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October 18, 2020 10:02 am  #1

Rise & Fall Of A Radio Pioneer Tracked In PBS' American Masters

He was to radio what social media is to the Internet. He could make or break a career, championing you as the toast of the town with just one mention, or completely destroy your life.

You may not remember the name Walter Winchell, but there was a time in the 30s, 40s and 50s when he broadcast to an audience of more than 50 million people. And he's the subject of this Tuesday's "American Masters" on PBS.  

It's narrated by Whoopi Goldberg and features the voice of Stanley Tucci as Winchell. The show airs on WNED Tuesday at 9 PM.

From the PBS logline:

"American Masters – Walter Winchell: The Power of Gossip traces the life and career of the syndicated columnist, radio news commentator and television host who pioneered the fast-paced, gossip driven, politically charged media culture that dominates today. At the height of his career, Winchell had a combined print and radio audience of 50 million and the power to make or break careers.

"He became the most feared and admired man in America, a man who transformed entertainment journalism and championed “Mr. and Mrs. America” in his daily columns and Sunday night radio program. Decades later, an alliance with Senator Joseph McCarthy and feuds with Josephine Baker and Ed Sullivan turned his audience against him and forced him into obscurity.

"...Winchell’s own words comprise nearly a quarter of the script as the film tracks the rise and fall of his career, and his continued influence on today’s media. “He was not only present at the creation of modern journalism,” concludes biographer and film interviewee Neal Gabler, “in many respects he was the creation.”

If you have a VPN set to the U.S., you can watch a video preview. Otherwise, you can read more here.

Director’s essay | “Winchell is the origin story of fake news; there could not be a timelier moment to unpack it for a wide audience.”


October 18, 2020 1:18 pm  #2

Re: Rise & Fall Of A Radio Pioneer Tracked In PBS' American Masters

Thanks RA.  Just added it to this week's PVR list.


October 18, 2020 4:02 pm  #3

Re: Rise & Fall Of A Radio Pioneer Tracked In PBS' American Masters

I think most of my generation are most familiar with Walter Winchell from his narration on the ABC series, The Untouchables.


October 18, 2020 4:26 pm  #4

Re: Rise & Fall Of A Radio Pioneer Tracked In PBS' American Masters

I'd forgotten about that. You're right - he did do the narration on that show. 

The preview text briefly mentions that he was in a huge war with Ed Sullivan. Before he became a TV show host, the latter was also a gossip columnist. And they absolutely despised each other. In his book, "A Thousand Sundays," about the Sullivan show, author Jerry Bowles relates how a guy in a high-end New York City nightclub went to the men's room one evening, opened the door, and encountered Sullivan - who was a large man - with Winchell's head stuffed in the urinal, madly flushing and re-flushing, as his arch nemesis tried to free himself from his grasp. 

The witness said he merely closed the door quietly and left. I doubt that will be in the documentary, but you never know!  

One more ridiculous thing. I remember once suggesting to our weather guy that he create an on-screen image-character for when it's really cold outside. I suggested he call him "Walter Wind Chill," but he was pretty sure no one would get the joke. He was probably right, it was way too long ago. But it was such a great pun, I couldn't resist. 

     Thread Starter

October 18, 2020 5:06 pm  #5

Re: Rise & Fall Of A Radio Pioneer Tracked In PBS' American Masters

A fictionalized WInchell is a character in "The Plot Against America" - the Phillip Roth novel turned HBO miniseries. In the 50s, Winchell became an arch-McCarthyist and a bully and his influence dwindled with McCarthy's fall.  Interestingly, he not only feuded with Ed Sullivan but, later, with Jack Paar. Winchell had alluded in his gossip column to Paar having marital difficulties and Paar retaliated by attacking WInchell relentlessly on the air - something most celebrities would have been too terrified to do several years earlier - and effectively ended Winchell's declining career.

Reputedly, according to Larry King, by the 1970s Winchell who was no longer carried by any newspapers or magazines and whose radio show had ended long before, was reduced to typing out his column on mimeograph paper, making copies, and handing it out on the streetcorner. 


October 19, 2020 8:02 am  #6

Re: Rise & Fall Of A Radio Pioneer Tracked In PBS' American Masters

I note that the voice of Winchell in the documentary is Stanley Tucci. He also played Winchell in an HBO movie of the same name in 1998. I really enjoyed it and would love to see it again.  It featured Paul Giamatti in one of his first big roles.