In early 1978 I got a call from a TV producer, "My name's Bob Shanks. I just saw your interview with Dick Cavett and I was impressed and want to let you know that I'm developing for ABC News a weekly magazine of the air called 20/20 and it's a fast-moving, kicky, entertainment thing with some heavy news and investigative pieces -- a kind of souped up 60 Minutes but with far better production values, more in-the-field-work. I want to talk to you about becoming our arts correspondent. I want to do the arts but in a popular way and I understand from the Cavett thing that you popularized the Metropolitan. I want to see you soon, we're hiring this week."
Shanks was a spindly character -- a 38-medium -- with hawk-like eyes. He never stopped fidgeting. Had I ever been on TV before the Cavett gig? I rattled off my many interviews as director of the Met and my work for Metropolitan Wonderland when at The Cloisters. He dialed out. So, I said, "Why don't you give an acid test? Call me when I least expect it, give me a story idea, tell me where to go, have the producers there and I'll do the interview or whatever you want."
Several days later someone called saying that a car would be by for me in half an hour. There would be papers on the guy I was to interview and I'd have to frame the questions. I was expected to make a list of other people to interview for the story and contact them, perhaps for a studio appearance. The car would whisk me to the studio where I'd get a quick make-up job and then meet the subject. This was David Begelman, the disgraced former chief of Columbia Pictures, who had forged the actor Cliff Robertson's signature on a $10,000 studio check made out to himself. He had been suspended, indicted, convicted, fined and -- amazingly -- re-instated to his presidency by the Columbia board despite the protests of the CEO, Alan Hirschfield. After an outcry Begelman was fired. But in an even more astonishing move the Columbia directors decided to fire Hirschfield for his ethical stand. Despite even more flak, the chairman of the board, the powerful and wealthy Herbert Allen Jr., said that since the company "is mine," he could do what he wanted.
The fancy 20/20 car had a phone and I called Cliff Robertson, whom I knew because of his wife, Dina Merrillo She had been helpful with events at the Met. I asked him if he could come to ABC in an hour or so to make an on-camera statement about the sleazy affair. He said he would.
I was rushed to make-up. My suit jacket was hurriedly pressed. They gave me a "correspondent's" tie -- mine was too "artsy." I was taken to a studio, taught in two minutes how to read the TelePrompTer and how to know when the camera was focusing on me -- a light on the camera would come on red.
"Make it a five-minute interview, Tommy," Shanks said. "Got your questions?"
"I have. And, by the way, alert your receptionist that Cliff Robertson is on the way for a quick statement, too."
Shanks’ eyes widened. "He's really coming?"
Then David Begelman entered the studio, was miked and introduced to me.
I went after him very softly at first. Did he have any regrets for having to give up all the fabulous studio perks? He looked mystified. I threw a few more softies. No one had even told me to do this, I just felt it. Then I went right into his gut.
"Are you going to continue to deny despite the testimony of Mr. Robertson, who is on his way to the studio, that you never forged his name to this. . ." and I held out a check that I had taken out of my checkbook at home. "Mr. Robertson will, here, on camera, right in front of you, sir, sign another check with his real signature and then we'll see which is authentic. How can you continue to deny you are innocent in front of all this?"
Begelman held his head in his hands and seemed to be quietly weeping. "Yes, I am guilty and I am so sorry. I should enter rehab!"
"Cut," the floor director cried out. "Like it a lot. Hey, Tommy, you're quite the guy. It's always the best when you get the interviewee to cry on camera."
At which David Begelman started to laugh. Shanks then told me he was an actor. He asked nervously what we were going to do with Cliff Robertson.
"Get his statement, of course," I said.
But Cliff never showed; he had called my office to tell me he was terribly sorry but he had sudden other plans -- engineered by his lawyer I guessed who figured that silence was better than riling the still-powerful David Begelman.
I was hired as Arts and Entertainment editor.
When my agent, Bob Lescher, negotiated my contract with two snippy ABC lawyers, he dressed to look like a pure and naïve literary type -- with a sweater underneath his well-worn tweed jacket, the kind with the leather pads at the elbows.
