Mr. Cooke? Mr. Alistair Cooke?” The doorman fairly bursts with pride. It isn’t everyone, after all, who stands guard on a national institution. Ever since he hosted the widely acclaimed Omnibus series some 25 years ago, Cooke has been a television fixture. In 1972, his personal Cooke’s Tour, the 13-part America series, won plaudits from critics and public alike. Since 1971 he has presided over the Public Broadcasting System’s Masterpiece Theatre, and for Cooke fans his urbanely informative introductions are as prized as the dramatic fare that follows. Currently the fare (PBS, 9 p.m. Sundays) is Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, to be followed Oct. 22 with a 15week run of The Duchess of Duke Street.
But Alfred Alistair Cooke’s imprint
on the North American psyche goes beyond television sophisticates. On every five-year-old’s favorite program, Sesame Street, there is a well-spoken Muppet with a cultivated British accent, a Mr. Alistair Cookie, who introduces a segment called Monsterpiece Theatre.
Cooke himself, 70 next month, is no high-handed culture freak. “I never want to talk down, nor do I want to talk up,” he says. “I remember on Omnibus, if I said ‘John Milton,’ the director would suggest, ‘Don’t you want to make
that the 17th-century English poet John Milton?’ But I think that kind of spoonfeeding defeats its purpose.” Cooke has his own standards for performance as well as content. “You know, these broadcasters—they’re always told to project, project. None of them sounds really natural, except David Brinkley. Television may be a mass medium, but it’s also very intimate. I always think of myself as talking to two people in a living room.”
The intimacy Cooke achieves results from his insistence on writing and researching his own material: “I have a flypaper memory for dates,” he notes proudly. He scoffs at the battalions of scriptwriters, production assistants, and technical analysts who are the backbone of so many television productions: “Why, we made the whole America series with five people.” He also scorns the use of the ubiquitous TelePrompTer. “I remember when the producer of America heard I didn’t use TelePrompTers. He thought it was just vanity—showing off, I suppose. He didn’t say anything at first but when he got back to England he called: ‘How about contact lenses?’ so I sent a cable back: ‘How about a seeing eye dog?’ The
subject was never brought up again.”
For his Masterpiece Theatre introductions, Cooke views six or seven episodes at a sitting and then writes his scripts, but he doesn’t memorize them. He gives them a quick look at the studio and then “I just go out there and ad lib. I love to talk. And I know I’m good at it. It’s the first 30 seconds that count. If you bring people in then, you seldom lose them.” With his elegant profile and his well-bred mannerisms (the hands thoughtfully poised at mid-chest, fingertips touching, as he searches for the mot juste)—tick for tock Cooke’s first 30 seconds are always the classiest in television. Oh, Britain still has a few classy institutions left (the Henley Royal Regatta, Wimbledon, the opening of Parliament), but the U.S. has Alistair Cooke.
As a matter of fact, the U.S. has had the English-born Cooke since 1941 when he became a naturalized citizen, an event which caused little attention until the early ’50s when the British ambassador invited him to Washington to inform him that the Queen wished to confer a knighthood on him. When told that Cooke was now an American, the ambassador’s wife rejoined: “American citizen? Why did you want to do that?”
For Cooke, who has lived in the U.S. permanently since 1938, it’s always been an easy question to answer. More than pure logic was at work—he had an instinctive affinity for Americans and he was convinced he could interpret American antics to an incredulous British public. “The British have always had an obsession with what the U.S. is all about,” he says. His ability to satisfy that obsession has been amply demonstrated in his famous BBC radio program Letter from America, now broadcast in over 100 countries, and his perceptive reporting in The Guardian.
Today, as he relaxes in the red-walled study of his Manhattan apartment, it is obvious that America has treated the Manchester preacher’s son as well as he has treated it. “Oh, I’m comfortable,” he says, “I can afford my brand of liquor, that sort of thing.” Bookshelves full of U.S. history line the walls; Cooke’s personal obsession is indicated by his collection of 200 golf books and pictures of him at the U.S. Open, interspersed with snapshots of his wife and grandchildren. He bandies about names like Nicklaus and Palmer with ease and improves his own duffer’s game at his weekend Long Island retreat. Showing a film he recently completed on golf, Cooke laughs with uncharacteristic boyish delight, pointing out the subtleties of the game with all the eagerness of a 12-year-old analysing Star Wars. When shots of him golfing with the late Bing Crosby flash on the screen, he collapses in total rapture. With a wide grin, he pronounces what he obviously considers the final words, not only on golf but all human existence: “You know, Stephen Potter once said most people think golf is a microcosm of life, whereas the truth is that life is golf in miniature.”
Cooke’s celebrity eats into his time on the putting green. Just answering the mail is a Herculean task. He gets as many as 400 letters a week, requests to lecture, appear at conferences, receive honorary degrees and attend countless luncheons, dinners and cocktail parties. Nearly all are declined. Yet there is one invitation, if offered, that Cooke would be only too delighted to accept: he is an avid watcher of The Muppet Show whose guest stars have included a varied bag of notables from Elton John to Rudolf Nureyev.
“The Muppets are marvelous,” says Cooke, looking as if he has just sunk a 50-foot putt. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be on that show?” Kermit the Frog, are you listening?
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