Army Archerd: 40 Years as Hollywood’s town crier

This GOOD MORNING Army Archerd’s 9,562nd Just For Variety column was published.

For forty years he has been the official Town Crier of a fabled, one-industry small town called Hollywood. From those very first columns of 1953, Army Archerd was the medium through which the town talked to itself about–the technical revolution of 3-D and CinemaScope…the axe falling at Metro…little Liza Minnelli’s chicken pox and her having to be sent to father Vince’s home so Judy’s baby wouldn’t get ’em.

Hollywood, of course, is no longer a town, not a place at all really, but a state of mind–a flux of personalities, projects, financing, screenplays and players, dramatis personae–that now swirl around the world. But Archerd diligently reports in daily from Hollywood-on-the-Thames, Culver City-on-the-Seine, BONJOUR from Paris–wherever the trade winds blow.

In the Hotel Royal lobby in Deauville Archerd talks with director Louis Malle hawking “Alamo Bay” at the film fest, but we also learn that he has just talked long distance to wife Candice Bergen, then expecting their first baby, a girl, in a month.

The births, deaths, medical problems, romances, marriages, divorces, feuds, and litigations that punctuate the wheelings and dealings of Just For Variety are not gossip–the Malice in Wonderland that was fodder for Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons and those that follow in the muck of their rakings. Archerd’s items constitute a running intelligence report on the industry, the local bulletin board.

And the local folks check in from around the world on four phone lines. Behind the glitz and glamour of the premieres, the 30 years of hosting the Oscar introductions on tv, the globe-trotting schmoozing with the Rich and Famous, is the hard labor of Archerd working the phones in his cramped office at Daily Variety from 10 a.m. until deadline…without a leg-man, assistant, or secretary. In 40 years, aside from his scheduled vacations, he has only missed three columns…when he was KO’d by flu 10 years ago. And, sezze, he’s never had to print a retraction. Writer-producer Hal Kanter, who first met Archerd when he was a reporter for the L.A. Herald-Express, comments the Daily VarietyMDBO columnist “was established in the niche he was born to fill.” Armand Archerd was actually born in the Bronx, and his father worked in the textile business. But his mother’s brother, Paul Oscard, staged shows at hot nights clubs like Chicago’s Chez Paris, Billy Rose’s Aquacade, and movie palaces like the Paramount and Criterion. In high school, Archerd worked nights as an usher at the Criterion. “Those were tough times.” But he graduated from high school at 15 .

When his family moved to Los Angeles, Archerd enrolled at UCLA, majoring in languages–French, German, and Spanish. He earned his B.A. at 19, but it was World War II, and he enlisted in the Navy. While marking time until entry into Columbia University’s 90-day-wonder V-7 school, officer candidate Archerd notably worked for a stint in Paramount’s mail room.

Ensign Archerd graduated from Columbia into a destroyer mine-sweeper operating out of Pearl Harbor. It was the same type ship and rite of passage from Columbia to war in the Pacific that author Herman Wouk–who was in Archerd’s destroyer squadron–later immortalized in “The Caine Mutiny.”

“When I first got out of the Navy, I thought I would write the great American novel,” the columnist recalls. “But Herman Wouk beat me to the punch.”

At loose ends, Archerd was at a UCLA conference where he and another ex-naval officer were speaking when he was introduced to the Associated Press’ Bob Thomas. The local bureau was expanding. “I didn’t decide to be a newspaperman; they decided for me…I started out in the AP, and that sort of training is invaluable. First of all, the integrity is enormous. Also you were always on deadline, getting it out to an enormous audience. And when I later went to the Herald-Express, we had five editions a day.

“I was trained in the old style of the reporter. You could really call up and say, ‘Hold the front page. I’ve got a story.’ And I’ve carried that feeling even though I now have a daily column. So often I will call up the desk and say, ‘We’ve got to rewrite. I’ve got something hotter.’

“For instance, at the Kennedy Center Honors last month, I bumped into Dana Carvey at the White House. I found out that the President (Bush) had invited him to spend the night and sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom. I just made a beeline downstairs to the mens’ room and quick called up Daily Variety and said, ‘Kill my lead.’

