Russell Baker, 93, Masterpiece Theater host

From WGBH

The WGBH community notes with sadness the passing of Russell Baker, former host of WGBH’s MASTERPIECE (1993-2004; then MASTERPIECE THEATRE). Baker died on Mon, 1/21 following complications from a fall. He was 93 years old.

A two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who had a long-running column in The New York Times, Baker succeeded MASTERPIECE host Alistair Cooke, noting, “In America, if you’re not on television, you’re not an American. I’m a huge fan of MASTERPIECE THEATRE, and I thought this was the most honorable way to satisfy that lust to be on TV.”

“Russell always said he wanted to be the guy who followed the guy who followed Alistair Cooke as MASTERPIECE host,” recalls MASTERPIECE Exec Producer Rebecca Eaton. “He filled those shoes beautifully with his own all-American, literate, and deceptively plain-spoken style. We loved him.”

From The New York Times

Russell Baker, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author whose whimsical, irreverent “Observer” column appeared in The New York Times and hundreds of other newspapers for 36 years and turned a backwoods-born Virginian into one of America’s most celebrated writers, died on Monday at his home in Leesburg, Va. He was 93.

The cause was complications of a fall, his son Allen said.

Mr. Baker, along with the syndicated columnist Art Buchwald (who died in 2007), was one of the best-known newspaper humorists of his time, and The Washington Post ranked his best-selling autobiography, “Growing Up,” with the most enduring recollections of American boyhood — those of James Thurber, H. L. Mencken, and Mark Twain….

Starting in 1962, he became a columnist for The Times and its news service, eventually composing nearly 5,000 “Observer” commentaries — 3.7 million insightful words on the news of the day — often laced with invented characters and dialogue, on an array of subjects including dreaded Christmas fruitcake and women’s shoulder pads. The columns, which generated a devoted following, critical acclaim and the 1979 Pulitzer for distinguished commentary, ended with his retirement in 1998.

To a generation of television watchers, he was also a familiar face as the host of “Masterpiece Theater” on PBS from 1993 to 2004, having succeeded Alistair Cooke….

As the host of “Masterpiece Theater,” Mr. Baker once did a riff on snooty British clubs and recalled that Art Buchwald had invited him to join a club he was starting, the American Academy of Humor Columnists.

“What’s the purpose?” Mr. Baker asked.

“To keep other people out,” his colleague replied.

2 thoughts on “Russell Baker, 93, Masterpiece Theater host

  1. Russell Baker

    We loved that man, on top of worshipping his cool, insightful, hilarious Times column. Newspaper guys didn’t say this sort of thing, but Russ Baker made your heart flutter. Lunch or even a few words with the great Baker in the office felt like prom night. He was so handsome, in his Jimmy Stewart way; such a kind, wise, good man. At the top of his profession, he savored James Reston’s line that a man’s career was not to be confused with his life. “Your job is a means to your private life,” as Reston once put it to me. Russ Baker’s life was exemplary. His first reader and editor was always Mimi, his stunning wife and soulmate. His daughter and two sons were and are characters, blessed and funny originals. Russ’s friendship was a treasure, often just a few words. He would pause at my desk as I sweated and groaned on deadline. “Chris,” he would say, “just tell them what happened.” Thank you, Russ, then and now. My wife Cindy came to adore the man exactly as I did, and we amended our vows to allow that if she ran away with Russell Baker, I would understand. I happen to know that the press box gods in those decades – David Halberstam, Anthony Lukas, Neil Sheehan, Scotty Reston himself, Tom Wicker, Ned Kenworthy, Hendrik Hertzberg and, yes, I. F. Stone – felt crushes like mine and Cindy’s: pangs of blushing elevation, excitement, something like redemption around this guy. Reston knew that the key stroke in assembling his immortal Times Washington Bureau of the 50s and 60s was hiring the lean country kid from the Baltimore Sun to cover Lyndon Johnson’s Senate. Tony Lewis in his Cambridge kitchen had a poster-size blow up of Russ Baker’s takeoff on Craig Claiborne’s $4000 expense account meal, on Times duty in Paris. Baker’s home-cooked version, “a Lucullan repast for one,” was beans in bacon grease, eaten out of the pan, with a shot of room-temperature gin. “I had a Gilbeys, 1975, which was superb,” he noted.

    Years later, Russell Baker credited me with nominating him to succeed Alistair Cooke as host of Masterpiece Theater on PBS. I had suggested him to WGBH’s Rebecca Eaton, though in fact I’d also proposed John Updike, and Claire Bloom as well, thinking before they split that Philip Roth might write her copy. Uncannily, Rebecca reported that Baker and Updike had both responded at first in nearly the same words, to the effect: “I don’t think my mother would approve my doing television.” Baker got the nod, in any event, apologizing at first, in Baker style, because “my hands and elbows instinctively start flailing and clawing the air as if an alarming case of St. Vitus Dance is taking place right in front of the camera.” But then he thanked me for “one of the best jobs a bookish old guy could have.” It was the least I could do, dear Russ, for the man who embodied our newspaper dream.

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