Don Imus

Don Imus died at age 79 this week. What was disturbing about him has only spread in the culture and worsened. What was distinctive and unique about this radio broadcaster has almost disappeared in today’s culture. In either case, his is a career worth knowing and thinking about.

He debuted on New York City radio at the dawn of New Left predominance. The year was 1971. America was in a steep and rapid decline. In retrospect, Imus represents part of the downward slide.

I remember hearing him on the radio in New York City for the first time. The disc jockey was sarcastic, really caustic. He was a complete turn-off. I didn’t become part of his audience. He struck me then as small, petty and cynical, not what I expected from a popular—one of the most influential—radio hosts in America’s greatest city.

I didn’t listen again for another decade which turned out to be the high point of his career. It was the 1990s. President Clinton was being impeached. Imus, with other so-called radio shock jocks, applied his caustic commentary to the news of the day.

This time, something clicked.

Whatever his faults, whatever his errors and flaws, Imus expressed himself with both biting humor and intelligence. I never became a regular listener, let alone fan. But between the early 1970s, when the New Left’s crusade for environmentalism, feminism and multiculturalism appeared to many Americans as odd or innocuous departures from mainstream ideas, and the mid-90s, when Republicans presumably opposing New Left madness did so on the grounds of seeking to remove a president from office for lying about sex, Don Imus became a counterpoint to America’s decline.

Around this time, I worked as a production assistant for Leonard Peikoff who had launched his own talk radio show in LA. It struck me that reducing Imus to sensationalistic radio host wasn’t fair whatever one’s view of his broadcasts. For one thing, his sarcasm was thoughtful (and often right on). Though he could be harsh, he was not malicious. When he went for the joke, it was not at the expense of the thought. Cynical humor had, by then, with South Park, The Simpsons and most modern comedy, consumed American culture. Imus became less a cynic than a curmudgeon rejecting the status quo.

Like showman Rush Limbaugh and philosopher Leonard Peikoff, Imus raised the level of discourse. He didn’t broadcast for the sole purpose of titillation. Imus reported the news, commentating, in this context, as a relatively reliable source.

Imus found humor in the increasingly absurd slogans of the day. Occasionally, I would tune in or watch his morning program on MSNBC in the late 1990s. Typically, I was repelled. Sometimes, he tried too hard to crack the joke. But I grew to appreciate his sincerity. He was self-made. Like me, he was self-educated. He created a charity to let kids with cancer experience the cowboy lifestyle at a ranch he owned. The native Southern Californian who grew up in the Grand Canyon State wore a cowboy hat, speaking freely and authentically. As far as I could tell, Imus was honest and sincere, which is more than I can say for many of today’s broadcasters.

Unlike today’s media hosts, Imus did not pander to others or distort facts or news to fit an agenda. He was relatively detached and objective, as I recall. If biased, he was transparent about it. He criticized conservatives and leftists alike.

Don Imus spoke his mind. He did so freely without overfiltering. He called out New Left irrationalism which worsened with each year. His career stalled from telling a bad joke, for which he repeatedly apologized, and he became a victim of exactly what he opposed. But Imus left his mark on broadcasting. Without him, I can’t think of a single East Coast media host that didn’t hold back, go flat and seek to silence proper discourse.

Like Johnny Carson, Don Imus blended irony with intelligent inquiry in broadcasting. His approach had a major impact and influence for the better on modern mass communication. Talk radio was never the same and led to new media, podcasting, which in my estimation elevates the caliber of debate and improves Americans’ willingness to think and speak freely.

With anti-capitalist frontrunners in the Democratic Party‘s 2020 presidential campaign, a mass surveillance and welfare state and a political circus bordering on dysfunction which has led to paralysis and incompetence in American government, thinking and speaking freely matters more than ever. Don Imus, an addict who made his career out of biting commentary paired with his brand of cowboy individualism, showed the way. May Imus rest in peace.