“It was eight o’clock Washington time Sunday evening, and we were able to have it in Monday morning’s paper–all this information about Dana Carvey and the President. I had it that he was going to entertain at the White House that afternoon. There were hundreds of newspapermen there, but nobody else had it. Then it was all over everything. It’s that kind of excitement I love. Getting a good story, still being able to play the boy reporter after 40 years.”

After two years in the AP Hollywood bureau, the boy reporter crossed town to Hearst’s Herald-Express. There he was columnist Harrison Carroll’s assistant, writing the column when Carroll on vacation, also reviewing night clubs and movies and bylining his own column for King Features.

“On the side I would write fan magazines left and right. It was no secret how much newspapermen made. And I was raising a couple of kids,” Archerd recounts.

In 1953 Daily Variety editor Joe Schoenfeld was searching for a replacement for Just For Variety columnist Sheila Graham. “I told Joe I’d go to work for him either as a columnist or a reviewer. But if I was going to write the column on a daily basis, I didn’t feel I could write the column and be a reviewer and do both of them honestly. It just wouldn’t work.”

That early separation between being a trade columnist and a critic is one that Archerd has maintained for 40 years. It is one of the secrets of his longevity–and probably his extraordinary high-level access. It is a tact that other journalists, eager to flaunt their opinions about everything from puberty to politics, have difficulty navigating.

A second secret of Archerd’s success is simply how hard he works. His bed stand holds a flashlight pen and pad with which he jots down items in the middle of the night, a scribbling that continues while he shaves. “I end up with the names of 20 people to call and a puddle of blood.”

With the time differences between L.A., New York, Europe, and, increasingly, Asia, the two phone lines in his Westwood home are buzzing before he takes off for Daily Variety’s mid-Wilshire offices. Visits to sets or studios now are usually restricted to Fridays, when he’ll have time to write and catch up on calls over the weekend.

He doesn’t do lunch. Lunch is a quick bowl of soup at the office cafeteria or a sandwich at the desk. “I catch people at lunch. I get them on their car phones going to lunch or where they’re actually having lunch. You get a lot of news out of the restaurants. You want to know why is he having lunch with her or him?”

His wife, Selma, is an integral part of his intelligence network. “Friends’ll mention very casually, ‘we had a wonderful lunch at, say, Le Dome,’ ” she explains. “‘They had the greatest chicken salad. They had a good crowd too.’ And they’ll mention a couple of combinations. It may not be about that pair having lunch, but Army’ll pick up on it.”

“It becomes a game,” Archerd pursues. “Who’s doing what to whom, and if so, why so?”

Yet what distinguishes Archerd’s column from journalists past and present covering the same beat is his attitude. Ten years ago, on the 30th anniversary of his column, Archerd’s old AP mentor, Bob Thomas, interviewed him:

“I’m doing what I like best. I’m dealing with the news of the most exciting city in the world. I’m writing about some of the most talented, most creative people in the world. Also some of the best writers. So I feel the responsibility to not only give them the news but to treat them with the respect they deserve.” That is the third secret of his success.

A decade later, he repeats the same thoughts to another interviewer. “And I don’t try to compete with them. To be a wit. I just try to give them the news. I’ll use some of their wit, their bon mots, but I won’t try to out do them.”

Archerd’s attitude has successfully carried over into television, where his staying power is no less extraordinary. His first year as a columnist for Daily Variety, James Aubrey–the future head of CBS and MGM but then g.m. of KNXT–decided that Los Angeles TV needed a young, photogenic Hollywood reporter.

Five nights a week, Archerd finished his column then raced across town to do a five-minute report on the 11 o’clock news. One of the perils of early television was that the personalties did commercials live.

Archerd, who at that time was chain smoking three packs of Camels a day, was sponsored by Kents cigarettes with the Micronite Filter. “I took one drag of Kents with the Micronite Filter on the air and started coughing on camera, and I couldn’t stop. And that was the end of that sponsor.”

Nevertheless his TV moonlighting segued the next year into hosting televised movie premieres–his first, “The Barefoot Contessa.” Archerd’s TV technique was, and is, essentially the same as that for his column–give news and information, respect the talent and personalities, and don’t try to compete with them.

