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.”
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.