Q: You're 36. You've been in this job for three years, at the height of your career and still rising. You have a sense of yourself. Is it a different sense of yourself than you had when you were 21, 22?
A: Yeah. I feel I'm older than I should be. If that sounds stupid, I guess it comes as a result of the way I'm viewed by people who -- not only are on the show, but people who are in the building. People outside. They do treat me with the kind of respect, deference that I was raised to think was normally reserved for a much older man. That's how I used to see people treat my daddy, the judge.
I'm kind of a band leader around here and I kind of make it go and I understand that. But I never look at myself the way others look at me. I've been taken back when people say, "Hi, Mr. Gumbel." God, I'm just a guy who's kind of walking through this and who is anxious to go out and grab his clubs or go play some softball or race my son or get in my jeans.
I think of myself as very much a guy's guy. I think of myself as kind of gutsy, but I don't think of myself as the guy in the dark suit and white shirt. I guess I'm reminded of how much I'm no longer that kid when I see kids. I love going home, putting on my jeans and my work shirt and my funky jacket and wander around. And yet as I wander I see other kids coming by in more updated funkiness, and I realize, no, I'm not that.
Q: There's a little-boy quality to you. Around Christmas time, when you interviewed the person from Hammacher-Schlemmer -- all that enthusiasm about the fire engine.
A: The makeup lady here calls me the brat. I suspect that's not far off. I like things when they're a little bit off center.
Q: When you go out, are you bothered by the notion that there are millions of people who know you?
A: Yeah. I was walking down the street with my son and my daughter, coming back from dinner Saturday evening, and as we got to the corner this guy walks up and he goes "Bryant Gumbel, you are fat." I didn't take it really kindly, but I didn't say anything, I just looked at him and looked away.
My wife was upset. I don't like that. I understand it. People get very accustomed to watching you and you become for them something they know. In many cases they spend a lot more time watching you than they spend paying attention to anybody else. So they think it perfectly all right -- like a good friend would -- to say hey, you're getting a little fat, or, hey, I hate that tie, or you need a haircut or you have a bad habit of doing such and such. Things that you would never dream of telling a total stranger. People think nothing of rushing up and telling you some things that'll just slam your back against the wall. I try like hell to be as cooperative as possible. I am just much more a private person than that. I would rather walk out of here and not be as conspicuous.
Q: You would rather stand in line at a restaurant then?
A: Look, I'd be lying to you if I told you there aren't benefits that I enjoy. It's wonderful to go to the airport and have a guy go, "Mr. Gumbel, come on. We'll seat you immediately." It's wonderful to go to a restaurant and have a guy go, "Here's your table." You'd have to be an idiot to pass on that.
On the other hand, you'd love to go into a store and browse by yourself without people trying to come over and talk to you. You would love to be somebody sitting in a bar without having some guy who's had a few too many turning around and telling you what he thinks of you and your work and your family.
Q: On the show, what is the hardest part of it for you?
A: Restraining myself. I am a very emotional person. I'm also, for better or worse, very quick on my feet. That helps you a lot. It can also get you in a lot of trouble, because you see opportunities to take the knife or play one-upmanship. You constantly put a rein on yourself. Nobody likes a smart-ass. There's a certain amount of graciousness, humility needed.
Q: You live in the city. How do you feel about raising your children here?
A: I'm a city kid -- a big fan of cities. I don't buy the idea that the best place for kids to be raised is in the suburbs. I happen to believe that for a youngster, particularly a black youngster, the city is a better place to grow up.
Q: Why a black youngster in particular?
A: Because I think one of the real problems that blacks face as they become increasingly successful is that in an attempt to remove your youngsters from all of those problems and negative images, you take your childrem away from the very thing that they are.
You try to get them away from urban blight, from noise and congestion. And in so doing, a lot of times you also get them away from any other person who's black. You also get them away from all semblance of reality. I don't want my kid to grow up thinking he's the only black face in his school, thinking that every car is a limousine, thinking everybody has two cars and one of them is a Mercedes.
Q: Are they getting something different?
A: By living in the city as opposed to living in the suburbs, they are at least exposed to the fact that others live a different lifestyle and that they're more privileged than most. At least my son sees other black faces. He sees guys lying in the gutter. He sees people begging. Certainly the odds are better that he will have a sense of proportion. You hope so. I don't know. Hell, if I had all the answers, I'd write them down.
In many cases black people wind up feeling guilty about consumer feelings, about feeling at ease with white people. It's constantly reinforced by people who want you to be what they want you to be.
Q: For blacks it's an issue of whether you're "black enough"?
A: Why doesn't anyone ever ask an Irishman if he's Irish enough? How much time they're spending doing causes for Northern Ireland? Why doesn't anybody ever do that? Does anybody ever interview (ABC anchorman) Peter Jennings and say, "Are you really doing enough to help your fellow Canadians?" It's really depressing sometimes.
If there were two people on the street and one asked the other, "Do you know Bryant Gumbel?" and he said, no, as a way of defining me, the first thing he would say would not be, "He's the black guy that's on in the morning." He might say, "Sure you do, he's the guy who hosts the 'Today' show." or "The guy who used to do sports." Eventually we could get around to saying, "He's te black guy." But that would not be the first thing out of his mouth. Along the way I've lost the word black as a descriptive adjective for defining who Bryant Gumbel is.
Q: When you were in college what did you think you wanted to do?
A: Avoid the draft. I say that only half tongue in cheek. It might be difficult for people today who didn't go through it to realize how consumed most guys were with the prospect of Vietnam. A lot of us thought, hey, the minute we're done here we're going. It's that simple.
