Thursday, September 08, 2016

Who was Ted Baxter really modeled after?

If someone asks me a Friday Question that I don't know the answer to but do know someone who DOES I try to get that person to graciously share the information with all of you.  Today is one of those times.   Here's a Friday Question that became an entire post.  And to answer it, please welcome Arlen Peters.   He'll explain who he is.   Thanks, Arlen!

The question, by -30-, is this:

You worked with Mary Tyler Moore. Maybe you know the answer to this.

I am reading Jeffrey Toobin's new book about Patty Hearst and the SLA. In it he says that KNXT became the prototype of local news because MTM's aunt "worked as the business manager of the station and she shared tales...of anchor Jerry Dunphy--who served as the model for the hapless Ted Baxter." I also thought Baxter was based more on local newsman George Putnam. I never saw Dunphy as Baxter-like.

Do you know the real story?

I’m not Ken, but I do know the “real story” to your question. A little background for you. From ’68-’75, I worked for the CBS Radio Network writing and directing features. One of the people I wrote for was Jerry Dunphy, who, at that time, was the respected anchorman for the local CBS TV station, KNXT, in Los Angeles. Jerry had a celebrity interview show. Each week I would interview a celebrity, edit the interviews, write a “wrap-around” and Dunphy would come in and record the shows each week. More to come on this.

It’s true that Mary’s aunt worked for the station and Jim Brooks, Allan Burns and the writing staff spent time in the newsroom observing what when on, watched reporters, etc. to gather background for the show which was being developed.

Obviously the show went on to be one of great sitcoms in TV history.  One of its characters was the pompous, gray-haired anchorman, Ted Baxter, played superbly by Ted Knight. Since CBS had a fine group of shows in those years (MASH/NEWHART/MTM/CAROL BURNETT), I was always asked to interview talent on those shows and was happy to do it. I never consulted with Dunphy on who I was going to book and interview. I just handed him the scripts, he read them and that was it.

Until …

I had already interviewed Mary, and when I went to interview Ted, the first thing he said was “I’m stunned you want to talk to me!” He went on to tell me that Jerry Dunphy hated him because he felt that Ted was humiliating him each week by playing Dunphy as a pompous buffoon. When I asked Ted if it was true, he said yes, there was a lot of Dunphy in his portrayal but also a big helping of another famed Los Angeles anchorman during this same time by the name of George Putnam.

Since I was there, Ted and I agreed to do the interview and it turned out to be a delight. He was a rare performer who was witty and funny and charming, loaded with stories and anecdotes … and it came so effortlessly to him! I went back to the station, went through my interviews that week, wrote my pieces, and with scripts and tape cuts in hand, entered the studio and handed Dunphy his scripts. And it was fine … until …

Jerry came to the Ted script … looked up at me with an ice-cold-looks-can-kill look and said “Are you fucking crazy? Why would you give one second of time to someone who makes fun of me to all of America each week.” I kind of thought I would get that type of reaction, but the interview was great and I wanted to use it. So at this point I went into what I would consider an Emmy/Oscar winning performance of my own. “What’s the problem Jerry? I asked, as if I didn’t know. Dunphy went on and on haranguing me and I let him vent … and then uttered my retort, with the utmost sincerity … “Ted said he was doing Putnam, never you.” What followed was an incredulous look from Dunphy. “So he’s doing Putnam?” “Putnam all the way Jerry. Ted loves you.” With those words and my sincere delivery, I expected my statuette to be handed to me … but it was good enough that Jerry accepted the explanation and taped the piece … and as he was leaving, he once again muttered “Putnam huh?” sounding just like Ted, then ambling down the CBS hallway with that same Ted Baxter strut!

And that’s the REAL story!

Thanks again, Arlen.  I bet George Putnam hated Ted too.  


LouOCNY said...


Ralph C. said...

Very excellent. Thanks Arlen and Ken. :-)

Michael said...

Friday Question: Do you know who wrote this FRASIER - STAR TREK VOYAGER sketch or why Kelsey Grammer was the only cast member who did not participate?

