On The Obit Watch

Last week my wife and I took a road trip to the Grand Canyon, which I would recommend to anyone who hasn’t done it. I had one experience, however, that set me apart from most other tourists: during a stop in the midst of a river rafting trip down the Colorado River my wife’s cell phone rang. It was the CBS Radio Network in New York City asking if I could comment about the death of Art Linkletter. Which I did. (The cell reception was crystal clear, and our Navajo guide was kind enough not to restart his outboard motor until I finished my conversation.)

For many years I’ve been CBS’ go-to guy when any show business figure dies. I have a good memory and can talk off the top of my head, especially about show-biz veterans whose careers I’ve followed for years—like Art Linkletter. I don’t get paid for this but I’m happy to do it because I care about these people and want to offer a proper tribute. If the deceased is prominent enough I get even more calls, from ABC, NBC, CNN and other TV and print sources. (Sure enough, the phone rang again several days later, as we were—

—driving through a dusty Arizona town, when news came of Dennis Hopper’s death.)

Some folks might find this odd, even creepy, but my family is used to it, so much so that when Alice picks up the phone at an odd hour of the day she sometimes greets the caller by saying simply, “Who died?” This causes the reporter at the other end of the line a few flustered moments before answering the question.

Since the advent of the cell phone I’ve taken these calls in a variety of odd and colorful places, from a department store in Beverly Hills to a hotel in Maui. Once I conducted an interview with Los Angeles’ all-news radio station KNX from a crowded, noisy pizzeria on the main street of Park City, Utah during the Sundance Film Festival. They said I sounded fine, so who was I to argue? But I daresay the remote Colorado River location tops them all.

A potential problem of being involved with obituaries is that one can become dispassionate about the events at hand. I remember in my earliest days at Entertainment Tonight there was consternation that Princess Grace died after we had completed that evening’s show. It was only later that the impact of the news settled in for me, and perhaps for some of my colleagues as well. And I remember scrambling to cobble together obit material for Ricky Nelson when he died on New Year’s Eve of 1985, after we’d all gone home for the holiday. A driver from ET stopped by my house to pick up my copy of Ozzie Nelson’s autobiography, which had some good illustrations. (This was long before the Internet made photos and other material so readily available.)

On the other hand, as a novice in the world of television I had to learn the lingo. One morning I overheard our script supervisor say, “OK, then Harry Belafonte is dead.” I rushed over to her, genuinely upset, and said, “Harry Belafonte died?” She said, patiently, “No, we just ‘killed’ the story about him in today’s lineup.” Oh.

For a number of years I was assigned to work on “shelf obits” for Entertainment Tonight, which meant preparing full-fledged retrospectives on a number of people who were still breathing at the time. Ironically, it took years for most of them to be put to use; it was almost as if being prepared forestalled their demise. Newspapers and wire services do this all the time. A friend of mine once got such an assignment from a major New York paper and was told to call the subject of the “pre-obituary” for some fresh quotes. She blanched at the prospect but was told to follow orders. She called a famous film director and tried to engage him in conversation without revealing the reason; when he insisted on knowing what the interview was about she told the truth. A few moments later he said, “I can’t do this,” and hung up. Who could blame him?

Without question, the most unusual experience I ever had came in 1998, when I was asked to serve as official spokesman for the family of Roy Rogers. His oldest daughter Cheryl told me he was dying and asked if I would be willing to prepare an obituary and release it to the media when the time came. I told her it would be my honor to do so. We worked together on an appropriate biography, and I wore a pager for the next few weeks, awaiting her call. It came about 4:00 on the morning of July 6, 1998. Roy passed away peacefully at his home in Apple Valley, California, surrounded by his family.

Because he was not in a hospital at the time, there were no leaks to the press. I was entrusted with the job of telling “the world” that this beloved entertainer had died. It took me a few minutes to gather my thoughts; then I walked to the office in my back yard and started making calls, to CBS, NBC, and ABC, the Associated Press, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times. I had obtained their news desk numbers and fax lines ahead of time; again, this was before the Internet.

When I made my first call I got an assignment editor, and when I told him the reason I was phoning I could almost hear him snap to attention. He asked for the basic details and I told him the official obit was already coming through his fax machine. Within minutes I heard the first announcement of Roy’s death on KNX radio and the news started spreading. I was interviewed a number of times, and even spoke to CNN, which put me on the air “live” over the phone while they ran what little footage they had of the cowboy star on a loop and ran it over and over again.

Cheryl called me a short time later to say that Roy’s widow, Dale Evans, was annoyed to hear a CBS TV news anchor say that Roy had died of “congenital” heart failure when it was “congestive.” I called CBS and asked them to correct the item the next time they ran it.

Shortly after Cheryl’s phone call my daughter Jessie, who was then twelve and had met both Roy and Dale, heard Alice and me talking and woke up. She asked if there was anything she could to do, so I put her on the fax detail and she was very helpful.

Later that morning I tried to explain to her the significance of what we’d done—that before I made my first phone call, no one outside of Roy’s family knew what had happened. I told her how unusual it felt for me to be dealing with breaking news.

She understood completely and replied, “No, Daddy, you usually deal with broken news.” Indeed.

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May 2024