ROSS McLEAN the TV star you never see
If you've ever applauded or deplored a TV show called Tabloid, marveled or moaned over one called Close-Up, or cheered or jeered the demise of one called Long Shot you’re among the thousands of fervent fans and caustic critics of
IN THE SEVEN personality - spattered years of Canadian television, no personality has provoked more headlines, created more stars, stirred more anger, drawn more plaudits or launched more widely quoted epigrams than a tall, bespectacled, blue-jawed, aloof thirty-four-year-old who’s appeared on the screen fewer than a dozen times. He is Evan Ross McLean, a producer in the CBC’s usually good and usually gray Public Affairs department at Toronto.
With CBC-TV since its embryonic days, he has created and produced:
MACLEAN S Canada's National Magazine
Stopwatch and Listen, which may well have been the most catastrophic flop in CBC history and which left the air in a flurry of bad taste;
Tabloid, which became as regular a habit as the evening meal in thousands of homes from Montreal to the Lakehead, was once roasted in parliament and once got McLean suspended from his job;
Living, which stole quietly off the air when its hostess left Canada;
Close-Up, which won a University ol Ohio award — an Oscar of television — and is widely recognized as the most accomplished show of its kind, and
Long Shot, which, months after its demise, is still a subject for argument.
He has helped to television fame, often by feeding them words to say on the air, such personalities as Elaine Grand. Joyce Davidson, Percy Saltzman, Gil Christy, Frank Willis. Olga Kwasniak and the late Dick MacDougal. He has introduced to network television a host of others, including Pierre Berton, Charles Templeton. Max Ferguson (radio’s Rawhide), Peter Whittall and Ed McCurdy. But many people
For an unusual view of the Ross McLean stars you see, turn the page
The TV star
you never see
feel he’s the star of all his shows. McLean is at least as isolated as “stars” are supposed to be. A bachelor, he has no close men friends — largely because of a shield of selfsufficiency, an often-devastating wit and an utter disregard for the clubby clichés of small talk. Yet he’s given to gestures of touching generosity; his staff members are often surprised by birthday or Christmas gifts. And his shows are frequently marked by a warmly human touch. Though he’s dated most of the beautiful unattached girls at the CBC at least once, he is sometimes so unsure of himself that he’s been known to plot beforehand what subjects he'll discuss. His closest friend and perhaps only real confidante is Joyce Davidson, the striking blonde who decorates both Tabloid and Close-Up. Mrs. Davidson, who is divorced, denies there’s any Trilby-Svengali relationship, although after she had made some controversial remarks on a U. S. network before the royal visit last summer, McLean carefully told
her what to say and what not to say in the ensuing brouhaha. Even she doesn’t profess to understand him completely.
McLean has been called arrogant by newspapers, cocky by a union official and an autocrat by associates. But other newspapers have called him brilliant, the same union official has said he doesn’t resent him and most of his associates plainly think he’s a genius. Even among the newspaper columnists whose almost weekly practice it has been to blast him. one has written “Criticism of Ross McLean has usually been founded on the fact that he and his standards are big enough to take it,” and another has said flatly that McLean has contributed more to CBC-TV than any other individual.
His chief contribution has been to act as a bridge between two widely separate facets of the CBC’s corporate personality: on one side the flamboyant, brassy dispenser
of entertainment, a sort of civil-service song-and-dance man; on the other the tweedy, pipe-smoking brahmin of information. McLean has brought the flair of show-biz to the often-dull realm of televised talks and public affairs.
In his eighteen-year broadcasting career, which began when he was a Brantford, Ont., schoolboy, the effect of that flair has seldom been more evident than on Close-Up, the half(or occasionally full-) hour video magazine that is watched by a million or more Canadians every week.
To many of them, judging by Close-Up’s mail, the program is in the charge of J. Frank Willis, whose stronghewn features appear on their screens while his authoritative voice introduces such widely varied subjects as Bertrand Russell, Jack Benny, Egypt and the plastic-bag menace. In fact, virtually every word Willis speaks on the show is written by McLean. Before a recent program Willis picked up his script, an hour from air time, and smiled
at McLean: “You’re running off at my mouth again.” The McLean-written words are assembled in spurts of a lively, staccato, often "punny style that (some critics charge) sounds exactly like Time magazine. Stories “leap” from the nation’s front pages and “zoom” onto Close-Up. Jayne Mansfield becomes a Hollywood “contour-de-force.” The nation’s newspapers, Close-Up announces, have been keeping their readers “abreast of Brigitte Bardot.” McLeanwritten conversation almost never sounds like conversation.