Astroboy said...

Ah, the names I grew up with:. Putnam, Dunphy, Baxter Ward, Clete Roberts, Stan Chambers, Ralph Story, Bill Keene, Tricia Toyota (Immortalized in song by The Dickies: "Stuck in A Pagoda with Tricia Toyota"), Kelly Lang, Paul Moyer, Tom Brokaw, Bill Bonds, Stu Nahan, in Santa Barbara: Bill Huddy and Chrisine Craft. They all just pop up into my head like I was watching them yesterday. When local news shows and newspapers WERE where you got your news and you connected with news people like we don't seem to do anymore. (You know, nostalgia sucks!). I got to know Bill Huddy, he worshiped George Putnam, he talked about how Putnam would hold court in a booth in some restaurant in LA, drinking away, pontificating, surrounded by young women (I picture a Ron Burgundy-type scene).

Anonymous said...

Love your blog. I have a random question about Wings (one of my all time favorite shows)

2 non credited characters: a red head female that worked at Aeromass and a dark haired male that was always around the airport. He was in the huddle when Roy was telling the boys why his son was taking cello lessons.
Who are they? I can't seem to find them on IMDB and was wondering if they continued in the business or had any success.

Griff said...

There's a lot to what you discuss here, Ken (I'd love to hear that interview) because Ted Baxter does have Jerry Dunphy's general body language (and a bit of his delivery), while WJM's anchorman overall stentorian obtuseness and obliviousness certainly owes a lot to the astoundingly pompous and stolid George Putnam.

I always believed Dunphy was mostly a solid anchor and fairly good interviewer, but I did wonder whether Putnam was actually doing a parody of bad news readers.

But for all that, the Baxter character MUST at least be somewhat inspired by the character of Oscar North, the hilariously (and overweeningly) egomaniacal TV actor brilliantly played by Jack Cassidy on the 1967 sitcom HE & SHE. A very funny 1971 episode of MTM features Ted Baxter anxiously awaiting a visit from his highly competitive brother -- perfectly played by Jack Cassidy.

B.A. said...

@Mark: I saw an ad yesterday for WINGS episodes on one of the antenna stations, (MeTV?) maybe starting this month, which made my night.

Stephen Marks said...

Another excellent lifting the skirt, er, I mean pulling back the curtain to reveal the real story post. Excuse me Mrs. Levine. Thanks once again Ken.

So this is the one thing I could never buy about the MTM show. How Baxter kept his job. Its one thing to be an idiot off screen but be professional on screen and fool everybody so Lou doesn't fire him, but he was an idiot on screen as well. Was it ever mentioned on the show?

I think Spin City had the mayor be an idiot in private but to the public he was completely able to run a city and make responsible decisions, thanks to his staff. Shouldn't that have been the case here?

Well the NFL starts tonight so here is my prediction. The Arizona Cardinals will win Super Bowl XL. Is it XL? No, XX? Wait, LX. Number 50 right, so LI. Whatever pants size it is Cardinals win by 8.

Frank Beans said...

@ Michael:

Kelsey Grammer is in the Star Trek skit--he shows up as a Kilngon near the end, bringing Eddie with him.

Andrew said...

Forgive me if this is a stupid or naive question. Anyone commenting here can answer it.

Does this post mean that two sides of the interview were filmed separately? Was there a protocol that the actor was filmed being interviewed by someone unseen, then the anchor was later filmed asking the questions, and the clips were then edited together? Or was all this a run-up to the actual interview where the two were talking to each other?

Sorry, but this post (which was otherwise wonderful to read) is confusing to me.

Mike Doran said...

