A star is born

In his new memoirs, Pierre Berton describes how TV brought him fame—and fortune

September 11 1995

A star is born

In his new memoirs, Pierre Berton describes how TV brought him fame—and fortune

September 11 1995

A star is born

In his new memoirs, Pierre Berton describes how TV brought him fame—and fortune


In 1947, a whirlwind swept into the Toronto editorial office of Maclean’s magazine in the form of Pierre Berton, a brash 27-year-old native of the Yukon who had made his name as a reporter for The Vancouver Sun. A large, boisterous man, endlessly energetic and enthusiastic, Berton raised hackles among some of his more reticent colleagues, but inspired them as well in ways that made it clear he was destined for greater things. As he established himself as an exceptionally talented magazine writer and editor, he also began to dabble in the media that would make him a household name in Canada—books and television. Berton produced his first book, The Royal Family, in 1954, launching a writing career that has so far produced 40 titles. In 1957, he turned to TV, appearing in the CBC’s two most popular shows, Close-Up, a public affairs program that ran on Sunday evenings for six years, and Front Page Challenge, which ceased production only this year.

In My Times, the newly published second volume of his memoirs, Berton recounts how television changed his life:

By the spring of 1958 I was well launched as a homegrown celebrity, subject to the fierce light now thrown on those of u captured by the new medium.

Were doing a roundup of what celebrities eat for breakfast, Mr Berton; could you spare a few minutes?

Were doing a piece about what celebrities want for Christmas. Can you help us out?

We’re doing a survey for the Saturday page about what celebrities read, Can you tell us the last book you bought?

It was a remarkable transformation. In the summer of 1957, in spite of a hundred articles for Maclean’s, in spite of my regular appearances on CBC Radio’s Court of Opinion, in spite of an award-winning book, in spite of sporadic appearances on television, I was not instantly recognized by the general public. One year later, I was a name in bold face in newspaper columns, the subject of searching magazine articles (many feeding on one another), and a perceived source of opinion on any human problem (what’s your view on capital punishment? . . . euthanasia? . . . immigration?... violence on TV?... etc., etc., etc.), invited to judge beauty contests, to appear on learned panels, to endorse other people’s

Reprinted with permission from My Times: Living with History, 1947-1995, copyright Pierre Berton, published by Doubleday Canada Ltd., Toronto.

books, to act as an honorary member of the honorary executive for a dozen honorary causes. Strangers on the street wrung my hand, sometimes mistaking me for some• one they knew. Soon I had to stop riding the Toronto subway because there was too much comment, some of it derogatory. “What are you doing on the subway?” one man asked me accusingly, as if I had invaded his washroom. On the other hand, I did not have to wait for a table at a fancy restaurant or a room at a hotel.

For a journalist, there are advantages to being wellknown. People returned my phone calls. I no longer needed to explain who I was. Big wheels who would once have given me the cold shoulder now wanted to be interviewed. However, I was soon forced to choose between continuing as managing editor of Canada’s national magazine or pursuing a second career in broadcasting.

It began when Maclean’s associate editor Sidney Katz insisted on sending a memo to Floyd Chalmers, the president of Maclean Hunter, explaining that he was thinking of going into commercial television and asldng what the rules were for such a move by a company employee.

Rules? What rules? There weren’t any. No one had thought about rules, and I tried to explain to Sid that when there are no rules you don’t rock the boat by asking for them. A good many Maclean Hunter employees were appearing on various CBC public affairs programs. They hadn’t asked for rules. Sid had no specific program in mind and, in fact, never did appear on commercial TV. But he was adamant.

I’m sure that my own high profile on the CBC’s two most popular programs was a factor. I seemed to be popping up on the tube almost as if I lived at the CBC headquarters on Jarvis Street. I had been scrupulous in keeping my TV chores from interfering with my work for Maclean’s. Close-Up was produced on the weekend. I studied my research on Saturday, turned up at the studio early Sunday evening, and was home by 10. Front Page Challenge was produced live on Monday nights after the dinner hour. It took no more than two hours of my time.

