Columnist chronicled Hollywood's elite for over half a century

Showbiz has lost one of its defining voices, one who honed his craft in the bygone era of close-knit Hollywood and evolved through the many iterations of the industry.

Army Archerd, who became an industry institution and beloved figure in his more than half a century at Daily Variety, died Tuesday in Los Angeles. He had a rare form of mesothelioma cancer, thought to be the result of his exposure to asbestos in the Navy during WWII. He was 87.

Archerd was one of the first writers to link AIDS to a celebrity when he wrote a piece detailing, amid denials from the actor’s publicists and managers, that Rock Hudson was undergoing treatment for AIDS.

For 47 years, Archerd was the official greeter of the Academy Awards, serving as emcee and interviewer of stars on Oscar’s red carpet.

While much of what he wrote was more congratulatory than confrontational, Archerd sometimes took stands on Hollywood’s hot-button issues, as when Elia Kazan was to be given an honorary Oscar in 1999. “I, for one, will not be giving him a standing ovation,” Archerd wrote.

“Army’s finest hour was his courageous stand against the blacklist at a time when almost all other Hollywood columnist were red-hunting,” said Peter Bart, VP and editorial director of Variety. “He really was a passionate reporter and a champion of causes he believed in.”

He began covering entertainment for the Associated Press on Oct. 18, 1945, and started at Daily Variety in 1953 when he began penning the daily “Just for Variety” column. His last column ran on Sept. 1, 2005, and he continued contributing to the paper and writing a blog for Variety.com. His last blog posting was July 27.

His 900-word column ran on page 2 of Daily Variety five days a week until the 1990s, when it went to four days a week.

Mixing one-sentence items with lengthier pieces, Archerd insisted on exclusives and provided a community bulletin board, detailing new deals, reporting from film sets and awards shows, and chronicling the births, deaths and hospitalizations of showbiz denizens. He was known for being fair, quoting people accurately and being generally upbeat — which, in the latter part of the 20th century, became increasingly rare for an entertainment reporter.

“It’s almost the end of an era of civilized journalism in that everything is very ‘gotcha’ these days. He broke the story about Rock Hudson having AIDS but he did it in a very compassionate way. He was a very honorable guy with a strong sense of right and wrong,” said producer-director Gil Cates.

“There was none of the bitchy backbiting that people who historically write columns like that had. They all exist on nasty news, and he didn’t,” said screenwriter Robert Towne.

Seldom was heard a discouraging word in Archerd’s columns — unless there was something going on in Hollywood that bothered him. He often wrote negatively about the NRA and Charlton Heston.

He also was a strong proponent of Jewish causes. When Michael Jackson’s “HIStory” album was released in 1995, Archerd chastised Jackson for a song in which he used the phrases “Jew me/Sue me” and “Kike me.” A few days later, Jackson called the columnist to disclose that he would re-record the song.

Archerd mixed this social awareness with much lighter reports. In 2001, he told Talk magazine that he never regretted printing an item, and would not state on the record which story he was proudest of (“It would be very egotistical for me to say that”). However, in private he boasted about the July 23, 1985, Rock Hudson column, when Archerd foretold, “Doctors warn that the dread disease AIDS is going to reach catastrophic proportions in all communities if a cure is not soon found.” Global media picked up on the story; though the disease was not new, it was the first time anyone had linked the disease to such a well-known person.

Some pundits speculated that had the actor’s death been attributed to other maladies the scope of AIDS would not have been realized until Magic Johnson disclosed his condition in 1992.

Archerd’s wife of 39 years, Selma, said, “He didn’t expose secrets about other people — he wrote news. He was a loving, quiet person. He was always working — when we went on vacation, we went to visit movie sets.”

Armand Archerd was born in the Bronx on Jan. 13, 1922. After high school, he attended CCNY for two years. When his family moved to Los Angeles, Archerd transferred to UCLA and, after graduation in 1941, began work in the mailroom at Paramount.

When WWII was declared, he enlisted in the Navy. He was commissioned an ensign and shipped out to the Pacific as a deck officer on a destroyer. Archerd was in the same Navy squadron with Herman Wouk and suspected some of his own foul-ups inspired a chapter in the author’s “The Caine Mutiny Court Martial.”

On his return from the service, Archerd joined a group of veterans making speeches about tolerance to civic groups.