 

Podcast Review: Mobituaries with Mo Rocca

CBS Sunday Morning correspondent Mo Rocca’s podcast episode on three American forerunners who may have been forgotten centers upon three favorite topics: activism, baseball and movies.

The newest episode of Rocca’s podcast, Mobituaries, begins with the story of a New York woman who, over 100 years before individualist Rosa Parks refused to be persecuted based on her race on a Montgomery, Ala., bus, demanded justice after being forcibly thrown off a segregated streetcar in lower Manhattan.

In fact, I learned that the woman, a black schoolteacher named Elizabeth Jennings, sought legal aid from a future president of the United States to sue the rail company for breaking the law. What’s more, her father, an inventor and businessman, enlisted others by waging a crowdfunding campaign for his daughter.

Jennings, who had additionally been physically assaulted during the crime by both the streetcar’s conductor and a New York City policeman, focused on a fundamental legal challenge which led to integrated transportation in New York. Her lawyer, Chester Arthur, was an abolitionist. He became an American president.

Listen to Mobituaries

I also learned about an Ohio historical marker honoring the first African-American major league ballplayer who is not Jackie Robinson. What in Toledo, Ohio, is now called Moses Fleetwood Walker Square is dedicated to the Negro catcher who broke the color barrier when the Toledo Blue Stockings briefly joined the majors in 1884. Rocca details Walker’s little-known story.

Rocca tells another story about an early Hollywood filmmaker, a woman named Lois Weber, whose movies were both successful and unusual. He explores a birth control-themed picture this highly paid director made, how she may have leveraged her status to achieve success and that she became the mayor of Universal City, which today is still home to a major movie studio — one which released Green Book and Get Out and is owned by Comcast.

What I like about Mobituaries, in particular this episode, is the curious, easygoing and investigative manner in which Rocca discusses, interviews and goes by facts. With an enthusiasm one rarely hears on today’s broadcasting, especially modern programs including podcasts, Rocca examines each individual as an individual and provokes serious thought. He expends the right amount of time, effort and energy on certain facets and details. He doesn’t overstate certain aspects. Rocca emphasizes each individual’s achievements — for example, that Jennings’ father was a wealthy businessman who had been granted his own patent — in terms of what is essential.

Also, Rocca reaches a logical conclusion, while allowing the listener to judge for himself. In this case, as the period of time known as Black History Month begins, he cautions against overemphasizing who’s the first this or that in a given field of endeavor. Clearly, but gently, his implication is that such emphasis comes at the expense of the truth.

Never has this been a more relevant cautionary note.

Tom Petty, 1950-2017

With Blondie, David Bowie, the Pretenders, Pat Benatar, the Cars and various other American and British punk and New Wave recording artists, Tom Petty, who died last night in Santa Monica, revived rock and roll in the late 1970s with fresh, original and elementary songwriting and tunes.

Buy the Album

The 66-year-old Southern Californian, who was born and raised in Florida, dropped out of high school and met Elvis Presley on the Ocala, Florida, set of Follow That Dream, which inspired him to pursue a career in music. Petty, who’d been physically abused by his father, later said he’d decided to commit to becoming a rock and roll musician after watching the Beatles perform on live television. The early trajectory goes to why he’s being widely praised and mourned by music fans. I think part of what distinguishes Petty is that his songs and sensibility represent middle class American values. He brought both urgency and simplicity to rock’s essential roots. He did so with distinction.

I discovered Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers with his breakthrough, bestselling 1979 album Damn the Torpedoes (pictured) with its powerful songs bursting with sharp guitar riffs and biting, straightforward lyrics expressed in Petty’s bluesy, emphatic vocals in “Refugee,” “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “Here Comes My Girl,” and “Even the Losers”. As the years and decades passed, from his cool, distant “You Got Lucky” and “The Waiting” to “Free Fallin’” and the Dave Stewart-tinged “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” which Petty sings with the deep, slow and dead-on anger of someone who’s seeing things clearly for the first time, arcing up at the end for a fine, guitar-raging finish, and the simple yet insightful song he wrote with Electric Light Orchestra’s Jeff Lynne, “Learning to Fly”, a Tom Petty single always expressed a mood, sense or thought with melody, structure and clarity. Even his duet with Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks for her bestselling solo album Bella Donna, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” is distinctive in its first few notes. Whether on his own solo album, Wildflowers, or in his brief collaboration with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne in their band the Traveling Wilburys, Tom Petty made his mark.