At the height of Hollywood’s premiere mania he was emceeing as many as five a week, rotating his three tuxedoes. When he was off on vacation during the 1967 telecast of “The Taming of the Shrew” preem, Hollywood Citizen-News TV critic Allen Rich complained that handling galas “is a job for experts–and even then they have to do a great deal of advance paper work so they’ll have something to say other than platitudes. Best at this type of celebrity clambakes…Army Archerd.”

By then Archerd had embarked on his best known TV role, as the host of the pre-Academy Awards show.

“GOOD EVENING, MOVIE FANS…” That salutation to TV’s global village–with its paraphrase of his local column–will ring out for the 31st time on March 29. As always, Archerd will not be able to sleep the night before. “I don’t call it stage fright,” he corrects an interviewer. “I call it FEAR! It’s an enormous thing. It goes out to a billion people.”

He prepares for that night with dogged homework. On the weekend before, he combs through the background notes on the nominees, presenters, and guests–previous Oscars and nominations, color, lore, trivia. He contacts their publicists to find out who’s coming with whom. Then he haunts the show rehearsal , talking to the performers, director, producers.

In 1978 Archerd received a special citation from the Academy for his emceeing of the Oscar pre-show…He has played himself in over a hundred movies and tv shows…And in 1984 he got his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame–right in front of Mann’s Chinese Theatre, the site of kleig-lighted premieres he emceed…This March on CBS he co-hosts and co-produces his 19th “Peoples’ Choice Awards.”

Archerd has seen them come and go, and great stars and moguls ascend, item-by-three-dotted-item, in Just For Variety…There is a paragraph in a recent past column, a moment really, where producer Jon Peters details the billions made on “Batman” and “Rain Man,” then pauses to note, “I can still remember when you were waiting for me to finish doing your wife Selma’s hair!”…For others, like Jamie Lee Curtis, their very conception was an item…

“I was talking to Jamie Lee Curtis, and she’s doing this movie now which involves, ironically, the tragedy of divorce. And how children are the pawns in divorce, a subject with which she’s well familiar,” Archerd relates.

“I’ve gone through these people’s marriages, divorces, their children and grand children’s’ careers and problems. Celebrities have tremendous problems with their children.”

Archerd’s own first marriage ended in divorce. His daughter, Amanda, by that marriage is now a bank officer and his son, Evan, a real estate appraiser. There are three grand children.

In one of those romantic returns, in 1970 he married Selma, who had been his sweetheart when he had been a precocious teenaged student struggling and working through UCLA and she was still in high school. When they married, Selma was divorced with two sons–Richard, now a lawyer, and Jimmy, who is autistic and lives at ERAS House for the developmentally disabled.

“There are tough stories, hard stories, tragic stories, that range from careers to personal lives–health, family, marriage, divorce. That’s life.” Archerd is sitting in his home, Selma across from him, and he is talking about reporting, not his own personal life, but the separations are all blurred in that setting.

“I get angry when someone lies to me or doesn’t tell me the truth when I ask them a question. But that only happens once. I think everyone knows that. What they tell me will be printed factually. It will be printed with a certain appreciation of what the story is.”

And the story variety that spices life in Just For Variety is often breath-taking. In a given month Francis Coppola, ensconced in baroque offices in Rome’s Cinecitta studios, discusses casting Madonna in “Godfather 3 “…Ex-Columbia Pix CEO David Puttnam in London details the complex international financing of his indie Enigma Prods…First Lady Barbara Bush schmoozes backstage with the Russian Red Army Chorus at the Kennedy Center honors…A “teary-eyed” Candy Spelling in Malibu serves Army and her husband Aaron a ham and eggs breakfast, specifically to deny rumors she is having (and has not had) affairs with three named actors and/or an electrician working on their new home.

Ten years ago, on the 30th anniversary of Archerd’s column, the Los Angeles Times described Just For Variety as a “compendium of entertainment industry notes unrivaled in the business.” On the 40th anni, he is still unrivaled…and unchallenged.

It is 48 years since Bob Thomas first recruited the young, ex-Navy officer into working for AP. Has Army Archerd tired of doing the same thing all these years? “That’s the whole point,” he objects vigorously. “It’s never the same thing. It’s something different every day. It’s never a bore. It’s a constant challenge. It’s my life.”

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