Eight p.m.: In a few hours "NBC News Overnight," the best news show that hardly anybody sees, would be on the air, and Linda Ellerbee, Frontier Anchorwoman, wanted to review what "Nightly News" had just featured; maybe something was worth lifting for the other side of midnight.
About 15 minutes through the show Ellerbee found a live one, a Dr. Barry Jacobs, whose idea of good old American ingenuity was a new venture capital opportunity--selling real kidneys to real people. Jacobs' position was that since so many people seemed to need kidneys for transplants, someone ought to be in the business of selling them. A vaguely ghoulish undertaking perhaps, but megabuck potential. Ellerbee eyeballed the screen in amazement; this was too much. "I'll take two," she hollered. "With mustard." As the piece continued, the narration suggested "serious ethical considerations" were raised by such a practice. Ellerbee bolted upright in her seat and shouted, "Yo, really?" Within seconds after the piece ended Ellerbee offered a potential name for the good doctor's storefront: "Kidneys R Us."
You want savvy? Linda Ellerbee gives you savvy.
You want smart-aleck? Linda Ellerbee gives you smart-aleck.
You want svelte, safe and sunlit? Buddy, have you come to the wrong place.
In the TV news business the cute ones are called "Twinkies." This is not a term of endearment; it is used to describe anchors whose most discernible talent is a pretty face. Linda Ellerbee, one pistol-packing mama of an anchor, has been called many things--from smart to smug, from sharp to snide--but never a twinkie. For one thing she's too quick: At a space shuttle launch she said the physical sensation "gives new meaning to the phrase, 'The Earth moved.' " For another: "I'm not a bucket of worms," she says, "but the word 'cute' would never apply."
She is 20 pounds overweight. She wears large owlish glasses and large hoop earrings; everything about her, it seems, is large. She has a deep, rich laugh, and when she isn't laughing her voice sounds like the last two drags of a Camel chased down by three fingers of Wild Turkey. Her chestnut hair is a fantastic tangle. On the air her attitude suggests she is no stranger to exotic places and steamy dances, and in combination the voice, the look and the vibe are grittily sensual. At 39, she's been married and divorced four times. The best available word may be "raffish," and the best available phrase may be "a joyful noise." Had Janis Joplin given up sex, dope and cheap thrills for hard news, she might well have become Linda Ellerbee.
LINDA ELLERBEE not only doesn't know what she wants to be when she grows up--she doesn't want to grow up. "What a horrible thought," she says, throwing back her head in glorious defiance, Peter Pan style. But if the years don't get her, surely these hours will. A day in her life is an uphill sprint against traffic: Up at 1 in the afternoon; eat, shop, run errands, take care of business in her Greenwich Village brownstone; be home for the kids, 12 and 13, when they get back from school at 4; fix supper; take the subway to work at 7, watch the news, read the wires, get the schedule for the night's show, write the copy; go on the air at 1:30, get off the air at 2:30; have a pop with the crew and wind down, go home, watch reruns of "Mary Tyler Moore"; go to sleep (first shift) at 5; get up at 7 with the kids, get them ready for school; go back to sleep at 8.
"The cumulative effect of the hours is exhausting," Ellerbee says. "It's like a fancy pair of shoes that you buy that just look wonderful. But you put them on your feet and they hurt, so you say--'Well, I'll just wear them awhile and they'll break in, and they won't hurt.' Six months later, what you realize is that what's happened is, the shoes haven't changed--your feet have. I haven't gotten comfortable with these hours. These hours still hurt."
Ellerbee has already given notice. She will stay with "Overnight" one more year, through next summer, "and that's it."
She has no idea what she will do after that, and she couldn't care less.
"All along the way I've sort of fallen into stuff," she says.
No reason to change now.
She was born Linda Smith in Bryant, Tex., the only child of an insurance broker and a housewife. The family moved to Houston when she was 4, and she grew up as a tomboy, aggressive and an outsider. "I just didn't fit into any particular group, and I think I wanted to," she says. "I was the kind of kid who'd bad-mouth the idea of homecoming and then be really hurt when no one asked me." At Vanderbilt University she met and married Mac Smith--she didn't even have to change the stationery--quit college and went with him to Chicago, where he was in grad school. She supported them working as a bookkeeper and writer on a trade magazine and as a newscaster and jazz disc jockey using the name "Hushpuppy." When the marriage broke up, she went to San Jose as a deejay, and then, in 1968, returned to Houston to help take care of her ailing mother.
