Writer/producer Robert Cunniff dies

Worked on 'Today Show,' 'Sesame Street'

Emmy Award-winning TV writer and producer Robert Cunniff died Jan. 20 in Brooklyn, N.Y., after a long illness. He was 81.

Cuniff worked on influential news and talkshows including “The Today Show” and “The Dick Cavett Show,” won his Emmy for “Sesame Street” and created “Mousterpiece Theater” for Disney Channel.

A memorial service will be held at Saturday Feb. 9th at 5:30 p.m. at The Unitarian Church of All Souls, 1157 Lexington Ave., Manhattan.

As a writer for “The Today Show” in the mid-60s, he worked closely with Hugh Downs and Barbara Walters, and was credited with elevating that program’s news reputation with coverage of the Vietnam war and the 1968 Chicago Convention.

For the late night version of  “The Dick Cavett Show” on ABC, Cuniff booked diverse and controversial guests including Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Salvador Dali, Lillian Gish and Satchel Paige. He also invited a groundbreaking selection of music guests on the show, including Woodstock performers Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Crosby Still & Nash and Joni Mitchell.

He also worked on Cavett’s shows when the host returned to public television in the early 1980s and then to CNBC in the 1990s.

From 1972-75, he was a producer for “Sesame Street,” writing numerous sketches and winning the Emmy for children’s programming in 1973 along with the show’s creator, Jon Stone.

He became managing editor of “Good Morning, America” in 1976.

The long running, Disney Channel hit “Mouseterpiece Theater,” a deadpan parody of “Masterpiece Theater,” was conceived, produced and co-written by Cunniff in 1983. The series featured vintage Disney cartoon shorts outlandishly introduced by George Plimpton in a saucy send up of Alistair Cooke.

A lifelong jazz and classical music aficionado, he was as a writer with Live From Lincoln Center on PBS in the 1970s. In the 1980s, he wrote for ABC’s revival of “Omnibus” and scripted a USIA international documentary  “Let Poland Be Poland.”

Born in Chicago, he served in the U.S. Navy during WWII. He graduated the U. of Chicago and went on to write for the Chicago Sun Times and TV Guide,, Show Business Illustrated and Show Magazine.

His first job in television, in 1961, was as a co-writer and editor for CBS News’ live, daytime series “Calendar,” anchored by Harry Reasoner. 

Cunniff is survived by longtime companion Kate Resek; daughter, Jill Cunniff Gregoire, a musician; son Stephen Cunniff; three granddaughters and a brother.

Donations may be made to the fund to preserve New Orleans’ Jazz Heritage at the Tipitina’s Foundation, 4040 Tulane Ave, Suite 8000, New Orleans, LA 70119.

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