I was to be part-time and do no more than ten twelve-minute pieces a year plus the studio "Intro" and "Outro" as they were called with co-hosts Harold Hayes and Robert Hughes. The fee Lescher was suggesting was seven thousand bucks a piece, which I thought was majestic. When it was contract signing time, Bob asked the lawyers a question, "What about repeats? Will Tom be paid for them, for, as you know, repeats would mean additional studio time?"
"Mr. Lescher, you don't get it. This is a prime-time news show and there will never be any repeats," one of the lawyers remarked.
"So," Lescher added, "Then you’d not mind adding this paragraph to the contract saying that my client will be compensated for any repeat at the rate of an original piece."
I had three repeats that first short season, which, with the five original pieces gave me a lovely stipend. My second season was even better, eleven pieces and five repeats. This was in addition to my consultant money and the Tut book advance.
My first 20/20 "art" piece was on the movie Jaws II and in it I wrestled with the overriding issue of whether movie sequels are "art." I thought of saying that the real issue for a hot shot TV show was that second-rate thrillers like Jaws II were never art. I managed to hold my tongue; I really needed the money. The piece opened with me standing on the beach at Malibu in a short-sleeved shirt doing a thirty-second stand-up about sequels and Jaws II and Jaws I. I did it without a flaw. From that moment on the word got around that I never got flustered, memorized the lines in a flash, hadn't fudged a line and was a "pro." I got to be renowned for my stand-uppers. Once, for a piece on soap operas (real art) I performed a three-minute walking stand-up so flawlessly that my producer never thought of asking for a safety take. For some news story on religion I did a four minute stand-up in Cuxa cloister at The Cloisters on the entire history of the papacy -- from Peter through the apocryphal Pope Joan who died in childbirth on a sacred procession through Rome, the Babylonian Exile, the Borgias and finally to John-Paul XIII. I wrote it in an hour, memorized it and did it twice -- this time my producer insisted on a safety. The stand-up was never used -- too scholarly.
I found the work unbelievably easy. I was cool and collected on camera and perfected a gracious persona with a slight smile edging on skepticism, but never with disdain or condescension. I was pretty handsome then, if I say so myself. My hair was still dark and full. I was thin as a rail and that was perfect for the camera. My voice was surprisingly deep and mellow and the first studio soundman I encountered judged me one of the best voices of all the 20/20 "talent," which is what correspondents were called.
Nancy and I were at home for the opening night of the show that would revolutionize TV and make me a household word. I was furious that my Jaws II piece hadn't been slotted for the premiere. But as the show went on, we looked at each other in horror and said, "Thank God!" It was the worst TV show we -- and millions of viewers -- had ever seen.
The co-hosts Harold Hayes and Robert Hughes bumbled their way through a disconnected and ratty bunch of stories, including one that showed five times in slow motion a greyhound eating a live rabbit at a racetrack. At the end there was a disgraceful interview of Senator Ted Kennedy by the co-hosts. Two against one made the virtually inarticulate Kennedy look like a victim.
Roone Arledge, the "legendary" head of ABC Sports and News, fired Bob Shanks and the hapless hosts. The rumor was that the show was doomed. Then Arledge opted for one more try and the wreck of a show was jump-started.
Hugh Downs, the most seasoned professional in TV, was hired as host. He had been Jack Paar's sidekick and after that the host of the Today show. Hugh was affable, unflappable and wryly amusing. I got to be a good friend because he was fascinated with the arts. In my final season there I happened to be in the make-up room with Hugh and he looked uncharacteristically giddy.
"Buy a new glider?" I asked. He was a glider champion.
"Thinking of it, now I can buy a dozen. I just got a gift from the slow-witted ABC lawyers today -- five million dollars."
He explained that the 20/20 had abruptly hired Barbara Walters to co-host with him. But the dumb lawyers had made a singular error in doing so. Hugh's contract specified that if any co-host or replacement was to be hired he had to be informed beforehand or there would be a five million dollar penalty. He hadn't been told about Walters. His lawyers complained and ABC coughed up.
