The end for Arch Campbell isn’t really the end.
It’s a punchline.
“Give me a break!” he wrote in an e-mail to colleagues last week as word dribbled out that he’d be leaving the Washington airwaves after four decades of reviewing movies, a bazillion or so quips and a warehouse worth of fedoras.
Campbell is scheduled for a “final” live appearance Thursday at 5 p.m. on WJLA (Channel 7), the local ABC affiliate, and his “farewell” show will air at 8:30 pm on NewsChannel 8. But he wanted his co-workers to know that he’s not retiring, merely taking “a break,” and that the station’s new owners, the Sinclair Broadcast Group, have agreed to “leave the door open for (gasp!) my possible return.”
In the insta-celebrity era of television news, the 68-year-old Campbell represents a slowly vanishing breed of broadcasters who’ve done it all and do it all — in the same market, a throwback to a time when versatility was everything. When Campbell was making his first appearances on Washington’s television screens in 1974, Gerald Ford was president, Cameron Diaz was 2 years old and Leonardo DiCaprio was a newborn.
As the decades unfolded, he became a local institution, a fixture with a distinctively upbeat on-air persona and a non-pretentious reviewing style, a sort of Everyman of the arts. He spent 32 years on WRC (Channel 4), the NBC affiliate, and the past eight years at WJLA, where he now appears on nightly newscasts, as well as hosting “The Arch Campbell Show,” a comedy and entertainment program, on WJLA’s sister station, NewsChannel 8.
“Are you my obituary writer?” Campbell cracks when reached on the phone. He laughs in a rich baritone familiar to anyone who has watched TV news here.
Later, he’s still laughing as he wedges in the corner booth of a favorite haunt, the American City Diner, down the street from his Chevy Chase, Md., home. Above him a large image of Marilyn Monroe looms over the patrons; the faces of other bygone movie stars fill the walls.
He has many reasons for stepping away from the studio, and he sounds like a man who is still sorting through his motivations and his plans. In his e-mail to colleagues, Campbell writes with that same down-to-earth, self-effacing tone that endeared him to generations of viewers.
“If you must have a reason for my decision,” he writes, “pick one of these:
A. The rigors of my three day a week schedule have left me exhausted.
B. WTOP called the other day wanting a sound bite on Lauren Bacall. They thought we grew up together.
C. Have you been inside a movie theater lately?”
In person, he’s brought another, longer list of reasons. “You know when it’s time” is at the top. “I want to write it down before I forget it” is there, too — an allusion to his plans to embark on some as-yet-undefined writing project. Whatever he does, he plans to do it in the city that made him a star and where his wife of 21 years, the Rev. Gina Gilland Campbell, is a senior official at the National Cathedral. He looks to the former NPR host Susan Stamberg as a model for structuring an active professional life even after leaving a career-defining job.
During his long career, Campbell has been an anchor, a weatherman and a feature reporter. Once, he was sent to do a piece about the artist Alexander Calder painting a jet. He got too close in his brand-new gray suit, and got splattered with red paint.
But he never had a grand plan to become a movie reviewer. His unlikely path stretches back to his native Texas, where Campbell was working as a TV news reporter. One day, Campbell recalls, his gruff, straight-from-central-casting news director walked into the newsroom and growled, “I want a movie reviewer.”
Campbell looked around. The room had gone silent. No one wanted the gig. He raised his hand. He got the job — by default.
“I’m the accidental critic,” Campbell says.
The first film he reviewed was “American Graffiti,” the George Lucas-directed coming-of-age tale with the catchy soundtrack of 1950s and ’60s hits. “It’s got a good beat; the kids can dance to it,” Campbell recalls telling his audience. He gave it three out of four stars. He acknowledges he might have been tougher then. Today he’d give it four.
Ask him about his favorite movies, and he rattles off a catalogue of gems from the 1970s, a period he calls the golden age: “The Last Picture Show” (“They would not make that today. It’s too dark’), “Chinatown,” “Being There” (“For awhile, it was my favorite movie”) and “The Godfather” (“Probably the best ever made”).
Campbell, though, is quick to add that he doesn’t want to disparage today’s films — that’s not his style. Plenty of terrific ones are being produced. He was blown away, he says, by “Boyhood,” a Richard Linklater movie starring Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette that was filmed over 12 years.
Campbell still gets a kick out of taking a seat when they dim the lights at local gems such as the Uptown, a single-screen theater in Cleveland Park, and the Avalon, a historic theater that has been restored in the Chevy Chase section of Washington. He likes films so much that he goes to movie theaters when he’s on vacation.
Even when he doesn’t like a film, he has a quintessentially Arch Campbell way of taking it down. “Honest without being mean and vindictive” is the way his friend, Dick Dyszel, the former host of “Creature Feature” on WDCA (Channel 20), describes it. “He’s not a mean-spirited reviewer.”
But he was influential. Patton Oswalt, a D.C.-area native who was the voice of the lead character in the film “Ratatouille,” has spliced Campbell into his stand-up comedy routine over the years, grousing about the reviewer’s sway over his family.
“You made my childhood very difficult because every movie I wanted to see, you would give it a horrible review. And my parents would go, ‘See, Arch Campbell hates it,” Oswalt once said in a taped interview with Campbell. Oswalt wants to know how Campbell could have dissed “Pink Floyd: The Wall” and “The Road Warrior.” On screen, it’s clear the veteran reviewer loves the tongue-in-cheek banter. He is wearing a fedora, naturally.
Over the years, Campbell says, his appetites for certain types of blockbuster films has waned — and that factored into his decision. “I don’t want to be the 70-year-old man talking about ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.’ That’s not being made for me,” he says. “I don’t want to be the pathetic old guy talking about movies made for teenagers.”
He’s got a list of nagging health issues to take care of, but nothing serious enough to force him out of the business he has loved. He beat colon cancer nine years ago. But in recent years he’s also grappled with hemifacial spasms, a nervous system disorder that causes one side of his face to sag, and he says he also needs cataract surgery.
“I can barely see the teleprompter — which actually has been helpful,” he says, ever the upbeat optimist. He’s really never been able to see the teleprompter that well, he goes on to say, and because of that he’s had to lean into the camera. He thinks that small compensation for less-than-perfect eyesight gave him a special kind of intimacy with viewers.
He checks his watch. It’s time to go. He’s cracked a filling and has a dentist’s appointment. But even a cracked filling doesn’t seem to get him down. “It’s kind of like preparing for this older stage of my life,” he quips. “Just eating soft foods.”