“No one,” insists Pierre Berton, a regular Close-Up interviewer, “really talks like that — except Ross McLean.” McLean does. He speaks in carefully turned phrases, apparently editing as he goes. His conversation sounds punctuated, with colons, commas, quotation marks and, between almost every pair of phrases, three dots. It’s spangled with epigrams of the Oscar Wilde school and puns of a school that’s even wilder. So CONTINUED ON PAGE 40
ning, McLean met Jim Guthro, producer of Come Fly, in a restaurant.
“I see you’re plugging my shows,” said Guthro.
“I had to plug that one .. ., ” McLean replied, ”... it had so many holes in it.”
On other occasions he has referred to a CBC department head as "the bind that ties,” and to another executive as "so unpopular even 7-Up dislikes him.” He has announced of a playwright famous for adapting old material to new media: “He's written a new title.”
Though he’s known as a great booster of the CBC he has from time to time turned his wit upon the corporation. "The CBC has many enemies,” he once said. “Among them, itself.” And when a Maclean’s article asked private citizens how they’d run the CBC if they had a chance. McLean wondered why the magazine didn’t ask CBC management how they'd run the CBC if they had a chance.
His wit does not always bite. He has announced for no apparent reason that he’s written a song called Our Love Is Here To Stray or invented a new industry: making earrings out of old Orphan Annie eyes.
Some of his most hackle-raising remarks, however, weren't designed to be funny at all. Just candid. As a guest on Front Page Challenge last February, he was asked to comment on the progress of Canadian television since 1952. While there’d been a lot, he admitted, the variety department hadn't kept up. “Their chief fault ... is that they present too many cardboard characters . . . People aren’t allowed to play themselves. Wally Koster and Joyce Sullivan are two of the most enjoyable people around the CBC. But . . . it’s a well-kept secret from the public. I’ve actually heard Jack Kane say three consecutive sentences without stumbling . . . and I've seen Juliette frown.”
His charges invoked an angry snarl from the variety producers. Among the most painful replies, to McLean, was one reminding him of his own experiences as a variety producer.
His first project for broadcast over CBLT, then Toronto’s virgin channel, was Stopwatch and Listen, the conversion of a radio variety-comedy program with which he’d won an award in Vancouver. It didn’t convert. Scorned by critics and public, it was resoundingly dropped after six editions. Making matters worse, some ad libs on the final show were somewhat off-color — an occurrence that could hardly be blamed on McLean; he seldom swears and has yet to be heard telling a dirty joke.
Many of Stopwatch’s stars were out of work for months afterward and one. a young comedian named Sammy Aaron, gave up showbusiness completely and became a successful lawyer. But the so-called “scarred veterans of Stopwatch and Listen” bear their producer no rancor. Alfie Scopp, who later found almost permanent employment on the Howdy Doody show, still speaks warmly of the program and McLean. "I’d gone out and got married on the strength of a steady job. My wedding evening we were on the air and Ross had to tell me it was the last show; I had a six-month honeymoon. He was really broken up and apologized to me.” Later. McLean and Scopp were introduced together at a party and McLean said, "You see before you two people who almost succeeded in making each other anonymous.”
When Stopwatch ran down, McLean had no shows to produce. For weeks he sat impatiently behind a desk or in the control room, trying dry runs.
In those days when, McLean recalls, “it took all our efforts to produce a test
of a well-barbed epigram. On Tabloid, the daily program whose breezy informality and astounding range of subjects earned McLean’s first acceptance as a producer, he often satirized other shows. One summer evening, the CBC unveiled a variety program called Come Fly With Me. It was not a hit.
Soon after, Tabloid opened with a spoof of the show. Old movies showed airplanes trying to get off the ground and crashing. Then the title song of Come Fly With Me faded into Let’s Take An Old-Fashioned Walk. That eve-
neatly engineered are some of his most famous remarks that he has been accused of scripting them in advance. McLean denies any preparation but does admit that some things he has said have appealed to him enough to write down — “for rebroadcast to the west.” Even during
his occasional tantrums of petulance — at a careless stagehand or a crippling intrusion of the CBC’s Accepted Procedure — his voice seldom loses its hesitant, prepared quality or its wit.