I persuaded the bosses to let me do a couple of genuine art stories, like the sale of the century -- the auction of Robert von Hirsch's fabulous collection of old masters, the new Beaubourg Museum in Paris and the Greek bronze of the 4th century B.C. that I had tried to buy with old Paul Getty for his museum and mine and which had just been snapped up by the Getty Museum, illegally I knew.
My producer for the von Hirsch auction at Sotheby's pleased me by saying that the stand-ups and the script were mine to write if I wanted. I loved the idea. Together Nancy and I drafted them.
I was filmed wandering through von Hirsch’s treasures at Sotheby's Zurich gallery, giving a sprightly, off-the-cuff rundown of the masterworks like a magnificent Albrecht Dürer watercolor landscape, a 13th century champleve enameled arm band which I laughingly told my audience I would have paid anything to acquire when I was at the mighty Met.
In the gallery I bumped into a museum friend, Werner Abegg, a grand collector. He told how on camera the tale of how his dear friend von Hirsch, sensing the Nazi peril, had escaped to Switzerland with his art. His brother, who had scoffed at the Nazi threat, had stayed and had been seized.
Abegg said to camera, "Von Hirsch told Hermann Goering that he would give him anything he wanted from his collection if he would let his brother free."
"Goering demanded a glorious Rembrandt self-portrait, which Robert sent."
"Saving his brother?"
"No. They had already gassed him. They sent the body to Robert with a note mocking his degenerate Jewishness."
At Sotheby's in London where the auction was to be held, I interviewed Peter Wilson, the chief of the firm and old friend. I had heard that a number of German museums had formed an illegal auction ring, appointing one institution to buy the cream of the von Hirsch material; then later, back in Germany, they planned to have their own auction with only important German museums participating.
When I asked him about it, Wilson blandly observed, "Rings are illegal, I grant you that, but this is for a good cause."
I pressed him how he planned to conduct the sale.
"If the bids ever lag, I will find a bid in the chandelier and perhaps another on the telephone and allow the price to surge upwards and upwards like a hot air balloon." Forgetting he was on camera he revealed a bit of the fraudulence that can surround some art auctions. I had this ability to make my subjects forget that I had a camera and sound crew with me.
Of course he didn’t have to kite the bids; the Robert von Hirsch auction was the "sale of the century" and made more money than any previous old master sale.
Wilson didn't want us to film during the auction but I pressured him for old time’s sake and he relented -- another auction first. I didn't tell Wilson or my producer, but I got a couple of old museum friends who were there just for the spectacle to raise their hands in early bids and grimace like silent-movie actors when they were outbid.
What TV! It was my first itty-bitty manipulation of the news and wouldn't be the last.
I covered the Tut show when it arrived in Seattle and was able to squeeze in a few of my nutty Cairo stories and some poetic observations about the mystical material. For the "Outro," Hugh Downs and I sat in overstuffed leather chairs flanking a huge TV screen. The face of the golden boy illuminated the giant screen. When Hugh asked me what the profound mystery behind the works was, I answered, "Perhaps young Tut said it best, 'I have seen yesterday, I know tomorrow.'"
Fade to black.
That show got lofty ratings and I became a 20/20 starlet.
I badgered the producer of the show, Av Westin, to let me to film an expose of the Getty bronze. The rare Hellenistic bronze had been found "in international waters" off Fano in the Adriatic in the nets of a fishing trawler. When I was director of the Metropolitan, J. Paul Getty and I together tried to buy and share the sculpture for our respective museums for four million dollars with the understanding that Italian officials would bless the deal in writing. But the German dealer who owned the majority interest refused our offer.
After Getty's death, the museum bought the piece for just short of four million without asking the Italian authorities for permission. The Italians cried "foul," claiming it had been illegally exported, which it had been.
My producer, Peter Altschuler, the bright and cocky son of New York’s famed disk jockey "Murray the K," found in Italy a crackerjack researcher who had connections with the Carabinieri. I interviewed a top Carabinieri official in his resplendent dress uniform and, after jokingly saying he'd like to arrest me for my role in acquiring the Euphronios krater, took me step-by-step through the tale of how the bronze had been discovered and where it had been stashed in Fano before it had been shipped out illegally to Brazil in a crate labeled "concrete." I had him hold up for the camera a photograph our researcher had found of the barnacle-encrusted bronze taken the day it had been dumped on the dock in Fano.
