Army Archerd bristled at the notion that he was a gossip columnist. Instead, he was closer to the label that Variety gave him in the final years of his career: “Hollywood’s original blogger.”
But the key to Archerd’s durability was in one common refrain from the stars and moguls he covered: He was a gentleman.
“He was devoid of malice,” said Warren Beatty. “He had sincere affection for the people in the community.”
Regis Philbin, who paid tribute to Archerd on Wednesday’s edition of “Live With Regis and Kelly,” observed that “no one was afraid to talk to him because he didn’t have that vicious streak.”
Sherry Lansing called him “one of the most caring and decent human beings I’ve ever known in my life, as well as being one of the most skilled reporters.”
Steven Spielberg was among the many who noted Archerd’s unfailing accuracy.
“There have been many times journalists with pencils and recording devices have gotten it all wrong, but Army relied only on memory, never writing anything down and still getting everything right,” Spielberg said.
“He wrote about all sorts of legends of our industry for 50 years and yet he was almost out of the gate a legend himself. I told him at an Oscar ceremony he was the most famous person here. He blushed.”
Spielberg also praised Archerd’s “staunch” support of Israel and the Jewish community.
When Archerd would comment in his column on issues, he was “always humble (and) opinionated with class and dignity,” Spielberg said.
At the 2002 black-tie dinner celebrating Archerd’s 50th year at Daily Variety, Bernie Brillstein shed light on why Archerd was the gold standard among entertainment industry columnists.
“Army was nice to me when I was no one,” said the veteran manager, who died last year. “He was nice to me when I was someone. And he’ll be nice to me when I’m no one again.”
Among the dozens of industry heavyweights that Archerd befriended and aided early on in their careers was Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“At every step of my career he was interested and supportive, both personally and in print,” Schwarzenegger said. “Army was a genuinely kind man — contrary to the often-cutthroat nature of the entertainment industry.”
Even the most reclusive of celebrities and moguls, like Johnny Carson, Paul Newman and Lew Wasserman, got on the phone when Archerd called. It was clear that stars liked to talk to him, confident that the end result would be fair and free from snark.
“He was a large part of a great era. Absolutely,” said Wasserman’s widow, Edie.
Archerd was the last in the generation of three-dot columnists who delivered a staccato-like mix of news and personalities, as if you were right there at the party, premiere or interview with him. He got his start in the days when the news was generated at nightspots, the golden and glamorous age of nightclubs like Chasen’s and Ciro’s. He hung out with stars — the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Gregory Peck and Humphrey Bogart — before the onslaught of celebrity journalism created a wall between scribe and subject.
His “Just for Variety” column played like a community bulletin board of pending deals, on-set interviews, who’s in the hospital, who’s having a baby. An example from Dec. 31, 1964: “Nat Cole, in excellent spirits, is skedded to resume cobalt treatments next week. John Wayne sent him a wire: ‘Sorry to hear you’ve joined the club — but don’t worry, I had one taken out three months ago.’ ”
Archerd had written the column for so long that, at his 50th anniversary dinner, Red Buttons joked “that before it was Army, the column was written by either Lot or Cain.”
His column did have a lineage. Archerd took over the Daily Variety column in 1953 from Sheilah Graham (whom history will probably best remember as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s girlfriend — the novelist died in her apartment in 1940).
Archerd covered an industry of excess but never got consumed by its trappings and always considered himself a reporter among reporters. He always answered his own phone and, given the sheer amount of information needed for his column, was reluctant to “do lunch,” preferring instead to work the phones to meet deadline.
Kirk Douglas said he marveled at Archerd’s prowess as a reporter.
“He had an uncanny way of knowing about everything that happened. I would get a call from him and always wondered, ‘How did he know about that?’ ”
Archerd had an address book that was without compare in show business. When the rest of the world had turned to electronic, Army didn’t even use a Rolodex — he had too many numbers.
He kept his contacts on 3-by-5 cards that he’d configured like an old-fashioned library index in multiple drawers. If a reporter came to his office and asked for help in finding someone, Archerd would turn to his cards; start rummaging through them; do some editing as he went along (“Sam Goldwyn! Ah, he’s dead”) before coming to the sought-after card.
Because of his dedication to fact-checking and accuracy, he established an access to the movers and shakers in Hollywood that might never be seen again. He seemed to have met everyone.
While guests were eating at the 2002 dinner, black-and-white photos from Archerd’s career were projected on screens flanking the stage. Though the selection ranged from the honoree alongside a camel to Louis Armstrong, what was most impressive was the sheer number of images. The slide show lasted 45 minutes.
Archerd’s access didn’t stop him from tackling important issues when they demanded it: Pressured by publicists and other handlers not to print it, in 1985 he went with the story that Rock Hudson was being treated for AIDS. The revelation helped put a human face on a disease shrouded in stigma and ignorance.
Archerd’s sensitivity in handling tough stories endeared him to those he covered.
“He was always fundamentally so decent without in any way compromising his investigative journalistic skills,” Lansing said. “He was always able to deliver the story, but he seemed to do it in a rational and kind way, even if it was something unpleasant. He basically liked people, and people liked him.”
Lansing and her husband, helmer William Friedkin, counted Archerd and his wife, Selma as close friends. And while they would often dish about the biz, Archerd’s interests were vast and varied. He supported many of the health and educational causes that Lansing has become involved with in the years since she exited as Paramount chair.
“He would always show up for things that were important, things that would change our world and make society better,” Lansing said.
Producer Richard Zanuck concurred.
“Army was a superstar — a giant as important to our industry as any of the moguls and celebrities he wrote about. This loss is an irreplaceable one, as is the loss of his friendship,” he said.
In the coming weeks, Variety will host a memorial tribute to Archerd.
(Ted Johnson, Cynthia Littleton and Steve Chagollan contributed to this report.)