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.
People tuned in to "Nightline" for style as well as content, for the joy of seeing a job done splendidly by a man devoted to his work and to asking questions designed to elicit answers that mattered. Koppel brought rare intelligence and perseverance to his craft. Part of the pleasure of tuning in was that you could see him think.
Thought is a rare commodity on TV, making Koppel rather lonely in his virtuosity. But virtuoso he was, and his disappearance from regular exposure on the tube has to be seen as another ominous marker in the demise of network news, following as it does the unseemly dethroning of Dan Rather at CBS, the orderly retirement of Tom Brokaw at NBC and the tragic death of Peter Jennings at ABC.
Such men, inspired by the work of Edward R. Murrow and other revered pioneers, came to television from print backgrounds, by and large. The new breed is TV-trained, TV-oriented. Some indeed are serious journalists, but for many, experience in investigative reporting is limited to having seen the movie "All the President's Men." Meanwhile, pressures increase from the big conglomerates that own the networks: Make the news "fun," and make it profitable.
Koppel has his showbiz side, of course. He famously balanced a dog treat on his nose on competitor David Letterman's late-night talk show. He is expert at unreeling anecdotes. And his impersonations of such newsmakers as former president Richard M. Nixon and William F. Buckley Jr. have been entertaining colleagues for years. They even delighted Roone Arledge, legendary president of ABC News and Sports, although Arledge recalled in his memoir, "Roone," that he and Koppel hardly hit it off at the beginning of the association.
"Initially, I hadn't thought much about Ted one way or the other," Arledge wrote, saying that Koppel's "chipmunk cheeks and odd-parted auburn hair lent him an uncanny resemblance to Alfred E. Neuman." But eventually, Arledge became impressed with Koppel's knowledge, versatility and commanding presence.
"You found yourself not only admiring Ted Koppel," Arledge wrote. "He made you like him, too. And that perhaps was his most formidable ability."
"Nightline" grew out of ABC's late-nightly reports on the crisis in Iran, "America Held Hostage." As the show itself had been partly a matter of serendipity, so was the show's trademark gambit. When an Iranian official refused to come to the studio to be interviewed, ABC sent a crew to his embassy and photographed him using the "green-screen" technique, which allows the background to be dropped out and replaced with something else. In this case, the embassy interior was replaced with the "Nightline" studios.
On the air, it looked as though Koppel were interviewing the official through a large window that looked onto the next room. But Arledge noticed something: "Keeping the Iranian at electronic remove shrank his image and enlarged Ted's, shifting the psychological balance between subject and interviewer. Koppel was now in command." All interviews were henceforth done in this way.
"It makes for great television," Arledge wrote. There's reason to believe, however, that in time, Koppel would have loomed large anyway, especially as rave reviews for his performance began appearing and "Nightline" ratings climbed.
Not every review was a rave. Koppel has for years chided this critic for having panned the premiere of "Nightline" -- on March 24, 1980 -- calling it "at best a great leap sideways and at worst a pratfall backwards for television news." When it began, the show seemed to be mainly a staging ground for confrontations between opposing sides of a given issue. The next day, Koppel phoned the writer and, in a firm but friendly way, suggested it was unfair to review a nightly news program after one edition. The critic promised to revisit it at a future date.
Another review ran 10 months later. The critic raved that Koppel had emerged as a first-rate interviewer, not just a referee, and hailed "Nightline" as all but a godsend. Koppel himself likes to tell the story about the critical flip-flop.
But there's another story about another phone call that Koppel doesn't tell. It was after an excessively negative review this critic gave a new Saturday edition of NBC's "Today" show, and it raked over the coals the man who'd been drafted from National Public Radio to co-host it. After the review appeared, Koppel called and strenuously scolded the critic for a "vicious" piece that could, he said, cost the man a career.
Tellingly, Koppel sounded far angrier and more passionate during this phone call than he had when complaining about the "Nightline" review. This time, he was calling out of principle. He was speaking up on behalf of something in which he had absolutely no stake. It's a rare quality.
By and large, the relationship between the critic and the anchor was friendly, even though Koppel's first words upon hearing the writer's voice at the other end of the line were almost always, "Shales, you sleazy bastard."
In his remarks on the air, Koppel said that anchors have been coming and going throughout the history of television and that it's really no big deal when one leaves and another arrives. But viewers of "Nightline," and the ABC News staff that gathered in Studio B, would certainly disagree. Ted Koppel wasn't just another anything, and will not be forgotten nearly as quickly as he predicted.
In the beginning: Koppel reporting on the Iranian hostage crisis in 1980, the news event that launched "Nightline."