In Fano and our researcher learned that since the local government was Communist, anyone had the right to examine the town archives to see the financial records of every citizen. In quick time she discovered that the captain of the vessel that had snared the bronze had purchased a new house a week after the discovery.
I went to the bar on the docks where the skipper hung out, approached him, the sun gun on top of the camera shining like a searchlight and told him I wanted to talk about the bronze. He was brandishing a foot-long curving fish-gutting knife and sure looked like he knew how to use it. Great TV.
When I apologized for my Sicilian accent, he laughed and advised me to get the hell out of there both because of the bronze and my ugly accent and I did.
Then we door-stepped a local priest who had stashed the bronze in his bathtub for a while, hoping to keep the barnacles moist. He slammed the door in our faces, which meant more good TV because I could describe his role in a voiceover. Then I interviewed the dealer who had bought the bronze from the fishermen. This colloquy was bizarre because he insisted on wearing a brown paper bag over his head throughout, which made for fabulous TV.
In the piece we tracked the work every step of the way from the sea to Fano, to Brazil via a former employee of Sotheby's, Harry Bailey, then to Munich to the dealer Heinz Herzer then to Malibu.
Altschuler came up with the bright idea of animating the photo of the barnacle-encrusted piece. He made it transform into the cleaned and pristine bronze standing on its Getty Museum pedestal. The animation was visually dazzling. My last line in the piece was, "Better see this fine four-million-dollar statue, before it goes back to Italy."
Despite Herculean efforts by the Italians over the past twenty-seven years to have the work returned, the Getty has stonewalled. In 1995 the Italian government obtained solid proof that the Getty had purchased or accepted as gifts hundreds of works of Greek and Roman art that had been smuggled. The museum, deeply embarrassed, finally settled with the Italian state and agreed to return 40 of their finest and most expensive antiquities. But not the bronze, which in 2007 was being investigated separately by a special Italian court in Pesaro. I’ll bet it eventually returns to Italy
For a piece on Bluegrass music my producer was a kid named Donovan Moore, an MIT business-school graduate who had worked as an on-air correspondent and producer for Boston's WGBH. He was crazy about production values. So when I arrived in a "holler" in the Tennessee Blue Ridge Mountains to interview members of a local Bluegrass group, he bought wood and saws and other equipment and our crew erected a set of wooden rails so that the mounted camera could slide smoothly down a hill as I made a strolling stand-up about the joys of the music with the smoky hills in the background. That little piece of film caused a sensation back in New York and substantially changed the way segments of the show were produced. From then on, it was, "better production values."
One of 20/20's hottest producers was Karen Lerner, who had been married to Lerner of Lerner and Lowe of My Fair Lady fame. Karen was a foxy woman of enormous sex appeal and exceptional gifts for producing news pieces. She had somehow landed a story on Frank Sinatra who had been booked by Anwar Sadat's wife, Jihan, to sing at an outdoor evening concert in front of the Great Sphinx and the Pyramids to raise funds for the Egyptian wounded of the 1973 war.
We settled into the Nile Hilton and waited nervously for a meeting with the star who was known of course to be a real stinker, especially with TV reporters. From a friendly employee in the hotel administration I had met from my Tut days, I discovered when the singer was leaving his suite of rooms -- no less than six double suites all on one floor for his lawyers, bodyguards, musicians and hangers-on. I bumped into him in the elevator and quickly introduced myself, mentioning our mutual friend Walter Annenberg.
"Oh yeah, the art guy. But no interview, Hoving, ya got that?"
"I really need one and Walter will be pissed if you don’t," I said. "Look, Frank, I don't want to know about your wives, your girls, your money, your Mafia connections, all I want to talk about is your consummate art -- how you and only you do it."
"No one has ever asked me about how I do it. Okay, art guy, come along, I'm going to the set for a quickie rehearsal."
I was able to call Karen who got the crew out to the stage in a flash.