As far as I know, Petty stayed focused on making music in his own way and he never strayed, holding to the unpretentious, childlike spirit of trading his slingshot for a box of 45s, many of them Elvis Presley songs, when he was a kid. In his recent book Petty: The Biography, Warren Zanes reportedly wrote that “Elvis became a symbol of a place Tom Petty wanted to go. In time, the Beatles would be the map to get there.” Self-made Petty met, performed with and honored some of his own heroes, remaining active, touring and playing music he made, leaving behind a catalog of songs about life. I am one beneficiary of his having gone full speed ahead.

Hugh Hefner, 1926-2017

The best this longtime Playboy subscriber and reader can say about Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, who died this week at the age of 91, is that he was a passionate advocate for sex. I think his early years were his best, really, as he introduced the Playboy brand, which began with journalism and women’s nudity in a magazine described as “entertainment for men”, across multiple platforms.

Lacking an explicit philosophy, however, I think his reach, influence and legacy is limited and he had mixed results. How he went from a young entrepreneur from Chicago‘s northwest side to worldwide icon of a hedonistic men’s lifestyle in Southern California parallels in essence how he went from publishing nude but not explicitly pornographic pictures of women, the centerfolds, and serious, thoughtful articles, such as Alvin Toffler’s 1964 interview with Ayn Rand, erotic fiction and the outstanding Playboy Advisor advice column to supporting the re-election of President Obama in 2012.

RIP, Hugh Hefner

Hefner’s work and record speak for themselves and he has some grand and amazing achievements, especially in providing fact-based articles about sex, news and the culture, even some of his activism against religionism, which he regarded as Puritanism, and the absolute right to free speech. Hedonism as an alternative to Puritanism, however, has a similarly constrictive effect and I think this, too, showed in Hefner’s work and life (and, possibly, in his face; Hefner rarely looks happy, especially in his later years). Accordingly, Playboy began in the 1950s as a bold voice of sexual liberationism, featuring nude photographs of Marilyn Monroe in its first edition, and faded in popularity and influence in the 1980s, culminating in a recent low point with the numerous accusations of rape and sexual assault against Bill Cosby, which included an alleged attack at the Playboy Mansion in LA’s Holmby Hills. Based on what I’ve seen, heard and read, I think the tales of anything-goes depravity at Playboy parties are probably true.

In her book, The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight From Commitment, according to an article by Rick Kogan in the Chicago Tribune, author Barbara Ehrenreich asserts that the conventional wisdom about Hugh Hefner and his sexual-themed empire is 100 percent wrong. Playboy, she writes, offers “not eroticism, but escape — literal escape from the bondage of breadwinning.” The posed Playmates, she wrote, “were necessary not just to sell the magazine, but to protect it. When, in the first issue, Hefner talked about staying in his apartment listening to music and discussing Picasso, there was the Marilyn Monroe centerfold to let you know that there was nothing queer about these urbane and indoor pleasures.”

On this point, I think Barbara Ehrenreich has Playboy exactly right. It was an airtight digest packed with pictures of beautiful women, outstanding journalism and tips, tools and advice for man at his best, on everything from sports, wine, travel, grooming and art to contraception, foreplay, lubrication, masturbation and the joy of sex.

