The "Mary Tyler Moore" show premiered on CBS in September 1970, and the headlining character turned the world on with her smile for seven years. While this show about fictional television station WJM became one of TV’s classic sitcoms, not many people realize that one of its central characters was based on a couple of real-life news personalities.
The character of local celebrity anchorman Ted Baxter, played by Ted Knight, was in fact a comedic amalgam of two Los Angeles news superstars — George Putnam and Jerry Dunphy.
Putnam was the legendary broadcaster who pioneered political commentary and audience input in newscasts. He covered every presidency since Herbert Hoover’s and was reading the news for NBC as early as 1939.
His L.A. competitor, Dunphy, was also a widely recognized TV news anchor for 40 years. He interviewed four presidents and survived a gunshot wound, two heart attacks, and triple bypass surgery. He passed away at the age of 80.
Together, with their looks, style, and affable presence, Putnam and Dunphy provided the inspiration for the Baxter character.
The two anchors had an uncanny resemblance to each other. And, of course, to Ted Baxter. Both became nationally known newsmen, but what’s even more interesting is that they crossed over into pop-culture stardom, appearing in television and feature films. Putnam was in a number of films, one of the first being "Fourteen Hours," which launched Grace Kelly’s pre-royal career. Dunphy, meanwhile, appeared in movies like "Beverly Hills Cop III" and "Hard to Kill."
Putnam appeared in a dozen films, the most recent being the 1996 blockbuster "Independence Day." I spoke with Putnam about his career and about moving back and forth between the worlds of news and entertainment.
Twelve feature films go a long way toward making the face of a news anchor recognizable. When I asked him how he first entered the film business, he replied, “I was, perhaps, much more Mr. Show Biz than [other journalists]. I was fairly attractive, fairly young, and the Hollywood scene adopted me.”
But he never forgot his broadcasting roots. Putnam would always portray either a journalist or a reporter, and he explained, “I always demanded that I use my own name.” Even when Arnold Schwarzenegger asked him to “use some other name” he said no.
Putnam worked with so many of the greats like Robert Mitchum and Grace Kelly, folks who were considered to be icons in the Golden Age of Hollywood. I asked Putnam, “How would you compare the celebrities in Tinseltown today with the stars of yesterday?” His answer came swiftly. “Couldn’t carry their pencils,” Putnam declared.
“What is the difference?” I probed. “Oh! Stardom was stardom,” he explained. “They weren’t washing and putting their laundry out in the back line. They lived as stars. It was, of course, the studios. The studios made and built and maintained stars. They told you who to be seen with, who to eat with, who to dine with, which car to drive. They ran your life.”
As part of the process of controlling their stars, the studios muzzled actors. When I asked if it were true that celebrities back then weren’t as politically outspoken as they are today, Putnam agreed. “It was unheard of for a star,” he said. “Can you imagine a Clark Gable taking a stand on politics?”
As a journalist, Putnam was in a very special category of one. No other broadcaster had the length, breadth, and depth of experience that he did.
He remembered reading the news for NBC in New York in 1939 for media pioneer and then-president of NBC David Sarnoff. Over the years he worked as a newsman, reporter, and commentator for most of the major broadcasting organizations in the United States, including NBC, ABC, Mutual, Dumont, and Metromedia.
He even had the chance to personally meet Presidents Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan.
For those who want to follow in the George’s footsteps, he revealed the secrets to becoming a great newsman. “Insatiable curiosity. Objectivity, of course. Perseverance. And then, most of all, integrity.”
George told me about the values that carried him through the ups and downs of his career walk. “Work ethic,” he said, repeating it for emphasis. “Learning as a little kid. I worked for a dollar a day on the farms of Minnesota with my own grandfather. I was 4 or 5 years old.” More than 85 years later, the man was still working.
I asked him, “Will you ever retire?” He replied philosophically, “I could, but what’s the alternative? I’d say from what and to what?”
Not only did George not stop working, in all those years he never even took a vacation. Why not? The answer was contained in the Putnam attitude. When I asked him, of all the work experiences he’d had, which was the most satisfying, he responded, “Tomorrow.”
I spoke with George two days before he passed away. Still had the voice, the sparkle, the strength of spirit.
Walk beside the still waters, my friend, to a million tomorrows.
Partially excerpted from the book, "Hollywood Nation" and an interview conducted with George Putnam by James Hirsen.
James Hirsen is a media analyst, Trinity Law School professor, and teacher of mass media and entertainment law at Biola University.
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