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REMEMBERING LEONARD HARRIS
by Charlie Finch
 
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In the old New York of the 1960s, there was a certain kind of cultural critic, square, self-effacing, always in the action as if he had just stepped onto a bus full of circus clowns. Such a fella was Leonard Harris, who died at 81 on Aug. 28, 2011.

Leonard was a guy from the Bronx who spent the years from 1966 to 1974 as the cultural critic for local New York newscasts on WCBS-TV. He was determinedly anti-hip, understated and always wryly laughing at himself. You can see this aspect of Leonard on the "Beatles Anthology" DVD set when he interviews some ecstatic teenage girls at Shea Stadium right before the Beatles take the stage. "Aren't the Beatles losing popularity?" Harris queries in all sincerity. The teensters, in full Long Island accents, furiously object. "What about Herman and the Hermits?" Leonard continues, "aren't they now more popular than the Beatles?" You can imagine the response to this bit of squaredom!

Leonard's own musical favorite was Bing Crosby, not one of mine. In 1993, Harris came on my radio show to spin rarities by Der Bingle for an hour and try to persuade me that Crosby was the avatar of hip. "Look at his influence on Elvis" was part of Len's argument, almost convincing me.

Leonard Harris was known around New York for a lot of reasons, for his well-written minor novels, his exceptional, decades-long love affair with the elegant society photographer Mary Hilliard, which was the envy of every other Upper East Side couple. But you know him, as well, wherever you happen to be, from his role as the doomed Senator Palantine in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver.

Leonard channeled the persona of Mayor John Lindsay in this part, the hope that Lindsay inspired in liberal society when elected in 1965, and the naive blunders that inevitably ensued. There was a time in my life when just about everybody looked and acted like Leonard Harris, at least in the Silk Stocking District. He was the last of that breed, modest and, yes, very blessed, but, really, a man, if that means anything anymore. Now, he too has left the stage.


CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).