I was a kid in Chicago when I first saw Jerry Dunphy.
He was at WBBM-channel 2, the CBS station; he was the sports guy, and his hair was not yet snow white.
Dunphy went to LA in the early '60s, where he became Jerry Dunphy ("From the mountains to the sea, to all of Southern California, good evening!").
The next time I saw Jerry Dunphy was in '66, on an early episode of Batman - the first Joker show.
JD played (what else?) a newscaster, reporting on Batman's embarrassment at the Joker's hands, and closed with a hysterically maudlin tale of his "little son Harold" praying for Gotham city's deliverance from Cesar Romero; you really have to see and hear it for yourself (I'm digging out the DVD later on).
This appearance predated MTM by four years; what I got out of it at the time was that Dunphy, who'd never shown any sign of humor when he was doing sports in Chicago, apparently was able to kid his own stentorian delivery for a national audience - my teenage self was duly impressed.
George Putnam was unknown in Chicago (we already had Paul Harvey), so I never saw him except when some West Coast comic did him on a late-night show. Later on, I would see him on shows such as Tom Snyder's, and I got the Ted Baxter thing right off, so there's that.
Anyway, that's my Heartland story about Jerry Dunphy.
And as Someone might say ...

"This has been One Midwesterner's Opinion. We Welcome Yours!"

Dhruv said...

Hello Sir,

I am Dhruv from Bangalore in Southern India (Not in IT or call center related stuff).

To begin with, I would like to apologize for the long comment.

I am an avid reader of your blog for the past few years.
I chanced upon it 3 years ago when searching for oscar show reviews from around the world. And to see a honest review ripping apart Hollywood’s annual meat parade and its crown-jewel Spielberg was refreshing.
[ No seriously. That’s how Spielberg is treated when he visits India. The entire Indian media grovels whenever anyone remotely related to Hollywood visits; but when his Highness visits they go ape shit (or in your words they all become Sam Rubins).]

Since then I have been reading it regularly, though I have no knowledge of sitcoms or writing, but still I like your acute and witty observations, movie reviews, and general take-down of Hollywood's holy-cows.

My only disappointment is that they don’t show re-runs of M*A*S*H or Cheers here, which I would like to see one day. They always assault us with the re-runs of Friends (everyday 2 episodes, which is repeated 3 times a day. So its 4 hours of friends per day and again the entire week's episodes repeated on weekends for 2 hours.)

Just a Hollywood question:

Recently (past few years) lot of Hollywood icons like Spielberg, Scorsese, De Niro, others have been coming to India? [They don’t have anything to sell. But still they just come here and go on TV channels where fawning assholes and shitty audience ask inane questions of what they think of India? Its movies? Culture?]. They on their part give condescending answers and smugly go on and on about their past glory.

Since you are an acute observer of Hollywood and its people, do you think that these are icons who are fading away in America's memory, so to massage their ego and self-worth, they are coming to India for the adulation they receive here? [India being a needy country for attention from Hollywood and Indian media always looking for bones (praise) thrown by the American media and its personalities].


Did Hollywood as a whole, recently discover that India is the largest English speaking country in the world (outside USA), so are they angling to connect with newer audience?
(Hence patronizing oscars to crappy movies like Slumdog Millionaire instead of Dark Knight, one Indian character with fake Apu-like Indian accents in new sitcoms etc….)


Jahn Ghalt said...

Terrific story! As a director, Mr. Peters clearly learned how to handle the "talent". Very smart to let Dunphy get it off his chest before deflecting.

It's funny on its own that ego would blind the "target" to an obvious, over-the-top parody like Ted Baxter. I'd think that a more subtle, ironic treatment - one more on-target - might be more insulting.

And now I wonder if that Ted Knight interview is archived somewhere?

Finally, I'll speak for "Ted" (take your pick): I'm sure he'd say his hair was SILVER.

Bob Leszczak said...

Dunphy had a weekly syndicated interview show called "Jerry Visits." Putnam was on AM radio well into the new millennium complaining about illegal aliens in California. While Ted Baxter may have been derived from them, wasn't there a wee bit of Oscar North (Jack Cassidy) from "He & She" in there, too?

tb said...

And wasn't Kent Brockman modeled after Hal Fishman?

Anonymous said...

And Jerry Dunphy's daughter married Bill Drake.

Frank Beans said...


My take is that Kent Brockman is (in part) a satirical amalgam of Ted Baxter, and Howard Beale from NETWORK.

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Johnny Walker said...

