Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Daily Buzzkills: Funeral Friday

Congratulations on making it to the end of another week! Unfortunately, these people didn’t: Light a candle for Funeral Friday.

Cantankerous columnist and former Crossfire co-host Robert Novak was a hardworking, muckraking reporter from the old school of “take no prisoners” journalism, who rather enjoyed his ugly reputation among politicos, fellow reporters, and humans of all stripes. Devoted to (as he wrote in his 2007 memoir) “making life miserable for hypocritical, posturing politicians,” Novak reveled in both stoking the flames of partisan bickering and his derisive nickname, “The Prince of Darkness”—which he pointed to as a source of pride, for it referred to his “unsmiling pessimism about the prospects for America and Western civilization.” That pessimism served him well inside the Beltway, where for more than 30 years he covered the D.C. scene with Rowland Evans on the syndicated column “Inside Report,” which made a habit of taking a bit of political gossip from an unnamed source and using it to float an often conservative agenda—such as the time he quoted an “unnamed Democratic Senator” who said that presidential candidate George McGovern’s platform was based on “amnesty, abortion, and legalization of marijuana” (later changed to the catchier “amnesty, abortion, and acid”). Many accused Novak of inventing the quote, and it wasn’t until 2007 that Novak claimed it came from McGovern’s running mate, Thomas Eagleton—who had just died, which made it difficult to confirm.

It was just one of many examples of Novak’s shaky ethical practices, the most recent and famous of which was his involvement in the Valerie Plame scandal, when he leaked the name of a CIA operative in a column and sparked a long, messy investigation that effectively ended Plame’s career and led to the indictment of Lewis “Scooter” Libby, as well as the brief imprisonment of New York Times reporter Judith Miller. Although he was tried and convicted in the court of public opinion many times over (Jon Stewart memorably called him the “Douchebag Of Liberty”), Novak was never officially prosecuted for any wrongdoing, and was typically unrepentant about his role in the controversy, even saying to his critics in a National Ledger interview, “My response now is this: The hell with you.”

Novak was well known for that sort of churlish attitude, as well as offhand comments and incidents that made him seem like a real asshole—such as memorably complaining that his Thanksgiving had been ruined by seeing homeless people on television, for example, or storming off the set of CNN’s Inside Politics after a barely heated exchange with James Carville (ending a 25-year career there that had begun with the network’s first broadcast weekend). He was also famously critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, and earned the ire of Jewish people all over the world for antagonistic remarks such as when he referred to Hamas as “freedom fighters.”

Nevertheless, while many liked to pigeonhole Novak as a right-wing pundit, he was actually a lifelong registered Democrat—a fervent Kennedy supporter and a friend of Lyndon B. Johnson, even—whose political views often clashed with neoconservatives, such as when he became one of the earliest, harshest critics of the Iraq War. Perhaps the best summation of Novak has nothing to do with ideology at all, but rather his personal feelings about the deliberately aggravating role he liked to play, as when The McLaughlin Group’s Morton Kondracke said that Novak was “the troll under the bridge of American journalism.” Certainly that image as media’s most prominent “mean old man” was compounded last year, when Novak—a notoriously aggressive driver with a penchant for flashy sports cars—hit a pedestrian with his Corvette, then kept driving, claiming he didn’t know he hit him. Novak was shaken up by the incident and hospitalized a few days later; doctors diagnosed him with a malignant brain tumor, which more or less put an end to his journalistic career. Novak officially retired last February, and he died this week at the age of 78.

In a career that spanned more than 50 years, Don Hewitt’s influence on the shaping of TV journalism simply cannot be overstated. He began his decades-long run at CBS News working with legends like Douglas Edwards, Edward R. Murrow, and Walter Cronkite. He directed the first-ever televised presidential debate between Kennedy and Nixon, and oversaw coverage of landmark moments like Kennedy’s assassination and the moon landing. He helped pioneer the use of now-standard things like switching between two cameras to break up the monotony of “talking head” interviews, using headsets to interview people remotely at large events like political conventions, and displaying a reporter or subject’s name in type along the bottom of the screen as they spoke. In short, he helped to shape the way television news would be produced, edited, and presented for years to come.

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But his greatest impact—for better and for worse, as he would later claim –was as the creator of 60 Minutes, a combination of investigative stories and celebrity profiles that Hewitt envisioned as a TV version of Life magazine. The show became (and still is) an American mainstay, turning up in the nation’s most-watched programs for more than 20 years, and making stars out of commentators like Dan Rather, Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, and Andy Rooney—a “reporter as celebrity” effect that still echoes today. Of course, 60 Minutes also spawned a legion of increasingly sensationalistic imitators like Dateline and 20/20, a legacy about which Hewitt was conflicted, once remarking, “We started a trend, and we ruined television.”