In Houston she married Van Veselka and moved with him to Eagle Pass, where she had two children in two years. "Baby on the back, baby in the belly, worrying about waxy yellow buildup," she says, looking back on that time with great fondness. From there they went to Juneau, Alaska, where, with 13 others, they lived in a commune, and she did the Earth Mother trip, working as a rock deejay and radio reporter and as a speech writer and aide to a state senator. "A couple of us had full-time jobs; the rest were writing out the plans for the new society. I knew this most surely--that certain people did the work and certain people sat on the couch saying, 'Far out!'--the third time I had to lie on my belly on the ice in order to get deep enough into the well to get water. And I asked myself, 'What am I doing? I'm tired of brown rice. I'm throwing out my beads.' "
She lost her job and husband in the same week, and, with two small kids, began casting about for work, landing in Dallas with the Associated Press, writing news for a four-state radio network. One slow December night she composed a letter on the AP computer to a friend, the juicy part of which was this: "When a coworker leaves, I will be the token woman among 16 writers. Watch, the bureau chief will rid himself of all discriminatory guilts at once and hire a half-black, half-Chicano lesbian person next." By mistake, that letter went out on the wire and was read on the air, and by 9 a.m. Linda Smith Smith Veselka's career at the AP was history. "I was home asleep and got a call from a UPI reporter, no less, asking for a comment," she says. "I said, 'Oh my God! I'm going to have to buy a hairnet and wait tables and live in a trailer the rest of my life.' "
No such luck.
"The damnedest thing happened. That afternoon I got a call from Dick John, the news director at KHOU-TV in Houston, about going to work there. He thought I wrote funny. You believe that? I'd been in Alaska for years. I didn't know what was on TV. I didn't even own a TV. I told him, 'All I know about TV people is that they get in your way on the street.' "
The news director asked her how much money she earned at AP.
She said $750 a month.
He offered her $11,000 a year. Sight unseen.
She worked there as a reporter for nine months. During that time she met and married Tom Ellerbee and then got a job offer from WCBS-TV in New York. Her marriage broke up soon thereafter, but Ellerbee kept the job, working a 3-to-midnight shift, commuting from her house in suburban New Jersey. Two years later NBC offered her a network job in Washington. She was reluctant. But when she was assured the job wouldn't require much travel and separate her from her kids, she took it, for $60,000. For two years she covered the House of Representatives. During that time she met and married John David Klein, also a TV reporter. (Quick story: Once, while in the middle of a spat in the second-floor bedroom of their upper Northwest home, she became so annoyed that he continued to watch TV that when he went downstairs to get a soft drink, she opened up the window, unplugged the set, picked it up and threw it out.)
She was perfectly content being a reporter. She had no designs on being an anchor. But in 1978 NBC decided to move "Weekend" from late Saturday night to prime time, and Ellerbee wanted to cohost it with Lloyd Dobyns. "That was the first thing I ever really wanted to do," she says. Then, for the first time, she came up against the prime-time cosmetic issue. They didn't want her in jeans or looking windblown, looking as if she'd just come from the Indy 500. They pulled her hair back, coated her in lip gloss and did a full frontal Stepford Wife makeover that made her look like a bridesmaid at Tricia Nixon's wedding. "Prime-time neuter," Ellerbee calls the look. "Who was that woman?" It only hurts when she plays the tapes.
The ratings started slow and sped to a crawl. NBC tried emergency surgery by taking it off Saturday and putting it on Friday. Or Thursday. Or Wednesday. In eight months it was gone forever. Samurai programming.
"I behaved badly," she says. "I was an unbelievable pain in the ass. All along I'd been telling myself that this was television--not brain surgery. They canceled the show and suddenly I thought it was brain surgery."
During the next three years, single again, Ellerbee worked out of New York doing general assignment pieces for "NBC Nightly News." Then in 1982 Reuven Frank, who produced "Weekend," became president of NBC News. When the idea for "Overnight" was born, Frank sought to reunite fast friends and soul mates, Ellerbee and Dobyns, on the air. "I was willing to do it under three conditions," Ellerbee says. "One, that if it caused problems with my children I could gracefully get off. Two, I still had to be allowed to do some reporting, and not just be an anchor. And three, that I would kneecap the first SOB who told me what to do with my hair."
A few months later Dobyns left to try prime-time news one more time, on a ratings millstone christened "Monitor" and later rechristened "First Camera." Dobyns was replaced on "Overnight" by Bill Schechner, who wears a tie but no coat. Ellerbee wears a coat, but no tie.
And so it goes.
ONE OF the things that distinguish Linda Ellerbee from most television news people is that she writes her own copy. It has been reported that NBC pays her $300,000 a year to coanchor "Overnight," which has been described as "the world's longest rendition of 'Alice's Restaurant.' " That's $300,000 to read the news, not write it. She writes it for free. "They'd pay me the same money if someone else wrote it for me," she says. "And they'd pay me the same money if I wrote the same kind of sterile, fill-in-the-blank prose that's on so many of the newscasts. But I don't want to do it that way." She chooses her words carefully and delivers them in a staccato that seems a cross between David Brinkley and Bette Davis. "I want to be perceived as someone who thinks a lot before she sits down and writes this stuff. I want to be perceived as someone who is not here because she won a Miss America contest or because she would devour anything in her way to get to anchor the nightly news. I want to be perceived as a responsible reporter and a smart one."
