He was the consummate host, perhaps the greatest in the history of television. His name was Alistair Cooke. He died Tuesday in Manhattan at the age of 95.
When I was a small child, my family gathered at the TV every week to watch "Omnibus", a highbrow cultural variety magazine program that aired, amazingly, in succession, on all three broadcast networks. I clearly remember some of the live studio performance segments, as well as the mini-films, especially one featuring a British gentleman whose mandatory umbrella was tipped with a false shield, under which was a deadly dagger. The sprightly score of this film has been running through my head ever since.
Holding it all together was Alistair Cooke, then a British citizen. It was Cooke who created the hosting style we recognize today as the "60 Minutes", "20/20", "Prime Time Live" and "Dateline" style.
Cooke was a journalist; a brilliant writer. And of course he wrote all his own copy.
Later, and for 22 years, he hosted "Masterpiece Theater". His signature style was a lesson for every host and anchor in the business. Introducing such brilliant BBC series as "I, Claudius", he always sat back, relaxed, in a comfy wing chair. He was serene. He spoke in a soft voice, with a gentle smile. He was so erudite he made Peter Jennings look like a schoolboy. Superbly educated, but never the slightest bit pretentious.
As a little boy who hated school, I would give myself up to Cooke on "Omnibus" every Sunday and let his "lessons" carry me to an expanding world of knowledge.
I was working with a very strong news anchor a few weeks ago, trying to find the right words to give him an appreciation of the power of this quality of serenity during his performances. He was struggling to put together the idea of "serenity" and news anchoring. I finally said "Use the Force within you." There was a long pause, and then the anchor replied, "Yes, Obi-Wan". And today, I am thinking about how similar Alec Guinness as Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi is to Alistair Cooke as Alistair Cooke.
Isn't that Jedi Force what we all want in a news anchor and informational host? To find the Force requires much preparation, as it did Luke. You cannot become Alistair Cooke without a never-ending course of study of world culture, undying curiosity, daily reading of multiple newspapers, and the daily writing of your own copy. Always observe, take time to meditate even if for only a few minutes each day. And when you are in front of the camera, let go. Let go.
Since 1946, Cooke also filed BBC radio "Letters From America", which were hugely popular in England. Prime Minister Tony Blair said yesterday "I thought they were extraordinary essays and they brought an enormous amount of insight and understanding to the world." The United States Ambassador to England summed up Cooke's qualities better perhaps than I have: "He had movie star good looks, a poised and effortless manner, a first-class mind, and -- most flatteringly -- a sincere and abiding interest in all things American".
Alistair Cooke, a teller of stories. I was deeply influenced by him, as were millions, and his legacy is the archetype of the television host.