Another of Hewitt’s deepest regrets came in 1996, when he agreed to kill an interview conducted with a former scientist from the Brown & Williamson tobacco company, who had provided 60 Minutes with proof that they had ignored evidence on the dangers of smoking. CBS feared damaging lawsuits from the tobacco industry and demanded that Hewitt pull the piece. Sparking criticism from his fellow reporters about giving in to business concerns over his own journalistic integrity—and much to his later chagrin—Hewitt capitulated. (The incident was later dramatized as the 1999 film The Insider, with Philip Baker Hall portraying Hewitt.) Not long after, the rift between CBS and Hewitt widened, as the network began pushing for his retirement in the wake of declining ratings and Hewitt’s refusal to attract younger audiences with more pop culture-oriented pieces. He finally left under duress in 2004, acting occasionally as a consultant, but returning to broadcast in 2007 for rival network NBC, when he produced and directed a special based on the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. Hewitt was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in March; he died this week at the age of 86.

A close friend of Italian directors like Federico Fellini—about whom he later published the 2006 biography, Federico Fellini: His Life And Work—Tullio Kezich was an integral part of European cinema, and rated as one of the most influential film critics in the world by Variety. Although he is most famous for his recent work with Italy’s Corriere Della Sera, Kezich’s career stretched well beyond that to the 1950s and ’60s, where he started out in radio, covering the first of more than 60 editions of the Venice Film Festival for Radio Trieste in 1946. Along with Fellini, he cultivated close relationships with many of Italy’s most prominent filmmakers like Roberto Rosselini and Ermanno Olmi, with whom he collaborated on Il Posto (helping with the script and even turning up in a small role as a psychologist) and later The Legend Of The Holy Drinker, a script which Kezich wrote and Olmi directed with Rutger Hauer in the lead role. After announcement of his death this week at the age of 80, the Venice Film Festival created a new award in his name honoring young film essayists, calling Kezich “the unforgettable master of film criticism.”

After years of being inundated with footage of “Steamboat Willie” and Silly Symphonies, it’s easy to forget that Walt Disney Studios launched not with Mickey Mouse (or even Oswald The Lucky Rabbit), but rather a little girl with blonde curls named Virginia Davis. The child actress began working with Disney in 1924 at his Kansas City-based Laugh-O-Gram Studio, starring in a series of shorts that combined live action with animation known as the Alice Comedies. When the first of these, Alice’s Wonderland, landed Disney a deal with Winkler Pictures, he relocated to Hollywood and established the Disney Brothers’ Studio, then convinced Davis’ family to join him out there—a move that was also partially based on Davis’ frequent bouts with pneumonia, which her doctor thought would be aided by a warmer climate.

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In all, Disney cast Davis in more than a dozen Alice films, in which she and her cartoon cat Julius faced everything from ghosts to cannibals. Eventually the cat became the star, Davis’ contract was severed, and she graduated to roles in silents like The Viennese Medley and The Man From Red Gulch. After several dancer and chorus girl roles in films such as Footlight Serenade and The Harvey Girls, Davis left show business to study interior design and sell real estate. She returned here and there to Disney, doing a short stint in the Ink-and-Paint department, voicing some supporting characters for Pinocchio, and even auditioning for the role of Snow White, which Walt supposedly really wanted her for—although she turned it down at the insistence of her mother, who wasn’t impressed with the salary he was offering. Davis retired from the business altogether in the ’40s, but was swept back up in the game of celebrity once nostalgia for the early days of Disney kicked in, participating in dozens of Disneyana conventions and documentaries over the last 20 years, and more recently seeing the Alice series restored to DVD. She died this week at the age of 90.

Boasting one of the longest-running careers in the history of jazz, guitarist Lawrence Lucie served time in the bands of some of the all-time greats like Louis Armstrong (who made Lucie best man at his wedding), Duke Ellington (with whom he performed at the famed Cotton Club), and Billie Holiday, and he was the last living musician known to have recorded with Jelly Roll Morton. That Lucie’s career was so inextricably interwoven throughout the story of jazz spoke to his versatile playing, a dexterous, laid-back style of rhythm guitar that focused on keeping the beat rather than flashy solos, and which was the backbone of many a famed big band-era recording. In the 1950s, Lucie began performing regularly with his wife, singer Nora Lee King, with whom he later hosted his own long-running public-access cable show, talking jazz with Manhattanites from the 1970s all the way up until King’s death in 1990. Lucie continued to perform solo gigs around New York through 2005, and in 2007, he was given a lavish 100th birthday party attended by hundreds of jazz musicians, experts, and aficionados. It was there that he shared the secret of his longevity with a Times reporter: ““I didn’t have but one woman at a time. I didn’t drink a lot of whiskey. I did what my father told me to do.” Lurie died this week at the age of 101.

For more than 22 years (beginning in 1957), Ed Reimers was the man who cupped his palms and reassured millions of Americans, “You’re in good hands with Allstate”—which, thanks to his fatherly, resonant voice, became one of the most successful ad campaigns of all time. Reimers was an actor who also occasionally appeared on screen in films like The Loved One and episodes of TV shows like The Munsters and Star Trek (in the famous “The Trouble With Tribbles”), but it was off-screen that he did his most famous work, filling in for Hugh Downs whenever he needed a vacation from Jack Paar’s The Tonight Show, serving as the announcer for shows like Maverick and Do You Trust Your Wife?, and narrating commercials for Skippy and Crest, among many others. Once he landed the Allstate campaign, however, he devoted himself almost entirely to being an integral part of their team, turning up in radio, TV, and print ads, and even being flown into the aftermath of natural disasters to film their commercials. Reimer died this week at the age of 96.

Have a super weekend!

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