Many of the hard or hurt feelings he has caused have been unintended results
pattern.” CBLT wanted to dress up its newscasts. After two other producers turned down the job. McLean was asked to visit the U. S. to scout the precedents. He came back with a rough outline of Tabloid, originally a news-andweather show with an interview or two thrown in.
Dick MacDougal. a portly radio journeyman who'd just lost a record - company job. was signed as permanent host. Percy Saltzman. a government meteorologist whom McLean had introduced to radio a few years before, talked weather. Gil Christy, a staff announcer, read the news. Soon Elaine Grand, a fashion illuspator whom McLean had been boosting far months as a potential performer — "she was a wonderful hostess at home" — was sharing the interview's with MacDougal.
For six years under McLean’s hand — until he began to devote full time to Close-Up last year—Tabloid interviewed prime ministers and postmen, bankers and dancing girls, chimpanzees and poets, artists, actors, milkmen, tramps, students, wrestlers, its own staff and occasionally no one. It has been broadcast for different periods on nearly every station in Ontario and. two in Quebec and it has originated from Ottawa, Montreal, a swimming pool, a hockey rink. Eaton s window a Vid the CBC’s back parking lot. Tabloid made its regular performers — and is still, under McLean's successor, Ted Pope, making others — into household personalities in thousands of eastern Canadian homes.
It also plunged Ross McLean into some deep pools, of hot water.
One frequent feature on Tabloid was the reading of viewers' letters. Most w'ere favorable. Then in January 1956 an E. E. Robbins of Montreal wrote to criticize the show, among other things accusing MacDougal of making faces. MacDougal read the letter on the air. Then, reading from a McLean script, he said: When
we've quoted from similar letters in the past some of you have written to us to cheer us up. That's been kind of you but this time perhaps the person you should really cheer up is Mr. Robbins himself. And here's where you can reach him." A camera showed Robbins' address.
Almost immediately, Robbins' telephone began to ring. Unordered taxis arrived at the door. Someone sent two barbecued chickens. In the next few days his phone was kept so busy by irate Tabloid fans that he had to get an unlisted number. He was swamped by mail. And. most serious aspect of all. Robbins was a doctor, who needed his phone for professional calls. He sued the ( BC .
Two days after the program. McLean received a letter from Fergus Mutrie, director of television. Toronto. “Errors in your judgment and taste . . . have had the effect of undoing much of the good will which you have sought to build up in this program . . . You are to be suspended immediately from your assignment as producer of Tabloid for an undetermined period ..."
Many Tabloid fans rallied to McLean’s defense. But McLean was most touched by a public statement from Dick MacDougal. McLean, who respected MacDougal’s personality on the air, had not always been kind in his remarks. ("If he'd been any more phlegmatic on television he would have been a still picture.") But MacDougal endangered his own position with the CBC by calling the suspension "a disgrace.”
Shortly. McLean was reinstated. After lengthy litigation, a Quebec court awarded Dr. Robbins three thousand dollars for "moral damages.”
A year after the Robbins incident, Dick MacDougal died. McLean, working with a special committee, produced a memorial concert that raised ten thousand dollars for the MacDougal family.
McLean encouraged his four originals to talk about themselves. Fie celebrated birthdays and anniversaries on the air, brought performers' children and parents to the program. Sometimes this habit enraged viewers. When part of Tabloid was devoted to films of Gil Christy's wedding, Donald Fleming, then in opposition, rose in the House of Commons
to denounce the program as in bad taste.
McLean crossed swords, too, with ACRTA. the performers' union that deals with the CBC. His roving eye for an unusual picture led him once or twice to shoot a dozing stagehand. He regularly closed Tabloid with a long shot of his crew. ACR TA complained and demanded that if the program wanted technicians on camera it pay them extra or hire bit players. McLean, who says he hadn't heard of the complaint, used the closing shot again. ACRTA spokesman Neil LeRoy blasted McLean's "cocky manner"
and threatened to jerk union members off the show. The union won.
There have been numerous other skirmishes with ACRTA — mostly over putting people on the air without going through channels. But LcRoy said recently it was inevitable that the union clash more with McLean than with other producers, because of the type of show he does. "He's a creative man—coupling entertainment and information. He just won't go for petty annoyances and red tape. 1 don't blame him for the position he takes but he often talks as if he were
in charge of the whole corporation.”