Wonderful story! I always thought Ted Baxter was too broad, but I'm happy to hear he was actually based on two real life news anchors. That's great!

VincentS said...

Wow. That's sounds like something that would HAPPEN to Ted Baxter on THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW!

Wallis Lane said...


The role of Ted was originally written for Jack Cassidy, but he turned it down, probably to his later regret. So, there's definitely a lot of weight to your supposition that Ted was based on Cassidy's character in He & She.

thirteen said...

I have a contrary story. I worked at CBS Radio News in the '80s, when almost the entire old crew was still active and on duty -- titans like Doug Edwards and Dallas Townsend. Jim Brooks worked as a newsroom desk assistant -- i.e., copy boy -- circa 1960. The old hands at CBS swore up and down that Ted Baxter had been based on announcer Roger Forster (for his looks, particularly his flowing white hair) and anchor Reid Collins (for voice and manner; Collins was a stiff, as Ted was in the first couple of episodes). There was a funny story about the aging Collins hitting on a beautiful young thing from New Zealand during some presidential trip or other, and as he was moving in for the kill, the lady said, "You know, you remind me very strongly of that person in the TV show ... what's his name again? Tom Baxter?" That was it for her, and him.

VP81955 said...

I've always thought bombastic, pompously inept sportscaster John Sterling (who's been polluting Yankees radiocasts since 1989) unconsciously modeled his persona after Ted Baxter.

Johnny Walker said...

@Andrew They were filmed separately. It was not uncommon them (and maybe not now, either - although it seems less likely!). Seems horribly fake when you know, right?

Matthew said...

George Putnam was also the presenter of the infamous "Perversion for Profit" scare-PSA.

Igor said...

Friday question: How do you handle breasts?

I mean as a director. I thought of this when I recently saw an episode of Taxi in which Marilu Henner in a silk top was clearly braless. (No, at that moment this question is not all I thought of.) Certainly that was a different time. Today, if an actress's top is too tight or there's too much cleavage I assume it's easy to request less. But what if you as an (honorable) sitcom director want more? "Could you undo one more button?" "I think this scene would be better if you didn't wear a bra." Have you had to do that? Awkward? Changed over the years?

Andrew said...

Thanks, Johnny. Yeah, that's like seeing the man behind the curtain. Kind of disappointing.

Andy Rose said...

Thanks to Mr. Peters for contributing a great story!

To elaborate on Andrew's question, ethical rules on certain things in the news business were more relaxed way back when. The "Person to Person" celebrity interviews were scripted top to bottom, and that was hosted by Edward R. Murrow! As predictable as he can be, even Sean Hannity couldn't get away with an interview that followed a literal script today.

It was once common for film companies to provide canned a "celebrity interview" with a star to some local stations in order to promote a movie. The actor would "answer" a series of predetermined questions. The film of those answers, along with the script, would be shipped to the station, and a local reporter would "ask" the questions on the script. The station would splice it all together to give the semblance of a real interview. (The film companies didn't pay for the time; stations just thought it looked impressive that a Big Star would supposedly talk to their reporter.) TV stations don't do those anymore in real newscasts. The increasingly popular midday infomercial shows are another matter, as is morning radio.

Scott O. said...

Putnam used to have s show on after the news called "Talk Back" where members of a studio audience could ask the newscasters questions -- which consisted at the time of Putnam, Larry McCormick and Hal Fishman.

One question one night was directed at Putnam, who was asked did he know that the character of Ted Baxter was based on him. Putnam said he didn't know that, and obviously never having seen the show, because he said that "copying was the sincerest form of flattery".

The look on McCormick and Fishman's faces was priceless.

Astroboy said...

Also, in reference to pre-recorded/spliced together interviews, I remember decades ago record companies used to send out vinyl "Interview' records of musicians and bands. The records consisted of recorded answers to questions with unrecorded gaps for the DJ to ask the question they would read from an accompanied script while the record played. Made it seem like the local station and their DJs had access to all the big stars! You can occasionally find some of these for sale on Ebay. As a matter of fact right now on Ebay there's a 45RPM interview record of Exotica/Lounge master Martin Denny for sale!