There were meetings at the executive level as a result of Sid’s memo. Finally the company issued a new set of rules. No employee could appear on any television program without being identified with the magazine for which he or she worked. And no employee could appear on any commercial program unless the sponsor also advertised in the magazine z for which he or she worked. §

There was only one member of the great Maclean 5 Hunter family who was affected by these rules. I was always clearly identified as managing editor of

Maclean’s on two of my three programs: Court of Opinion and Front Page Challenge. Ross McLean, my producer on Close-Up, did not want to plug Maclean’s on a third program, and I felt that two out of three wasn’t bad. But rules were rules, and these had to be inflexible. I think Chalmers expected me to knuckle under and remain exclusively with the company. Two or three months earlier, Beland Honderich, editor of The Toronto Star, had made an attractive approach to me about a job, but I told him I was content where I was. I would have been happy to stay on as managing editor forever, but now I had no intention of bowing to Chalmers’s dictum. The company had a good piece of me, but it didn’t own me 24 hours a day.

And so, early in August, 1958, with my wife, Janet, already in labor with the baby who proved to be Paul, our fifth child, I walked into the office of Ralph Allen, the editor of Maclean’s, and told him I was quitting. After the baby was born, I went over to Wellesley Hospital and broke the news to Janet.

Some time later, when I turned up at Studio Four, the old Pierce-Arrow showroom on Yonge Street that was Front Page Challenges television home, I was astonished to find Sid Katz in the makeup room.

“What’re you doing here?” I asked.

“I’m a guest panelist,” he told me.

I was flabbergasted. “What about the rules?” I asked him. “Lever Brothers [the program’s sponsor] doesn’t advertise in Maclean’s.”

“Oh, those rules,” said Sidney. “They changed those rules some time ago.”

Berton went to the Star, where he produced a daily column while continuing his TV career and writing books.

The hard fact is that a Canadian journalist, if he is to support a growing family and an expanding house, must use every talent he has. A best-selling author south of the border, or a big-time columnist, or a radio star, or a television panelist could do only that one thing and still make a fortune. In Canada, it is necessary to have several strings in one’s bow.

I was no longer poor, but I had six growing children. We needed more bedrooms, more bathrooms, more of everything. I needed a place to write at home, and all this meant more expensive addi-

tions. There was more to it than that, of course. As a child of the Great Depression, I worried about the bottom line. What if I died? Would there be enough for Janet? What if I fell sick and couldn’t work; how would we live? Anyone raised in the Thirties will understand this preoccupation with financial security.

As Janet was recycling the kitchen vegetable garbage into a compost pile, so I was recycling my own work—putting collections of columns between hard covers and hoping to benefit from what would soon become known in television circles as “spinoffs.”

Someone once said that I had taken more gold out of the Klondike than any prospector. There was some truth in that. One work, Klondike [his 1958 history of the Gold Rush stampede of the late 1890s], had produced a series of spinoffs ranging from magazine articles to films. I was being called the Great Recycler, and I could not quarrel with the epithet.

In 1961 I proposed to recycle more material into a five-minute television broadcast. I paid for the pilot, titled, like my column, By Pierre Berton, and peddled it around until it caught the eye of Steve Krantz, then the top honcho in Canada for Screen Gems, a subsidiary of Columbia Pictures. It didn’t occur to me to get any money up front. I was to be co-producer and would receive a slice of the net profits. Steve Krantz, whose wife,

Judith, wrote pieces for Maclean’s and would later become a best-selling novelist, sold the idea to several TV stations. The show was mildly successful and ran daily g for about 16 weeks. It was not terribly controversial, although when I suggested that Prince Charles marry a black African to prove that the Commonwealth meant something, there was a reaction. In Vancouver, that hotbed of royalists, one local columnist declared: “There are a lot of people in town who are lynch mad at Pierre Berton.”

The program clearly made a profit for Screen Gems, but not for me. Profits? There weren’t any because of the Hollywood system of creative bookkeeping. When I approached Steve Krantz about this, he simply shrugged and said: “Well, you wanted to own the show.” My ego had got the better of my business sense. I had learned a valuable, if expensive, lesson. When dealing with film-makers, never take a percentage of the net. There never is any net.