McLean swings back at critics, sometimes by letter, sometimes on the air. Once on Close-Up he swiped at the “one critic who didn’t like our show” (at least four answered), and once from Long Shot he nipped at the "part-time” (they were summer alternates) critics of the Toronto evening papers. It’s a habit he picked up on Tabloid, a show the Toronto Star's William Drylie accused of “substituting pique for perspective.” McLean admits to having been occasionally “petulant.”
When Tabloid was an established success, McLean introduced another daily show. Living, a sort of Tabloid women's page, with Elaine Grand as hostess. But it never achieved Tabloid's freshness of personality and when Miss Grand went to live in England, Living left the CBC.
In the fall of '56, McLean was looking for new worlds to conquer. He was nibbling at an offer from Britain when he heard CBC president Davidson Dunton was interested in a "Life magazine of the air.” It soon became McLean’s magazine and Ross was sent to England to study some similar shows. Close-Up was introduced in late 1957.
McLean has described Close - Up as "Tabloid with a fattened budget and a furrowed brow,” and many of Tabloid’s personnel and techniques were employed on the new show.
Soon, no longer producing Tabloid, McLean was searching for a new vehicle for humor. He evolved Long Shot, a half hour of nonsense and personalities — some big names imported from the U.S.; some new Canadian faces — that was scheduled as last summer’s replacement for the panel show Fighting Words.
Many people at the CBC hoped the series would stay on all year. None more fervently than McLean. He took the unusual step of calling a meeting of advertising executives to try to sell the show, hoping a sponsorship would convince the CBC."
Critical reaction was mixed. Ron Poulton of the Toronto Telegram, a consistent opponent of McLean's humor even on Tabloid, called it "juvenile.” Nathan Cohen of the Toronto Star compared it favorably with Mad magazine — as did a few others. While few critics were always pro or always con all summer, the general line-up in Canadian papers and weeklies was: 13 for, 4 against. Mail ran about eight to live in favor—an unsatisfactory percentage in the eyes of the CBC brass. Long Shot was dropped.
McLean was stung. He'd written the dialogue and the satirical commercials, dreamed up gimmicks for guests and produced each episode. The program's humor was purely an extension of his own. He felt its cancellation as a personal affront. But no one ever charged that Long Shot didn't, like all McLean programs, crackle with new ideas. He gets many of them at night, when he sits poring over neat sheafs of notes or typing correspondence in his bachelor apartment in Toronto’s swanky Avenue Rd. - St. Clair area. All his notes are printed, a habit he's had since public school. Often he works on them till 3 or 4 a.m. He rises early enough to dress meticulously — — usually in a well-tailored dark suit and white shirt — and drive his black ’59 Thunderbird to the CBC's Jarvis St. catacombs by ten. In the canteen he picks up a sandwich or a date square and the first of a daily dozen cardboard containers of coffee. He strides stiffly, much like a six-foot-three mechanical toy, through the fourth-floor Close-Up office to his own sanctum, whose sole ornament is a life-size photo cutout of Peter Whittall,
in memory of McLean’s “cardboard character” remarks on Front Page Challenge.
Some days he puts in a few hours at the Star Weekly, where he has been working quite anonymously as a free-lance idea man, bringing his yearly earnings to an estimated twenty thousand dollars. But most of his time is spent in a series of running conferences with one or more of Close-Up's three story editors, co-producer, retinue of interviewers or the senior executives who form the program's advisory committee.
Almost all decisions are McLean's, though he has been overruled by the committee. A complete half-hour filmed program on morals in Sweden sits vetoed and unused in Close-Up’s library.
His phone jangles constantly, but many of the calls are intercepted by a script assistant. Unless there’s a business conference involved, he usually sends out for a hamburger lunch. Often, he works until 7.30, then calls for Joyce Davidson after Tabloid for a leisurely dinner, a movie or a jazz concert.
Thursdays, he's unavailable from midafternoon on. That's when he sits over his office typewriter, clacking out the Close-Up script for that night-
McLean is in the control room by 7.30, ninety minutes before air time. Introductions, continuity, sigfrt’ff, films and tapes arc timed to the second. A cut's made here; an addition there. McLean quips happily through the run-throughs. Guests to be shown “live” are told only the broad areas they'll be questioned on.