The worst article I’ve read about Hefner is published in the Los Angeles Times. It’s a commentary by Robin Abcarian and she starts by complaining that he cultured women to be subservient pieces of flesh for men’s indiscriminate approval, an argument that might have been more persuasive had she provided evidence and not ended her column with her seeking a man’s opinion — to validate her own? the reader wonders — especially because the man is her father and, in Abcarian’s telling, he agrees with his daughter’s low estimate of Hugh Hefner as a sexist. The best Hefner obituary I’ve read appears, appropriately I think, in the Chicago Tribune. It’s an extensive piece by Rick Kogan who, like Hugh Hefner, was born and raised in Chicago. It’s longer and more thoughtful than the usual fluff. Kogan writes like he’s thought about Hugh Hefner, not like he’s spinning an agenda to malign someone’s character, and he offers a broad range and wide scope view of the life of one of the 20th century’s only voices of reason on the topic of sex. I learned nothing in the former article. I learned a lot (such as Ehrenreich’s thoughts) about Playboy‘s founder in the latter, just like when I read an edition of Playboy. So, I think, will you. Read Kogan’s article here.

Robert Osborne

Though I had known he was ill and he hadn’t been hosting Turner Classic Movies (TCM), yesterday’s news that Robert Osborne died hit me hard. I read the sad news in an e-mail subject line from TCM as the screening room lights went down before opening credits rolled for a new Warner Bros. movie, an irony I think he would have appreciated (Warner Bros. and TCM are owned by the same company).

Robert Osborne

We met years ago when I started writing about film and Robert O., as he called himself on TCM, encouraged me to cover classic movies, which I did. Over the years, I interviewed him about several TCM programs, movie stars and topics. We talked about his work, career and life, mostly for this blog and for other sites, too. Those are fond memories. Of course, we talked about Hollywood’s Golden Age—read transcripts of our interviews about Lizabeth Scott, John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn—and we talked about Ernest Borgnine, Liza Minnelli and Robert Redford. We celebrated Barbara Stanwyck during an event he hosted at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—I interviewed him about Stanwyck for the centenary of her birth, which I plan to publish—and we talked about Hollywood, New York, Atlanta, TCM, the motion picture press and the Hollywood Reporter, Ayn Rand and the Oscars. I always found him to be candid and unpretentious.

Robert Osborne was a treasure. Readers often asked what he was like and I always answered with the truth; that he was exactly like he is on Turner Classic Movies. He didn’t self-censor, conceal or soften his thoughts as so many people do. He had a command of the facts about movies and he knew it. He spoke and acted like he knew it, too. This, more than anything else, including his work as an actor and as a journalist, explains his success as host of Ted Turner’s channel for uncut and commercial-free classic movies. The man who was a seasoned reporter, actor and confidante to the stars, including Olivia de Havilland and Lucille Ball, was foremost one who loved movies and knew that life is and ought to be as it is in the movies. This I know firsthand.

Passion did not scare him as it scares so many working these days in journalism, especially movie journalism, movies and television. Passion stirred and invigorated him. He wrote that way, strong, clear and simple, every month in TCM’s Now Playing and in books about the Oscars. Robert Osborne had studied and mastered facts about movies since he was a farm boy in the Pacific Northwest. He nourished that knowledge as a young man. He fed and kept it active and never let it go until, when TCM debuted in 1994, he traded on a lifetime of insights and introduced TCM’s first motion picture, Gone With the Wind—which he embraced without equivocation—the 1939 epic based upon Margaret Mitchell’s brilliant novel, a deep, serious movie which was revered by TCM’s creator, a larger than life figure himself, a capitalist who’d once bought billboards emblazoned with black letters on white space asking “Who is John Galt?”, founded CNN, married a movie star and lived on a ranch in the West.