And in front of the looming Sphinx in one hundred degree heat, a laughing and chortling Sinatra talked about the physical demands of singing, how he swam for hours a day -- "always underwater" -- to develop his lungs. How he was a fan of Jascha Heifetz, the violinist, who had taught him to modulate his voice the way the master softened his touch in drawing back the bow.
"I sing the way I sing because deep down I love classical music and I pattern my timing from great performers of the violin and piano. I've never told anyone this."
Karen had cannily constructed a tower on one side of the open space for the stage and the tables for the gala dinner performance. But the tower was a phony; she hoped to lure NBC and CBS next to it and thus they'd have bad sight lines for the concert. It worked.
Our photographer, an Egyptian cool-cat named Rueben, dolled up in black tie, sashayed right down to a front table using a pair of seats, which Karen had purchased, one seat for him and the other for the camera. I was underneath the stage along with the crew looking at the monitor and watched spellbound as Rueben taped fabulous footage of every song with sensational close-ups. Once, however, the camera lurched, jiggled, bobbed and weaved and finally came back on track. Rueben told us later that a female guest had slid into the empty seat and had startled the seasoned cameraman by grabbing his balls.
Just as I was about to depart, the two English organizers of the gala came to my room and showed me how Sinatra and his gang had virtually wiped out all profits for the gala by their expenditures that included over twenty thousand dollars for room service alone. Sinatra had ordered the leased jet to sit at the airport for a day at $50,000 a day. It was highway robbery and a great story. Every rumor about Sinatra's arrogant and spendthrift ways would at last be proven.
Karen and I met the new executive producer of 20/20 on our arrival and showed him the damning material.
"Hey, Tom, this is an entertainment piece," the befuddled man said. "Forget about that investigative stuff, you're our arts guy."
I told Nancy, "Look at it this way, the idiot may have prevented me from being whacked by Frank."
As for hard, in-depth investigations, I was dispatched by the great Roone Arledge himself to do a piece on the former valet to Prince Charles, Stephen Barry. He had been with "Chuz" since they were teenagers and when the prince married Di, Stephen was let go. He had written a best seller, Royal Service: My Twelve Years as Valet to Prince Charles, a love-letter to his boss. The lad had been able to publish his memoir because he had signed on at Buckingham Palace at seventeen and thus legally the confidential agreement wasn’t binding.
Arledge said, "There’s only one reason for this piece -- to find out the size of Prince Charles's prick. This guy who dressed and undressed him for years has got to know. So get it!"
Barry was a sweet gay who lived in a flat owned by the crown. I wasted a bunch of softie questions on him and then went for gold.
"Stephen you've just told us how you used to sneak young women who stayed with Charles all night out of Buckingham palace. He must have been quite a lady's man. Why? What was his appeal? How do you, well, measure that appeal?"
Barry gave a girlish chuckle and said "Oh, yes, very, very large, yes, yes." His hands briefly measured the prince's "appeal."
After the piece aired Barbara Walters started to snub me. Previously we had gotten along just fine. Some years after I had left the show I met her and asked why she had stiffed me repeatedly.
"It was over the Prince Charles piece. I happened to walk by the editing room and saw that disgusting part -- you know what I'm referring to. I told Roone -- he was in the editing room where he never was usually -- that I was shocked that someone as classy as Tom Hoving could even entertain such a question. Roone said, 'It is disgusting, Barbara, we'll cut it out.'"
I told her why the great man had sent me to London and she apologized. I was relieved because I had always thought her work -- even the softball specials on celebrities -- to be excellent.
Soon the "arts and culture" pieces degenerated into celebrity profiles and Las Vegas and Hollywood became my haunts. I profiled the likes of Wayne Newton, who sucked his lip and told me, "I once put a hit on Johnny Carson for being disrespectful to me"; Liberace, whose dogs crapped all over his snow white rugs during the interview; Jerry Lewis, who demanded I record every breathless word of his mostly golfing BS for six hours; Elton John, who failed to show up for the interview; the "country singer" from Maryland, Emmy Lou Harris, who walked out five minutes into the interview and I have no idea why; Bo "10" Derek, who had a mind of "99" I was surprised to discover (her husband John, the so-called manipulator of his wife’s assets, was erudite and tremendous fun); the Olympic swimming champion Mark Spitz, the most boring man on earth; country star Charlie Daniels, who continually spat his chewing tobacco into a coke bottle; and the singing group, Earth, Wind and Fire, whose members were seriously into sitting inside glass pyramids to be cured of floating bacteria.
