An Anchor Who Carried Weight

In the beginning: Koppel reporting on the Iranian hostage crisis in 1980, the news event that launched
In the beginning: Koppel reporting on the Iranian hostage crisis in 1980, the news event that launched "Nightline." (Abc Via Reuters)
By Tom Shales
Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Ted Koppel was always more informative than the other men who piloted late-night network TV programs, but he was often more entertaining than any of them, too. Watching him homing in on a guest, grilling the subject in a manner sly and subtle -- rather than bombastic or bellicose -- could be very entertaining television.

But it was his stature as a great newsman that brought ABC News employees streaming by the dozens into Studio B last night, champagne glasses in hand, to bid farewell to Koppel as he -- and friend and producer Tom Bettag -- left ABC for some other realm about which the anchor has been insistently vague.

Koppel's closing words to viewers were taped at 5:30 p.m. in the big studio. He urged his audience to watch the revamped, three-anchor "Nightline" that will premiere Monday night because if it isn't a success, "the network will just put another comedy show in this time slot. And then you'll be sorry."

And finally, the traditional close: "For all of us here at ABC News, good night." Then the floodgates opened and the well-wishers poured in.

For his last show, Koppel had chosen to revisit Morrie Schwartz, a former Brandeis University professor who died 10 years ago, at age 78, of ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Schwartz talked openly, bluntly and movingly about his impending death on three editions of "Nightline" -- in March, May and October of 1995. Excerpts from those broadcasts made up the final show.

The conversations represented some of Koppel's most personal and memorable work, even though Schwartz told him at their first meeting that he feared Koppel would be narcissistic because he looked on TV like a man who thought he "knew everything." Koppel considered himself "too ugly" to be a narcissist, he told Schwartz.

In the 25-year history of "Nightline," millions tuned in not because Koppel seemed like the man who thought he knew everything but because he gave the impression of wanting to know everything. A taped highlight reel shown to guests at the brief farewell party (another was held last week at the Kennedy Center) attested to the tremendous breadth of Koppel's beat -- from starvation and disease in Africa to the hazardous streets of Iraq, from hurricanes to civil wars.

Present via videotaped greetings at the party were a few of the show's former guests. Former president Bill Clinton recalled walking across a bridge in Prague with Koppel in 1994 and wondering what the post-Cold War world would be like. "I can't wait to see what your second act will be," he said to Koppel. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton was seen in a separate clip, as were Bishop Desmond Tutu ("You have become a legend in your lifetime") and Koppel's longtime friend Henry Kissinger ("You overcame my efforts to ruin your career").

For laughs, actor Henry Winkler appeared and told Koppel, "You were so good on 'Cheers,' " pretending to confuse the anchor with Ted Danson. Koppel also was presented with a statue of Donald Duck, because that is the standard gift from the Walt Disney Co., which owns ABC, to employees with 40 years of service.

"Now," Koppel said, "my life is complete."

In addition to the champagne toasts, joking and recollections, Koppel received from his colleagues an ovation that went on and on and on -- so long that he ordered it stopped. As he bolted from the room, he did seem to be fighting back tears. And he wasn't the only one. His beautiful wife, Grace Anne, followed him out the door.

Whether viewers will take Koppel's advice and tune in for the revamped "Nightline" is problematic, for seldom in TV history have a program and its host seemed more of a piece. Indeed, Koppel's habit in recent years of taking an increasing number of days off surely was partly responsible for the show's lowered, but always respectable, ratings.

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