Robert Osborne had a connection to that movie, too; he was friends with the actress who’d played Melanie. But being well connected alone wasn’t what gave Robert O. the confidence, command and mastery that viewers noticed and relished for 20 years. Nor is his ability merely a byproduct of the sum of his movie knowledge. He was much more than a charming ex-actor who ingratiated himself to Hollywood legends, more than a man with vast knowledge. He spoke as if he was as in love with the movies as you are. Robert Osborne’s mastery of TCM’s archive was richer than stately charm through an assuring voice, manner and gray hair conveying a grasp of facts. Robert Osborne mastered TCM with an enduring series of short, sharply crafted words enticing viewers before pictures because he had been the child who dreams. He had been the kid who works in the movie theater—the college student who stays in the library—the actor who studies his lines—the writer who thinks before he writes—the observer who dares to make the objective observation—and, above all, Robert O. was the gentleman who insists on living large and with glamor—just like life in classic movies.

This is what Robert Osborne brought to each introduction or interview—the ability to identify the movie’s ideal and a sense that one should bridge the real and romantic and realize the dream—and this is what he added to Ted Turner’s showcase for classic movies. It’s the greatest compliment I can give: that Robert O. affirmed the sense that wanting your life to be grand, larger than life and sublime is perfectly natural and fabulous. By framing each film with an upward glance, not a downward tone, by stressing the essential as the to-be-expected, the host made what happens in movies look wonderful, important and easy—and fully accessible to you.

As one who had the privilege of knowing Robert Osborne, I know that he lived with grace, passion and vitality. He was a marvelous host and, like one of his favorite movies, he left the audience satiated, enticed and wanting more. I hope for his sake and for those he leaves behind that his was a happy ending.

Richard Hatch

Richard Hatch has died of pancreatic cancer. The actor, who played Captain Apollo on ABC’s Battlestar Galactica, was 71 years old. We met twice; once in St. Charles, Illinois, where, as a boy, he taught me a lesson in benevolence. The second time was over 35 years later at a cafe in Studio City, California, where we talked about the science fiction series Battlestar Galactica, which was being discussed for a possible revival at Universal Studios (the interview is unpublished).

Richard Hatch

As a kid, I had been a fan of his work as a policeman on the ABC crime drama The Streets of San Francisco. Later, in the spring of 1977, when I found out Hatch was staying at the same resort where I was visiting with my family on spring break, I found him and asked for an autograph. Meeting an actor playing a dynamic young cop appealed to this suburban kid in the 1970s. I remember 1977 as strangely subdued yet also conflicted and turbulent. Nightly news was dominated by war, terrorism, domestic and foreign, hijackings, riots and constant dissent and debate over politics. So, I was drawn to cop shows. The Streets of San Francisco like KojakHawaii Five-O and Dragnet depicted the pursuit of justice as noble and important. They depicted a world in which peace was possible. Detectives proceeded to solve crime through investigation based on facts and going by reason. They were men of action. When Richard Hatch looked at me, listened and said Yes before signing his name, it affirmed more than my hero worship; his relaxed, amicable and accommodating manner showed me a certain kindness. I always remembered that he responded to my request with a quality more enduring than mere charm. He treated me as though asking for an autograph is the most natural thing in the world. I’ve had a number of formative encounters with VIPs—movie stars, sports champs, future presidents—that contributed to my ability to communicate with influencers. My childhood brush with Richard Hatch is one of the first.

I still have the autograph. When I interviewed him by phone in 2012, an extensive interview which covers the whole range of his career and is being quoted and cited in his obituaries, including the Hollywood Reporter‘s, I recounted the 1977 meeting and thanked him once again. He was still kind, if more seasoned and cautious, which I think is evident in the exchange. He was candid, too, and one of the things we discussed were his “abusive stepfathers” which added to my appreciation. When we met again—this time, as writer and actor, neither as a household name—he was indefatigable. And now I know that this is how I will remember him. To have been an actor, earned a livelihood and kept himself both whole and real, neither becoming beaten down nor neurotic and inflated, is an accomplishment. Richard Hatch, who remains known and beloved for single first, last and lone seasons of top programs as well as for touching countless lives including mine with his bright, positive attitude, was beautiful inside and out.


Read my interview with Richard Hatch (2012)