I got nominated for an Emmy. This was for a piece in which I had fallen asleep during the crucial interview. That summed up American television for me. The subject was Loni Anderson, the bombshell star of the sitcom, WKRP, in which the actress played a sexy blonde who solves every problem at a dysfunctional TV station. The day of the shoot, I had flown in from Berlin where I had gone for a day to do a two-minute stand-up for a piece on the defected Russian ballet "star," Boris Gudonov. I was wiped out from time changes. And my driver from the airport to Loni’s house was trying to become a Hollywood stand-up comedian and kept me awake telling me all his lousy routines.
Loni was glowing and her skin looked it was on fire. Later I learned that she had the flu and was suffering a 102-degree temperature. Not knowing what the story line was, I ducked into a bedroom to get a briefing from the producer who said, "The story? Tommy, it’s simple, 'How did a henna-haired actress in repertory in Minneapolis become the blonde bombshell of the United States?’"
"Yeah. Hey, kid, you're good, you'll pull it off."
I posed the question and promptly fell asleep with my eyes open, as I had learned in the Marine Corps. She gave her publicist’s answer.
Then, seeing me staring at her, Loni blurted out something like, "Oh, the old journalist's trick. You know much more and will spring it on me. Right? Okay, I'll tell you how I did it. I was torn apart by the stinkin' thing called Hollywood. They tore my body apart out here. Breasts reduced, breasts enlarged; teeth out. They cut up anyone for a lousy buck."
I came to and thanked her, not knowing what she’d said.
A piece I worked on about the Village People, the kinky group invented by a French rock promoter, did win an Emmy. Nola Safro, a sharp producer with a devastating sense of humor, and I traveled around with the group for almost two weeks and the crazy guys kept us in stitches the entire time. I, personally, didn't win the prize because, being a part-timer, I wasn't eligible.
One that richly deserved some sort of a prize but didn’t get squat was a dazzling piece about Champagne, also a Nola Safro piece. For that, Nancy and I were shipped to France and to the vendonge at Champagne's finest vineyards, where we drank ourselves blind. We never got a hangover because we were told a secret by the locals -- if you drink only the Champagne varietals you'll never suffer. The crew, which started off scoffing at the "bubbly" ("Where's the beer?") were soon insisting on Crystal and Taitinger and Moet's finest -- and guzzled them happily. The music for that show was the sprightly 1920's ditty, "Champagne Charley Is My Name."
Nola Safro drummed up pieces that fit her bubbling personality. The classic was the Monty Pythons while they were finishing up the filming of their latest movie, The Meaning of Life. We dashed over to the EMI Studios outside of London after having watched every show the boys had done for BBC.
I interviewed John Cleese first.
"How's it like working with the four other nutcases?"
"Four? I thought only one other. An American, Terry Something."
"Right. He has only two things to say. When he likes something he says, 'I really like that a lot.' And when he doesn't, he says, 'That really pisses me off!'"
We raced over to Terry, set up and I told him what Cleese had just said.
Gilliam cried out, "When he does that it really pisses me off!"
The segment made it into family TV.
Occasionally I got into sports. I discovered the little-known secret why the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Boston Celtics won so many championships. They had ballet dancers as trainers who taught steps that allowed them to increase their speed. Imagine a three hundred pound linebacker executing a perfect, lightning-fast chasse so he could maneuver sideways in the backfield with lightning speed to trap a runner instead of wasting time by throwing one leg over another to begin his pursuit. I had a long interview with Lynn Swann, the ace Steelers' tight end, who confided that he had taken ballet lessons since he’d been a kid and many of his miraculous catches had come about because he was able to leap, land and twist away as in ballet whereas his opponents just leaped and landed. He showed me on tape one Super Bowl catch in which he faked an initial jump and when the opponent jumped with him, he touched down and executed a second higher jettee, snagged the ball and landed in a running position for a touchdown.