He's always “on”
McLean does not consider himself a good interviewer; he tends to match wits with his subject. “For him,” says Joyce Davidson, "even a party's a contest." He seldom appears on his own shows. And he gives few directions to his regulars. Charles Templeton, who left Close-Up this year to concentrate on a panel show, says McLean's ability to judge an interview’s quality is intuitive — rather than analytical. Some people who have worked with him have wished he'd say why he liked or didn't like their performance.
During the show itself, McLean is a study in concentration, barking out orders to cameras and cues to technicians, while a script girl with a stop watch keeps him in touch with the schedule.
McLean’s associates say his tendency to be strongly affected by a show's success or failure is mellowing — as arc. they say, many of the more abrasive parts of his personality. They date it from the beginning of his friendship with Joyce Davidson. After a recent program in which cues were missed, wrong films were shown and chaos reigned, the crew waited, cowed, for a tlood of epigrammatic vitriol. McLean smiled.
Though he almost always conducts i post mortem after the show, McLean seldom indulges in weighty analyses of broadcasting philosophy with his cohorts.
He has, in fact, described himself as a lowbrow — "though I hate the word.” He grew up in Brantford, Ont., an area not widely known as an intellectual hotbed, where his shoe-company-executivc father moved the family in 1927. when Ross was two. The only literary heritage he can recall is that his maternal grandmother, who also taught Mackenzie King in a one-room school, had once won third prize in a Bab-O jingle contest. But his talents showed early.
Brantford remembers him as Bud McLean, a gangly, literate, lonely, precocious boy who substituted for sports and partying an urge to write and to learn about showbusiness. At eleven he
launched a neighborhood newspaper that returned a profit. At twelve he was making regular pilgrimages to a local cigar store to snare the town’s only copy of the show-biz weekly, Variety.
In high school he was a perennial editor of class and school papers, wrote collegiate news for the Brantford Expositor and broadcast it for CKPC. While other hearties waged football, Bud McLean perched atop Mohawk Park’s rickety grandstand to send play-by-play epigrams over CKPC's 100-watt waves. At half time he filled in the color and interviewed teenage celebrities like June Callwood, another Expositor student - reporter. At school dances, McLean usually played the records.
Summers he worked for CKPC and became the most remarkable sixteen-yearold announcer-operator that station ever had. He invented a program called Community Cavalcade. It was the first installment of the interview-news-features program McLean says he's been producing ever since. "Bud would get the whole staff working on a show,” recalls a former operator. “And he’d do things Brantford had never heard of before.”
But McLean’s first love was newspapers and, when he failed one senior-matriculation paper, he signed on at the Expositor. "He had the biggest vocabulary of any man who ever worked here,” says one editor, “but he just couldn't write news.” And when McLean missed an assignment — a Baptist Young People’s convention — he was fifed. He tried the London Free Press.
Shortly, duty — or the draft — called. After, he says, trying to convince -the air force and the navy he could see and the army that he couldn’t, McLean was ordered to report to the Corps of Signals in Kingston. But aloof, literate Bud McLean and the Canadian army did not get along. In mid '44, after what he describes as the most miserable six months of his life, McLean and the army parted by mutual agreement.
He rejoined CKPC, whipped up a new show called Town Talk, then left to storm the journals, radio stations and University of Toronto. By his second year, he was editor of the university's yearbook, features editor of its daily paper, undergraduate editor of a graduate publication, president of his class and an occasional broadcaster on Jack Kent Cooke’s CKEY. One result: one missed year. Another: summer jobs at CKEY. There he bundled all the station’s publicservice spots into an hour called Focus on '48 and won an award and the title of public-service director. He also won, after graduation, a job at the CBC, which soon packed him off to Vancouver as regional talks producer.
McLean hit west-coast radio with the energy of a tornado. In three years he originated a score of new shows, including two award winners, Stopwatch and Listen and Radio Cartoons. He scoured the province for new talkers and pushed Vancouver shows onto the national network. He helped build Critically Speaking and produced several Wednesday Nights. With the onrushing advent of television, he was chosen, at twenty-six, as one of CBLT’s first three producers and was whisked oil to Toronto.
What's next? McLean doesn't know. A few men dickering for Private TV licenses are already sounding him out. McLean’s interested, but he’s immensely proud of Close-Up and would like to stay with the CBC. He’d like to write — "where you can sec your work twice.” And, perhaps to create just one more arguing point, he’d like to grow a beard. ★