Thursday, May 20, 2004

60 Minutes Man

A writerly friend of mine (or would it be more accurate to say ‘writery’?) told me yesterday how much he detests most film and television reviewing. Its crap he thinks: – mostly pointless prattle, sometimes puffery – but almost entirely pulp or pap. He was pretty adamant, but I think that might be situational; coming off a couple of weeks of so much angst-ridden ‘what’ll we do now that Friends is gone!’ media slobbering, he’s doubtless a little biased.
That’s why I want to make it quite clear to him (to, I don’t know… let’s call him ‘Greyherring’) that I’m not about to review Tuesday night’s farewell broadcast to 60 Minutes creator Don Hewitt. Not a bit of it. My purpose today in discussing Don (in the context of the program) is to admit to a problem.
It’s honesty we’re told - facing up to our foibles - that provides the first steps on the road to recovery. If that’s so, hand me my walker, my bifocals and plenty of sunscreen - my condition has a name: Gerentophilia. A particular attraction to the elderly.
Somewhere in the world is a cave wall covered in ancient symbols and complex hieroglyphics, images of prehistoric animals gamboling in a prehistoric landscape, but the central scrawl, crudely rendered yet recognizable - a pictograph of an ancient, fossilized desiccated Don Hewitt. There has to be; something has to explain the Dorian Grey-like quality of this vital, ageless hunk. There are no two ways about it – this geriatric is a stone (age) fox.
If you happened to catch the retrospective-cum-bum’s rush ostensibly celebrating the career of the creator and executive producer for more than 25 years of the innovative and original television news magazine show 60 Minutes, you can’t have been unaware of the fact that sitting around the coffin shaped (and what wit thought that up?) table in Studio 45 with him, was a selection of senior citizens quite obviously in the last stages of decay.
In what is clearly only a matter of time before succumbing to putrification was Mike Wallace – wrinkled and wattled, looking like one of those talking trees in The Wizard of Oz… if in fact one of those talking trees needed his dentures re-fitted; Morley Safer – a melted down, tallow-hued baggy Bloodhound who’s obviously seen many and much better days (you really could pack actual stuff in those under-eye bags… though who knows: perhaps he’s just feeling tired and emotional, still suffering the devastating loss of Friends…) and Ed Bradley – an ash-tinted wraith with a diamond earring – hair like the carpeting in the back of an old VW Bug, grizzled and grizzly.
(Two others were there to play “Do you remember when…” the youngsters: Steve Croft and Leslie Stahl… but Steve though only 58, already fits the ancient visual – with a face like 10 pounds of concrete in 20 pound sack… poured unevenly onto 20 miles or so of bad road; and Leslie, well Leslie has always looked like that. Pretty, thin and dry - probably a little musty, she’s just ‘the girl’; pay no attention.)
Crumpled and sagging Hobbit Andy Rooney, cute as a button – if buttons can also incorporate a crabby, cranky-pantsing unstable temperament – was not at the table, though he was in evidence in one of his usual segment style rant-ettes, sounding a little sad (in that ‘keep your enemies closer’ way) to see the great man go.
So the shock was in the midst of all this – the guy who was retiring; the man who driver’s license apparently accurately reports is 81… the fellow who looked like a million bucks (in cash) from the superb cut of his moss green bespoke Prince of Wales check jacket, to the subtly coordinating celery green silk tie encircling his apparently still un-wattled neck. From his tanned and handsome face, to his twinkling, sparkling (I feel a sigh coming on) bright eyes, the man isn't just a visionary - he's a vision! So why is he going?
And if he’s going, could he sort of indicate himself over in my direction?
If it weren’t for a few seconds of film clips of Don in the early days of television – and a few great stories, like when he told Dan Rather to nip on over to the Zapruder’s pad to steal the film of the Kennedy assassination (beat him up if necessary, knock him down – but get that film) or when Frank Sinatra threatened his life for enquiring about ol’ blue eyes’s mob connections, you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking the show had very little to actually do with Don.
The show was really all about the other pensioners and their past triumphs: Morley and Gleason; Ed and Ali; Mike and the Ayatollah. (There were also clips from the classic hidden camera expose Steve Croft perpetrated on an almost unbelievably corny criminal – a Boss Hogg-shaped roller backer of odometers. It gave Croft the opportunity to say “The good news is we’re not the police – the bad news is we’re 60 Minutes!” That must have been fun.)
And the show was lots of fun in that classic 60 Minutes retrospective way, but not much of an obvious Hewitt-fest… though to be fair, had they shown the behind the camera, desk-bound Exec Producer in action, probably signing off on expenses, going over time sheets, or checking CBS’s insurance after almost fatally dropping lighting equipment on the head of the then First Lady in waiting, Hilary Clinton, instead of say, Jackie Gleason reprising his Minnesota Fats role for Morley Safer, the program might have lost that certain je ne sais quoi (something remotely interesting) that means ratings.
Though it was made clear that Hewitt was – is – the living embodiment of the history of television news. He was there with Murrow and Cronkite - covered Kennedy alive and dead – then presumably scratched his (then dark, now silvery-white) thick thatch of hair and dreamed up 60 Minutes.
(Rumour has it he filched the concept of the news magazine show from the Canadian producers of ‘This Hour Has Seven Days’, but I’m going to cut him a little slack here – not that he needs it: everything looks as tight as need be…!)
It did seem strange though, when you consider that Wallace, Safer, Rooney et al are staying and this ball of pent up, still-firing-on-all-cylinders energy is going. Why?
My theory? They’re all just jealous!
So the bad news is – he’s no longer 60 Minutes personified. The good news is that at least his absence from the day to day doings of the CBS News department will give him the time to pursue something a little less controversial; perhaps reply to his fan mail… in person…
Am I getting older? (Is it possible?) Could this explain my ga-ga fascination with a man old enough (if he were just a little precocious and promiscuous) to be my grandfather? Until recently I mostly dated men who only knew disco as recycled nostalgia – most of whom probably wouldn’t recognize a bubble shirt or identify the taste of ‘Incredible Edibles’ - but when you think about it, Don would likely be just as oblivious to these markers as well, having missed them the first time around due to a preoccupation with Big Band music, sock suspenders and bathtub gin.
I can’t tell you right now if this elder-worship is a one-off, or the shape of things to come; I can tell you that I’m beginning to love the smell of Ben-Gay in the morning…

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