Richard Heffner, Longtime Head of Ratings Board, Dies at 88

Rutgers professor Richard Heffner, who hosted PBS talkshow “The Open Mind” for more than 50 years and headed the motion picture ratings board for two decades, died Dec. 17 in New York. He was 88 and suffered a sudden cerebral hemorrhage.

The educator and public TV mainstay was asked by MPAA chairman Jack Valenti in 1974 to become chairman of the Classifications and Ratings Administration. Though he was uncertain at first — he told Television Quarterly “My mother didn’t raise me to count nipples” — he ultimately was appointed head of the body, holding the post until 1994.

During his tenure, the board was described as being more concerned with violence than with sex, awarding an X rating for the 1983 “Scarface,” which was then appealed to an R. Also during his time on the board, the PG-13 rating was introduced in 1984, as well as NC-17 in 1990.

When a producer asks about reasons for the rating, “We always try to be helpful,” Heffner told Variety in 1994, “but sometimes we simply can’t be as specific as filmmakers want us to be. We’re not film editors, and don’t pretend to be.” He also admitted that the NC-17 did not work out the way it was intended. “It was clear we needed a public service campaign. A mistake was made in not educating the public” that the NC-17 was not the same as an X, he told Variety.

Heffner taught at Rutgers’ School of Communication and Information for nearly 50 years and was still teaching at the time of his death. On his long-running Saturday program “The Open Mind,” he interviewed guests including Margaret Mead, Malcolm X and and President Jimmy Carter about hot-button issues of the day.

He was also well known for his book “A Documentary History of the United States,” now in its 11th printing.

Heffner is survived by his wife, Elaine; two sons and four grandchildren.

Donations may be made to New York public television station, WNET, Channel 13, which Heffner helped to found, care of Patricia Hayes, WNET Grants Management Specialist, 825 Fifth Ave., 14th Floor, New York, New York 10022.

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