And as long as she opened up the door on perceptions, let us quote a few:
Brit Hume, ABC reporter: "She is, God love her, one of the most irreverent people on the air. A terrific writer, who knows her style and how to write to it. Definitely one of us, and not one of them. She's brassy. She's sort of a not-ready-for-prime-time newswoman."
A big-time television agent who requested anonymity: "Some people call it 'irreverence.' I call it 'smug.' She's caught up in her own uniqueness. She's not unattractive, she's just uncosmetic, and damn it, the fact of the matter is--this is show business."
Jack Bowen, of the television consulting firm of McHugh, Hoffman: "She's quickly memorable. She's not vacuous like Jane Pauley. We believe that she has the potential to be a star, a major anchor in evening news."
Jonathan Rodgers, executive producer of CBS' "Nightwatch": "She is what I call an 'anchor star.' She jumps through the screen at you, and coming out of 'David Letterman' is perfect casting. But I doubt you'll see her at 7 at night or 7 in the morning; I don't think either spot is right for her kind of irreverence."
Linda Ellerbee listens to the comments and stares straight ahead. This is not something she hasn't heard before. The next great move in network news is going to be the placing of a woman anchor in the 7 p.m. slot. Already the line has been established and the early favorites are Jessica Savitch and Diane Sawyer. Both blond. Both thin. Both blow-dried.
And where does that leave Ellerbee? Stuck in the Irreverent Chair? Exiled in Dead Time, not even in Day Time? Never in Prime Time?
"They don't suit me, and I don't suit them," she says evenly. No sweat.
It doesn't bother her.
"I wouldn't want to anchor nightly news as it is constituted today," she says. "It's too dull."
So, what is she, an acquired taste?
"That makes me sound like pistachio ice cream," she says.
Well, what is it? Her attitude? Her look? What?
"I don't know, I don't know," Linda Ellerbee says in exasperation. "Maybe I'll never anchor the nightly news--so what? It's not gonna break my heart. But just for the sake of argument--What wouldn't work? What do I do that wouldn't work? I don't know where we ever decided that a reporter shouldn't be irreverent. We have an obligation to constantly question whoever's in that White House. On everything. I don't write that same kind of vanilla copy everybody else does, so they say I'm smart-ass. If the little kid runs around saying, 'The Emperor has no clothes,' the first 45 people he tells probably whap him in the mouth and say, 'Smart-ass!' "
Then she doesn't want to anchor the nightly news?
Linda Ellerbee kicks up her sneakered feet and laughs. "No!"
What does she want to do?
"I want to make movies," she says forcefully. "If NBC came to me tomorrow and said, 'We want you to anchor the nightly news,' and 20th Century-Fox came to me that same afternoon and said, 'We have this tiny little picture that probably won't make a lot of money, but would you like to direct it?'--I'd clean out my office at NBC News so fast it'd make your head spin."
IT IS 2 in the afternoon. Ellerbee has been awake for an hour now. She is wearing Pepto-Bismol-pink baggy pants, a black crepe baggy shirt, no makeup and no shoes or socks. She has her feet up on the table and the first of many cigarettes in her hand, and in that moment she looks like a refugee from Woodstock. On the open shelf in Ellerbee's kitchen is a big, fat can of Hormel chili. Do you think you'd find that in Joan Lunden's kitchen? Do you think Jane Pauley takes the subway to work? Do you think Jessica Savitch would take the money NBC budgeted for her hairdresser and spend it instead on a videotape machine for her "Overnight" office?
"I think the publicity's caught up with me," Ellerbee says, shrugging her shoulders. "I dress up, too. I bathe regularly, and I comb my hair. Okay, I don't blow-dry my teeth, but I really don't want to be known as the Marjorie Main of network television." She rocks back in her chair and her shirt curls like an ocean wave. "All this stuff about cosmetics--you wouldn't say it about Charley Kuralt . . . The issue is how pretty versus how smart. There have been women--and men--on television who could not write, could not report and could not produce, but you wouldn't know it by watching them because they're propped up by very good people. What bothered me about the Christine Craft case was how much attention was paid to how pretty someone should be to anchor. Forget pretty. Let's talk about stupidity. How smart should you have to be?"
Someday, maybe, when Linda Ellerbee is off making movies, she'll want to do one about a TV anchor approaching middle age, a zaftig, savvy, gregarious woman with a couple of kids, four ex-husbands and a zest for life, wondering just what in the hell she should do with the rest of it. And if that script came in, and if it were called, for argument's sake, "Frontier Anchorwoman: The Linda Ellerbee Story," who would she cast in the lead?
She grins. "Someone a little better-looking than I am, and a lot thinner."
"I don't know. Colleen Dewhurst?"
She thinks better of it and shakes her head. No, not Dewhurst. "Actually, I'd prefer Jimmy Cagney. I'm a big fan. You think we could get him?"