Sunday, November 15, 2009

Don Hewitt Remembered

Whatever they teach you in news-writing class about avoiding hyperbole, you can forget that advice when asked to write an appreciation of someone like Don Hewitt.

Don Hewitt was a genius; the only one I ever met in almost half a century in the television industry. I've met lots of smart, talented, dedicated, even amazing, people; but only one actual genius.

When I joined Douglas Edwards with the News as a newly-minted production manager in 1961, Don had already been there for over a decade, and Doug was soon to be replaced by Walter Cronkite.

Hewitt had an attention span – and, in those days, a fuse -- so short as to render any previous definition of shortness obsolete. But wow, did he know how to grab – and hold – people's attention. Everything worthwhile I learned about putting pictures and sound of actual people and real events up on a television screen, I learned from him.

But mostly I remember the sheer exuberance we all had working at CBS News, that almost iconic journalistic arm of what was admiringly referred to in those days as the Tiffany Network. We were flying by the seat of our pants and making things up as we went along, and it was Don Hewitt who was making most of those things up. We were a little nuts, but we worked really hard and we were – Don used to say – respectable, as you had to be if you were laboring in Bill Paley's vineyard.

Don was also – in the early days at least – an inveterate prankster. Pity the poor film editors with whom Don used to pass lunch hours in our conference room eating sandwiches and betting on the answers to questions on the game shows being aired mid-day on the room's TV screen. What the editors didn't know was that the shows were airing on a new device called videotape, and Hewitt had been down in the tape room earlier that morning taking notes as they were being rehearsed.

Some years later, his penchant for shenanigans (don't get me started!) got him into hot water with no-nonsense CBS News President Fred Friendly who didn't find it at all amusing when Don swiped NBC's 1964 Republican Convention playbook from under the seat of an unaware NBC exec at a TV Pool meeting. Don pleaded that "we were only kidding around" , but it almost got him fired.

Don eventually grew up and, when he did, he invented an entirely new television genre, the TV newsmagazine. I'll leave it to others more qualified than I to chronicle the spectacular history of that particular Hewitt innovation except to remark that 60 Minutes is the longest running vine in Mr. Paley's legendary vineyard, and certainly one of the most profitable.

It's a little off-putting to be asked to write about a former colleague with whom you haven't actually worked in four decades. Those who knew Don well in subsequent years may fail to recognize him in the picture I've tried to paint, but I'll close with two anecdotes that leap to mind as being particularly reflective of the Don Hewitt I remember.

If you lived in Manhattan in the Sixties, you'll recall the huge projection screen we mounted in Grand Central Station to show the liftoff of one of the first manned space shots. Commonplace subsequently, but eye-boggling at the time. Need I note that this was yet another Hewitt innovation? My job was to get it set up overnight in time for a morning rush-hour launch. Screen and projector in place, I rushed back to the studio just in time to hear Don on the intercom to one of the Grand Central TV cameras, barking, "Find me a shot of a nun praying". And wouldn't you know, only Don Hewitt would be rewarded with the very shot he'd been looking for and it was perfect! That's not luck or divine intervention, that's having a visceral anticipatory sense given to very few.

The other story concerns a lunch I had with Don shortly before I left the News Division to join the then nascent Viacom International. He'd recently had his CBS News contract renewed for an extended term, when, hard on the heels of the signing, came an offer from the West Coast to produce documentaries for a major studio under the sort of extravagant Hollywood Producer terms that even the most successful of us in New York TV at the time could only dream of. Don went to then president of CBS News Richard Salant asking to be let out of his contract so that he could accept the offer. Salant turned him down, saying that there were few people in the organization he considered to be indispensible, and that Hewitt was one of them. So I asked Don whether Dick mightn't be concerned that Don would simply coast through the balance of his contract in hope of being let out of it. Don's reply has stuck with me: "Art, you and I are compulsive overachievers and you know as well as I that we are both constitutionally incapable of deliberately doing a bad job".

He was right, of course, and I've always remembered how gracious it was for him to have included me in his analogy on the meaning of professionalism.

This piece also ran in "World Screen News."

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