No matter. My connection with Screen Gems led to a new career. The company was interested enough in the five-minute spots to think of me in broader terms. Screen Gems agreed that I should do a late-

night talk-and-interview show along the lines that Jack Paar was pioneering in the United States. Herb Sussan, an old pro who had been responsible for NBC’s Wide World of Sport, was brought in as executive producer. CFTO, the local CTV outlet, bought the concept. The program was to be one hour in length at 11:30 p.m., five nights a week, and would be launched in the fall. I balked, however, when my producer, Ross McLean, tried to give the program one of those bloodless names—Tabloid, Close-Up, Telescope, Graphic—that were so dehumanizing. To the CBC, television hosts were faceless and interchangeable; if one doesn’t work, get another. As a result, the programs themselves tended to be devoid of personality. There was tremendous resistance, not only on Ross’s part, but also from the

The Hollywood hustle

In Los Angeles to cover the 1960 Democratic convention that nominated John Kennedy as its presidential candidate, Berton decided to look into a business interest of his. He visited the Hollywood set where his 1958 book, Klondike, about the home of the Yukon Gold Rush of the late 1890s, was being turned into a TV series.

I had been hired and paid as a consultant and thought I had better earn my pay, even if no one seemed to want to consult me. I was received with open arms by the production group—young, intelligent men, hungry for information about the Klondike. As far as I could tell, nobody had read my book. I felt more than a little deflated. The director, William Conrad, a burly man with a dark moustache, I would later recognize as the star of another TV series, Cannon. One of his production assistants produced a notebook, and they all began firing questions at me.

“What’s the foliage like up there?”

It was boreal forest, I told them. Birches, aspens, and spruce.

“Any pines or oaks?” Conrad asked.

It was too far north for those, I explained.

‘Too bad,” he said. “All we’ve got here in Southern California are

pines and oaks, so I guess they’ll have to do.”

Another member of the team asked me about sunshine in the North. I told him that for six weeks the sun didn’t shine. I told them how, as a child, I remembered the moonlight glistening on the snow.

“We won’t be using snow,” one of the young men said. “Snow’s too expensive.”

“How’d you like the mud we used in the pilot?” I was asked.

I said I liked it fine, because when there wasn’t any snow in the North there was usually plenty of mud, especially in the spring. I said I hoped they would use plenty of mud.

“You know what mud costs?” Conrad asked. “It costs seven thousand dollars just for one episode. We can’t afford any more mud.”

To cheer him up, I told him I’d liked the pilot. The costumes, especially, were authentic. I had one small suggestion: everybody in those days sported a handlebar moustache. It would add authenticity if the extras were moustached.

“I’m afraid not,” he said. “If we put handlebars on everybody the viewers will think it’s a comedy.”

And that was the end of my technical advice. Conrad and his colleagues told me that I’d been absolutely invaluable and they’d like to have me back in the near future for another shirt-sleeve session. But they didn’t ask me again.

4Slowfy' I began to learn my craft; and not to interrupt; unless the guest was a bloody bore'

Canadian executives. Finally, after one of those arguments, Herb Sussan took me aside and said: “Call it The Pierre Berton Hour and insist on that title. That way they can’t fire you.”

Sussan, a warm and ebullient man, was often driven to desperation by Canadian attitudes. He said to me once, when Screen Gems was trying to sell the show to independent stations: “This is the craziest country! Here I am, an American, involved with a company producing American TV shows, arguing with Canadians that they ought to buy a Canadian show; and here are the Canadians arguing against it. They’d rather have an American-filmed series. Dammit, I ended up sounding like a Canadian nationalist! How can that

possibly be?”

How indeed? I would like to think that The Pierre Berton Hour was sold entirely on its merits, but the facts, I fear, were different. If it had not been for the 55-per-cent Canadian content rule, there would have been no show at all.