My wife landed Donovan Moore and me a TV coup -- the rocker Billy Joel. Nancy was friendly with his then wife, Elizabeth. Billy was hot at the time and this was to be his first television appearance. We followed him from his earliest days when he became a piano man in a bar in Los Angeles. "The kind of place where patrons often forget to have dinner," as I described in my stand-up in the very bar, of course.
My interview was at his new home in Cold Spring Harbor, L. I., with Billy sitting at his piano. I mentioned that I’d heard that he had fooled his mother when she yelled at him to practice his Beethoven and Mozart. He smiled a pixy smile, wheeled around and dashed some very convincing phony Beethoven piano concerto bars.
Roone Arledge let the word out after the Billy Joel piece that every entertainment piece on 20/20 had to look like it.
One of my best pieces was a profile of the artist and singer David Bowie, also produced by Donovan Moore. The piece started with a montage of his album covers with me in a voice-over saying, "A girl, a boy, a dog, a clown, a space captain and Ziggy Stardust, David Bowie has been everything." The background music for the open was, of course, Changes, one of his hit songs.
Then we cut to a close-up showing his remarkable eyes -- one blue and one brown -- and panned to a piece of paper on an easel where Bowie was drawing. The spare lines developed into a full colored drawing of a man standing in profile before a tube train in London with a road sign saying, "Brixton." Then, in a startling transformation, the scene became real -- there was the real David Bowie standing in Brixton in England where he'd been born with a real train rushing by.
I was assigned Robert Altman of MASH and Nashville fame because he was directing a Broadway play, Come Back to the Five-And-Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, a ragamuffin affair about three women fans of the late movie star. The stars were Cher, Karen Black and Sandy Dennis.
Cher gave me an insight as to why the New York Rangers were on a losing streak. "I'm getting my brains fucked out in this swinging town and especially with the Rangers boys." The team started to win once she got out of town. Sandy Dennis insisted on talking to me only with her mouth full -- we chatted at some restaurant and I have never seen anyone eat so much.
Karen Black, the sensation of Five Easy Pieces, had one of those wandering eyes which happens to captivate me (I suppose from my adoration of the paintings by Agnolo Bronzino where everybody seems to have a wandering eye). During our interview on a change of film she reached over, cupped my genitals and whispered, "How about us going to Nassau this weekend?"
I had to discipline myself to go to my little cottage in Pawling, New York, instead.
For the Jimmy Dean piece, I did a live stand-up from the Broadway theater and a live assessment of the play and players from the opening night party at a Five and Dime on 86th Street. In my "review" I praised the actresses but hammered the lackluster production and the boring script. As I was doing the stand-up in one of Five and Dime's aisles, I heard a commotion and later learned it was an enraged Robert Altman who wanted to slug me. That he hadn’t been able to annoyed me. I shouted at my producer, Marty Carr, "Getting slugged on air? How that would have boosted ratings for me and 20/20! You, of all people shoulda’ known!"
It was gospel on 20/20 that getting a subject to cry on camera was the pinnacle of the "art form." I had my chance when I did a piece on Robert Redford's first directing stint for Ordinary People. Redford came to our apartment to ask me to do the piece. Nancy was ga-ga. The radiant actor-producer sat in our little kitchen and said, "If the film starts slow, I'll let you and only you do the first TV interview in my life; but if it looks like a hit, I won't."
The movie was a smash, earning Redford an Academy Award. I did interview one of the stars, Donald Sutherland, in his West Side apartment for a piece on character actors. At once I noticed that he was wearing the same sweater that he'd worn in the striking moment in Ordinary People when he broke down into tears in his psychiatrist's office talking about the drowning of his son.
I quickly asked, "In that scene with Judd Hirsch, you stuttered. Was that in the script or did you improvise?"
Donald Sutherland instantly became Calvin Jarrett and quietly and eloquently broke into tears.
