Edward R. Murrow never thought of "Person to Person" as his mission in life. But doing the popular, primitively gossipy weekly show on the CBS television network in the '50s made it possible for Murrow to get air time and audiences for more serious projects.
Class is class though, and Murrow brought to "Person to Person" the same authority, intelligence and insatiable nosiness about human events that he brought to "See It Now" and "CBS Reports." Ocassionally it may seem that TV old-timers get too moony about the mighty Murrow and overestimate his importance. It is more likely that neither Murrow nor his importance can be overestimated. He wrote the book, and few successors have managed to read it, much less author a sequel.
Starting tonight, about 35 public TV stations are reviewing "person to Person" with 13 weeks of recorded Murrow interviews, usually two per show. The first, originally telecast on Oct. 30, 1953, and featuring Sen. and Mrs. John F. Kennedy - newlyweds then - and Maj. Gen. William F. Dean, airs at 9 on Channel 26.
"Person to person" was the predecessor and yet not really the blood brother of current programs like David Frost's glitzy "Headliners" and the Barbara Walters interviews on ABC. One of the main differences is that Murrow always kept his dignity and everyone else's - a dignity that the distance between him and his subjects may have encouraged. Another difference is that in the '50s, fewer celebrities had become professional interviewees or talk show spectres, and less was known about the video art of image enhancement.
That Murrow's guests were often noticeably ill-at-ease has a lot to do with the program's distinctive credibility.
Murrow himself first materializes in an iconographic fog bank of his own cigarette smoke and intones his proverbial and imposing "Good evening." He sat in a New York studio, electronically linked to remote locations like Kennedy's Boston apartment through the crude and cumbersome TV hardware of the day. This was before color, before satellite relay and before portable mini-cams, so guests who went "Person to Person" with Murrow had to contend with lumbering cameras and a casserole of fat cables in-undating their homes.
All camera and people movements had to be carefully plotted out ahead of time, and so were the areas of questioning to be done by Murrow. But he still "met" the guests for the first time when they all went on the air - live - and there is a spontaneity to the visits that survives the quarter century since the first show was televised.
"Are you there, Senator?" Murrow asks a blank wall, on which a distant image was superimposed for home viewers.
"Yes, right here, Mr. Murrow," says John F. Kennedy, looking agile, lanky and eager. Jackie is nearby acting quiet, docile and deferential; all the serious questions are directed to Kennedy, and when Jackie re-enters the room with one of her new husband's old Harvard footballs, Kennedy says stiffly, "I see that my wife is back."
The only really eerie note in this brief encounter with the young Kennedy is when he refers admiringly to the author of the poem, "I Have a Rendezvous With Death."
The charm and merit of the Murrow interviews is not that the subjects were expansive and relaxed. How relaxed could they be with huge three turret TV cameras and 12 million lights staring them in the face? And yet the glimmers of truth could be fresh, dramatic or even stunning, as with the second guest on the first program, Gen. Dean, three years a prisoner in Korean War.
Questioned by Murrow, Dean says that his most recurrent thought while in a P.O.W. camp was "my own inadequacy" as a soldier though he was later awarded the Medal of Honor for, among other things, single-handedly attacking an enemy tank with only a hand grenade.
And then, while Dean sits on the floor of his apartment in the lotus position he remembers from his years of imprisonment. Murrow reads from the Medal of Honor citation. This moment is almost poetically eloquent and heartbreaking.
One can compare Murrow's interview with the less dignified and more manipulative report on a Vietnam prisoner of war seen on Tuesday night's edition of "20/20." ABC News played "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" on the soundtack over shots of the ex-P.O.W. limping across a field; Murrow shows us how unnecessary such gratuitous heart-tugging is.
The second program in the series, to be seen next week, is even better that the first. One guest is Marilyn Monroe and the other, Sir Thomas Beecham. Monroe's face, even in fuzzy old black and white kinescopes, comes through as hauntingly, meltingly vulnerable. She sits on a couch in the home of a photographer friend with her legs tucked under her.
Beecham, then visiting the United States with his wife, proves a sprightly conversationalist. Murrow tells him he's been accused of maintaining that music should be fun. "Heaps of fun," says Beecham, adding, "It's not fashionable in this country to look happy when you conduct or do anything with the arts. You have to be tortured and miserable and depressed and down-in-the-dumps. Then they take you very seriously and think you a genuine artist. I don't share that view."
Beecham confesses that occasionally when about to conduct an opera he forgets which one it is until he hears what the orchestra plays, and before sitting down to dash off a short piece on the piano, he says to his wife, "Darling, will you stop me when you think you've had enough?"
The third program combines interviews from two separate shows - a 1954 visit with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in their Los Angeles home, and a 1958 chat with Maria Callas in the Waldorf Towers.
Callas tells Murrow, "I love singing in the shower. It has wonderful acoustics." An after Bacall wonders aloud whether she is "equipped" to play a dramatic role on Broadway, Bogart says, half-leeringly. "I think you're equipped for anything, Betty."
In the electronic media age that made "Person to Person" possible, people are still perishable but images are immortal.
On the remaining programs in the series, Murrow's guests will include Groucho and Harpo Marx (Harpo does not speak but honks a horn, holds up signs and lets his wife talk for him). Ethel Waters, Fidel Castro, Norman Rockwell, Noel Coward, Eleanor Roosevelt, Duke Ellington, Jesse Owens and Fannie Hurst.
Murrow's penetrating style and the ever-presence of his burning, fateful cigarette inspired innumerable spoofs by comedians like Ernie Kovacs and Sid Caesar and on the ninth "Person" show, which also features lawyer Edward Bennett Williams, comic Jonathan Winters does a Murrow impression for Murrow himself.
The Eastern Educational Network (EEN) paid CBS $8,000 each for the rights to televise these 13 "Person to Person" programs: they cannot be repeated under the arrangement so viewers who miss them on the aim this time may have a long wait to see them again. But there are [WORD ILLEGIBLE]more available installments of the series that can be bought if response to the first 13 is good.
Words like "trivia" and "nostalgia" in no way even hint at the value of the programs nor at the impact of being confronted with these spirits of another age. Though it was terribly elaborate production in its day (Franklin J. Schaffner, who later made the film "Patton," was one of the studio directors), "Person to Person" and Murrow's approach now seem brilliantly uncomplicated - as up-front and direct as the trademark Murrow sign-off: "Good night and good luck."
It gives me such goose bumps to hear it again.