The statistics of that first year of production exhaust me when I read them. We produced 195 hours of television with 406 different guests, 70 per cent of whom were Canadian, and 163 were new faces never seen before on the small screen. There had been nothing like it before in Canada. The CTV network picked up the show after the new year and moved the time back to 11 p.m., a difficult slot because it was seen opposite the avuncular Earl Cameron reading the CBC news. But we made news ourselves, largely because of the calibre of our guests, who ranged from Lester Pearson to my mother. My own performance as a host was wanting, and I knew it. I was called “a bloody bore,” “pompous,” “outwardly cold and hard,” “gauche, trite, ill at ease and downright inept.” On my first interview with Pearson, then in opposition, Nathan Cohen wrote in The Toronto Star. “Mr. Pearson did his level best to make Pierre Berton relax last night. ... He showed tact and patience, even though his host’s mental perspiration made much of the hour a strain.” I couldn’t disagree with these assessments. I knew I would have to learn the hard way, making an ass of myself at times in front of hundreds of thousands of viewers.

At the outset I found it impossible to concentrate. The ability to listen while chaos reigns around you—while the cameras circle like unblinking vultures, while a man with earphones stabs at you with crossed fingers (only 30 seconds left!), while a disembodied voice in your ear whispers that Camera 2 has gone ph-ttt—this ability is the most difficult of

all techniques to absorb. It was some time before I was able to hypnotize myself into a state of concentration and shut off all extraneous noise and movement so that I could give undivided attention to the one aspect of television that really matters—program content.

I was also criticized, quite correctly, for talking too much and interrupting the guests— “drowning them out,” in one critic’s phrase. “It’s a toss-up which interrupts the conversational trend more effectively, Berton or the commercials,” Bob Gardiner wrote in The Ottawa Citizen. “The man’s presence seems to be a liability unless he learns to shut up.” Slowly, I began to learn my craft, to listen, and not to interrupt, unless the guest was a bloody bore. When Irving Layton or Malcolm Muggeridge or James Baldwin or Farley Mowat was declaiming, I let him talk and forgot my preconceived ideas about moving the program along. I had to learn to relax. This took time, but as the season progressed, so did I. Improvement in this field does not come gradually; it comes in spurts. Suddenly,, one day I was far better than I had been the day before.

My relations with Screen Gems had always been informal. Once a year, Lloyd Burns, the company’s Canadian-born vice-president, would come up from New York and we’d settle the contract over a drink. My first five-minute TV show for Screen Gems hadn’t earned me a nickel; in my arrogance and naïveté I had tried to handle all business arrangements myself. Now, in my forties, I came to my senses. My New York literary agent, Willis Wing, found me a good lawyer, John Fernbach, who agreed to run interference for me. This resulted in the following dialogue when Lloyd Burns called me from New York: LLOYD: Pierre, I’ll be in town next week and I’m looking forward to getting together with you.

the way, it’s contract time, and we can settle the details over a drink.

ME: Hey, Lloyd, I’d love to have a drink, but let’s not spoil it talking business. Let’s leave that to the legal people.

LLOYD: Well, sure, our legal department is working on the document right now.

ME: That’s great, Lloyd. I’ll have my lawyer in New York call them and work it out. You and I don’t need to bother ourselves with business details. That’s what lawyers are for.

LLOYD: Uh. What lawyer? You don’t need a lawyer. Our people can handle all that.

ME: Great, Lloyd. You tell your people to handle it with my lawyer. I’ll be looking forward to seeing you up here.

John Fernbach negotiated an ironclad agreement in which Screen Gems contracted to produce 36 weeks of The Pierre Berton Show annually. One year later, in 1967, the standard television contract was reduced to 28 weeks. As a result of the new contract, I was paid for eight weeks of shows that were never produced. That was the way it would be until we stopped producing The Pierre Berton Show in 1973. There was a delicious irony here. I had started out with Screen Gems working for nothing, while they took a profit. Now they were paying me for not working at all.

Fernbach achieved a few other perks, one of which ensured that I would always travel first-class when the show moved out of Toronto. One day, coming up from New York, I ran into Lloyd Burns at the airport heading for Toronto on the same aircraft. Screen Gems put him back with the peasants in economy. I moved into first-class and drank champagne. I thought about that and concluded that, if for the first half of my life I had been grossly underpaid, I would strive to be grossly overpaid during the second half. □