Archerd met Associated Press reporter Bob Thomas, who introduced him to the AP’s L.A. bureau chief Hubbard Keavy. Thomas and Archerd opened the AP bureau in the Hollywood Citizen News on Wilcox Avenue in 1945. In 1947, Archerd was hired by the Herald-Express as assistant (i.e., “leg man”) to drama-movie editor-columnist Harrison Carroll.

In addition to covering the studios, Archerd began reporting on the local nightclub scene, which included Sunset Strip sites like the Mocambo and Ciro’s and music spots down La Cienega, La Brea and Ventura Boulevard.

In 1953, Daily Variety editor Joe Schoenfeld hired Archerd to replace columnist Sheilah Graham.

Even after five decades on the job, he was a bulldog about the business, phoning the office from his cell phone to report tips and to ensure Daily Variety would get the scoop. After 50 years, he still got angry when other columnists lifted his items without attribution. After nearly 40 years of working with a manual typewriter, he had to switch to computers. While some Daily Variety veterans balked at the switch, he worked hard to master the new system, though he was regularly flummoxed by frozen computers and despaired when his work was lost.

Archerd was proud of the fact that he never used “leg men,” writing the column himself from his small office at Variety, using four phone lines.

Even normally press-shy celebs like Marlon Brando spoke with him. In April 2002, to commemorate the start of his 50th year at the paper, Daily Variety printed a special salute to Archerd. In a flood of photos, the columnist seemed like the fictional “Zelig,” appearing in shots with a who’s who of Hollywood and spanning the era of Judy Garland and William Holden, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton to Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.

He was one of the last writers to use the three-dot school of journalism. One publicist summed up the attitude of many PR people in town when he said one line in Army was worth a longer story elsewhere.

Writer J.F. Lawton (“Pretty Woman”) told Talk magazine in 2001, “There will always be three iconic moments in the Hollywood life. Seeing your name for the first time on a movie poster, seeing it on a billboard, and when you see it for the first time in Army Archerd’s column.”

Though he hated the term “gossip columnist” and bristled whenever anyone referred to him as one, he appeared as a regular contributor to E!’s “The Gossip Show” in the 1990s.

In addition, he was the co-host and co-producer of the “People’s Choice Awards” on CBS since the kudos’ inception in 1974.

He was honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences in 1978. And in 1984, he was given a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, in front of Mann’s Chinese Theater, where he had emceed dozens of movie premieres.

As an emcee, he introduced arriving celebs to the crowds at numerous film premieres, as well as the Emmys more recently. But he is best known in that capacity as emcee for the Academy Awards, serving in that role since 1958.

Even after d
ecades on the job, Archerd still got nervous before his Oscar gigs, working hard to immediately associate names and faces and to know about their most current projects. And, the year Marlee Matlin was a nominee, he practiced sign language to make her feel more comfortable.

Aside from his writing for Daily Variety, Archerd wrote regular columns for the King Features Syndicate as well as countless magazine articles, including regular features for then-popular fan magazines such as Photoplay. At one time he was writing as many as four monthly fanzine columns.

He was president and founder of the Hollywood Press Club and received honors from them as well as from the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., Newsman of the Year from the Publicists Assn., Man of the Year from the Hollywood Women’s Press Club., the L.A. Press Club’s Eight Ball Foundation and Masquers Man of the Year. He was the first regular TV showbiz reporter, appearing nightly on KNXT (later KCBS) with Hollywood news.

When “Entertainment Tonight” launched, he was its first on-the-scene reporter. He also co-hosted the syndicated “Movie Game,” co-hosted and co-produced “The Celebrity Daredevils” and “Wildest West Show of the Stars” on CBS. He had his own radio and TV shows on KNX, KABC, KDAY and KNX-TV.

Archerd appeared as himself in more than 100 movies and TV shows. He also hosted and emceed commercial events. And in the New Year’s Day Rose Parade on Jan. 1, 1993, he appeared, appropriately, on the “Awards Night” float in Pasadena.

Archerd is survived by his wife, actress Selma Archerd; a son, Evan; two stepsons Richard Rosenblum and James Rosenblum; and five grandchildren. A daughter, Amanda, died in 2008.

Donations may be made to the Exceptional Childrens Foundation, 8740 Washington Boulevard, Culver City, CA 90232, ecf.net.

Related: Variety exec editor Steven Gaydos remembers his colleague

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