Johnny Walker said...

There's actually one of these interviews on the DR STRANGELOVE DVD. You see Peter Sellers do his half of a telephone interview, designed in such a way that stations could put their man on the other half. I bet it's on YouTube. It's been years since I watched it, but I seem to recall that unfortunately they didn't include the list of questions he was answering, so it's hard to enjoy outside of being a curiosity.

Pat Reeder said...

The one-sided radio interview record, where the local DJ reads the questions off a script and inserts them between the celebrity's answers, was once a staple of PR. Many DJs had fun creating their own irreverent questions that gave the canned answers hilariously salacious new meanings. That was one of Johnny Carson's favorite early bits.

I don't know any of the local news anchors in this story, but it's always fun to hear the behind-the-scenes stories. I recently interviewed the lovely and gracious June Wilkinson for the upcoming update of my "Hollywood Hi-Fi" book. She co-starred in the political melodrama "The Candidate" with a pre-MTM Ted Knight, and she told me a very funny story about the filming of a nude scene between her and Ted that only appeared in the European version, which has seemingly been lost. I won't relate it here because I want to sell copies of my book to the vast target audience who like to listen to the Ted Baxter Sings album, "Hi, Guys!," while imagining him naked.

PS to Dhruv: My wife is a retro jazz singer, and she performed a couple of years ago in India. We stayed in Bangalore with our friend Ricky Kej, a Grammy-winning New Age artist, then toured the beach resorts in Goa. We loved our stay there, and even though we're not over-the-hill Hollywood celebrities, the people were incredibly nice to us. We dream of being able to come back to India again. Consider this for a tourism slogan: "India: It's not just for Spielbergs anymore!"

Michael from Vancouver said...

This is what I love about your blog, Ken. Every once in a while you have a real gem of a "behind the scenes" story that not even a good investigative reporter can get. I've been following your blog since about 2009 and so many of your stories make nice connections to past and present, playing with nostalgic memories in a way that doesn't make me feel old. Your Jewel of the Nile post yesterday, though, was heartbreaking. What I can say is that even when you share some not-so-happy posts, you humanize the Hollywood backlot that gave us so many of our memories, and for that your blog is valuable. Thanks for sharing all you do.

Andrew said...

Fascinating comments about the spliced interviews. Thanks, y'all.
It reminds me of Catcher in the Rye, with Holden realizing everything about the adult world is phony.
>Sigh< I've been conned my whole life.

Dhruv said...

Ha. Ha. Ha. Thank You Mr. Pat Reeder for the nice catchy slogan.

Nice to hear you liked India.

Hope your wife gets an opportunity again to perform here.

Apart from Jeffrey Archer no one else has understood the enormous market here. Already an established author, he used social media-print-TV interviews-ads to promote his books. The result: when he arrives here every year, thousands queue up to listen to him speak at book stores and for autographs – it’s a like rock concert, papers describe it as. The books fly off the shelf – literally. He is good speaker, connects instantly with the crowd, not patronizing or condescending. Just speaks as an equal. Cool way to make millions.

I hope Mr. Levine or his readers (who I gather from comments, are writers and from entertainment field) come to India too.


Regarding Spielberg:

Just was pointing out to hero-celebrity worship by Indian media and some people.

In fact, I am eagerly waiting for Mr. Levine to start reviewing the awards and its related circus this season.

Because I wanted to give updates from India to him and all his readers; how Indian media and its public reacts to each and every awards show.


Andy Rose said...

@Johnny Walker: Here's the Strangelove interview you mention. It's funny to see them "on the phone" with the fake interviewier using the prop phones from the War Room.

I think there used to be a similar set of interviews posted for Young Frankenstein, but I haven't been able to find it again.

Stuart Best said...

I'm pretty sure what he means is, Arlen Peters was conducting the interviews on screen. The host did an introduction and an outro, and the script was prepared for that. But the viewers saw Arlen doing the interviews. The anchor/host had some creative control because it was his brand on the show. Someone can correct me if I'm wrong.