Sean Connery also came to our apartment for an interview about his James Bond career. Nancy had to chat him up for an hour or two and proclaimed, "Sweet voice, very nice body, but he's the dullest man I ever met. Shit, all that golf! He has never forgotten a golf ball he's hit in his entire life!"
Only once would 20/20 allow me to bring something rough into a piece and I was always pushing for the rough and realistic. Jenny Allen, the daughter of my beloved country landlord, John Allen, had written a biting piece on the modeling business for a New York newspaper entitled, "Day Face, Night Face." At the time there was a spate of scandals about models and drugs and sleaze-bag model agents dragging all-too-young women into ugly situations. I essentially copied Jenny's piece and interviewed top models such as a sparkling Christie Brinkley who we established as the Day Face, the clean nice kid next door who wouldn't go near drugs.
I then entrapped the Night Face girl, a dazzling woman, Gia Marie Carangi, who the word was, was addicted to heroin.
We got the photographer of the Cosmopolitan magazine covers, Francesco Scavullo, to make believe he was doing a real shoot. Gia was in the cattle call. Just after some dummy shots of her in seductive evening clothes, I sat down to interview her. I asked her what it was like to be a model and she prattled on with the standard clichés.
Then I asked, "Isn't it true Gia that you are addicted to heroin?"
She blanched and defiantly swept up the sleeve of her arm and showed me the needle tracks.
It might have been great television but I felt rotten. Gia later died of AIDS from infected needles and they made a TV film about her wasted life starring Angelina Jolie.
Towards the end of my illustrious on-air-correspondent career, I landed a special subject, Dolly Parton, the famous country singer turned Hollywood actress. The film, Nine to Five, was about to come out, starring Dolly, Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dabney Coleman. I virtually lived with her for three weeks, in Nashville and in Los Angeles. I fell in love not only with her jingle-jangle, flashy beauty but also with her talent as a singer and writer. She confided that she had written a dozen children's books under a pseudonym and I kept that a secret. She even showed me her real hair, which was almost the same as the golden blonde of her giant wig, only shorter -- "Easier to have a wig which my kid sister fixes up every day, than to have her fiddlin' all day with the real thing."
I went to Santa Monica to Jane Fonda's middle class house to interview the Nine to Five stars -- it was when Fonda was married to state senator Tom Hayden. When we arrived the actress was coming down the stairs looking like a goddess with those long, slim legs of hers wrapped in the tightest jeans I'd ever seen.
"20/20, huh, isn't that with the stinking ABC network?" she trilled. "I want you to know right off that I hate ABC for what they did to my husband -- he's an important State Senator, you know."
She strode to her kitchen, opened the fridge, took out a blender container with some reddish-blackish stuff in it, churned it up and drank it down.
"Fresh beef kidneys. Keeps me young and beautiful."
I all but threw up.
In the interview, Jane described how she had discovered Dolly. She had been driving Hayden to the State House, "I heard this bell-like voice on my radio and, click, and I knew she had to be in the movie!"
It was crap, for Dolly had already told me how her agent had landed her the role.
I worked for 20/20 from 1978 until 1983 and then like an old soldier just faded away. Around 1982 I was putting on some weight, primarily from drink; my eyes were getting so baggy that even the gifted make-up staff couldn't wipe away the years. I resisted having facial surgery, although it was suggested. And the assignments were far from the fine arts, airline cuisine and the Johnny-One-Note country singer, Conway Twitty.
In my last 20/20 interview I interviewed Twitty in the living room of his theme park, "Twitty City," in Nashville, In the interview he held up a tube of toothpaste and a toothbrush and drawled, "This toothpaste and my brush and everything in Twitty City I write off for tax purposes since I live here and come out and wave at the visitors a coupla' times a day and write it all off. What do ya think about that?"
I had to restrain myself mightily not to blurt out on camera, "I think that's pure shit, Twitty." But my face said it all. When my contract came up for renewal in 1983 I heard nothing from ABC. But I didn't care; I had already received a spectacular offer.This is chapter 29 of Artful Tom, A Memoir, which is being posted in full in Artnet Magazine. For the complete book to date, click here.