Ed Bradley (for reasons stated above).

2. Bill Cosby -- NBC's The Cosby Show, which premiered in 1984, almost singlehandedly lifted a dormant NBC from third to first place. It also cut across racial lines, ranking No. 1 for five consecutive seasons. The comedy's colossal 34.9 Nielsen rating in its 1986-87 season hasn't been approached in the 20 years since. And it never will be in an increasingly fragmented universe now further split by broadband and cellphone viewing options.

1. Oprah Winfrey -- She's still reigns over the most successful daytime talk show in TV history. Whatever Oprah wants, Oprah gets -- including a who's who of mostly awed A-list guests. Her enormously influential book club and Oprah's super duper car giveaway are among many other attendant splendors. And oh yeah, Tom Cruise jumped up and down on her couch, providing a pop culture moment quite unlike any other.