In more serious moments I guess I thought I was going to be a lawyer. My dad always assumed that Bryant was going to school, get his undergraduate degree, go to law school, come out, become a lawyer, become a judge, become the next president. Simple as that.
I decided late my senior year that since I couldn't avoid the draft, that I would go in the best way possible -- as an Air Force pilot. I had the full series of tests and the guy called up and said, "Mr. Gumbel, we have good news and bad news. The bad news is you're never going to be a pilot. But the good news is if you went to your draft board and begged them to take you they wouldn't." I'm a complete 4F.
Q: What did you do when you were unemployed after you left your first job after college?
A: Just kind of hung out, did nothing. I can remember one Christmas. I had a mattress, an eight-inch black-and-white TV and a lightbulb. That was it. I went and bought a Blimpie sandwich and I called my folks from the corner of 46th and Eighth. Collect, because I had no money. I didn't tell them I was unemployed because my dad would have done something dumb.
Q: Eventually you got a job with -- ?
A: Black Sports (magazine). I got to know a lot of people who worked in the business and they got to know me. And when the NBC affiliate in Burbank was looking for somebody, my name got dropped in the hat.
Shortly after I started as the weekend sportscaster, some people who were running the place said hey, this guy seems to have a different outlook on sports, seems able to write a little bit. Why don't we try to use him in a different way? So instead of doing the sports news of the day -- "The Mets beat the Dodgers 2-1 and the Yankees lost 5-2," I would take one idea each day and do an essay, a film piece, for about four or five minutes (a long time by television standards). One day it might be a set of twins running cross-country for Cal State Fullerton. The next day it might be the myths and realities of the Sports Illustrated jinx, a historical perspective on the USC tailback. Sometimes I'd review sports books.
I got (to the Los Angeles station) in '72. In 1974 the Dodgers won the pennant. They were going to play the Oakland As. The station asked me to follow them and after each game, use the network cameras to feed essay-type things and interviews back to Burbank. The people who were in charge of running NBC sports were standing in the truck watching.
Turn the clock ahead to spring of '75. The NCAA basketball championships are taking place in San Diego. I'm relaxing, enjoying my weekend, when (legendary UCLA basketball coach) John Wooden announces that this will be his last tournament. Our executive producer calls me on the phone and says, "You're on the way to San Diego. Win, lose or draw, when John Wooden's final game is done Monday night, you get in front of the camera and immediately give us a 90-second commentary on what this all means." I was able to get up right afterwards amid the bedlam, stand in front of the cameras, do it in one take and it was pretty good. The same officials who had seen me in Oakland were sitting in the trucks.
The following fall they were unveiling a new program called "Grandstand," the forerunner of all of these pre-game, wraparound, halftime, etc., etc. shows. For some stupid reason, I thought, geez, theyre going to make me the host of it. I was that conceited. My executive producer called me in and said, "Let me bring you down to earth. There's no reason in the world you should think they'd make you the host of that. You're 25 years old, you have very little experience, nobody knows who you are outside of Los Angeles." I said fine, thank you.
Two months later "Grandstand" was in trouble, floundering. The forces that be in New York thought this really needs a change of face. Why don't we try this kid who we saw in Oakland, in San Diego?
Q: Within the industry you had a reputation for being bright but a sports guy. Did it bother you?
A: I used to tell people that we had in Jack Kemp a former quarterback who was a congressman, we had in Bill Bradley a former forward who was a senator, we had Ronald Reagan, a former actor who was president -- that somebody should get all bent out of shape because a former sportscaster was doing "Today" seemed the height of foolishness.
Q: I thought of you as a guy that I would watch on Saturday and Sunday. My reaction to your move was, they're taking the sports guy and they're putting him on the "Today" show, just another indication to me of how the "Today" show has really -- .
A: Gone to hell in a handbasket.
Q: You went to the Soviet Union in September of '84, and by all accounts, you were terrific. From then on you were seen as a serious person who could do serious journalism. Did you have the same sense at the time?
A: No, not really. Look, those compliments are wonderful. They're really quite nice. I wouldn't have it any other way. The only problem with it is there's always the unspoken part of an equation. It's a bit like someone coming up to you and saying, "What did you do to yourself? You look terrific." The unspoken part of that is before this, you must have really looked like hell. I always take those compliments as "Thank you, and it's very nice, geez, I wonder what they thought before." I wasn't out to change my image. I didn't return a different person than I left. To the extent that it took that for a lot of people to say, "Geez, the guy does nice work." Fine -- okay, fine. But I dare say if you took a look at the things that happened before then you might have seen the same type of things.
Q: This was also the biggest thing you had done, the most ambitious?
A: Yeah, but I didn't think of it that way. I'd be lying to you if I sat here and said, "Well, I realized that my career was on the line." Maybe that makes me the dummy. I just never look at things in terms of that kind of importance. I'm always the last to realize how important something is.
Q: How long can you do this show?
A: I don't know. I think it was (first "Today" Show host Dave) Garroway who said that if you do this for about five years you end up going into the woods and talking to a moose. I've just signed for four more which will bring me to seven. The joy of this job is its curse. The minute you say goodbye (on the air), you are 22 hours removed from the next show. As a result, there are times when you get done and say, I want to do this for the rest of my life. There are other times when you finish up and say, If I never see another show it will be too soon for me. For now it's fun. As long as I can continue to say that, this will be a great marriage, but nothing lasts forever.