Edwin Newman, who brought literacy, wit and energy to NBC newscasts for more than three decades, and spoofed himself on “Saturday Night Live” skits, died Aug. 13 of pneumonia in Oxford, England. He was 91.
At NBC from 1952 until his retirement in 1984, Newman did political reporting, foreign reporting, anchoring of news specials, “Meet the Press,” “Today,” “Nightly News,” midday news and a variety of radio spots. He announced the death of President Kennedy on radio, and anchored on TV when President Reagan was shot.
He also narrated and helped write documentaries, back when they were an influential staple of network programming. They included “Who Shall Live?” — a 1965 study of the difficulties of deciding which kidney disease should receive lifesaving dialysis — and “Politics: The Outer Fringe,” a 1966 look at extremism.
“I think I worked on more documentaries than anybody else in TV history,” he once said.
Newman, with his rumpled, squinting delivery, impressed his audience not so much with how he looked as with the likelihood that what he’d say would be worth hearing. And his occasional witty turn of phrase might be accompanied by a mischievous smile. The New York Times wrote in 1966 that Newman “is one of broadcasting’s rarities. … NBC’s instant renaissance man speaks with the distinctive growl of a rusted muffler. He makes no concessions to the charm boy school of commentator.”
“Ed Newman was an early role model for my generation of NBC News correspondents — worldly, erudite and droll, qualities that were enriched by his pitch perfect use of the English language,” said former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw. “He was always a gentleman and a reassuring presence in our midst.”
In his series “Speaking Freely,” he had hourlong, uninterrupted conversations with notables in many fields.
“People had an opportunity to put forward ideas” he said in a 1988 Associated Press interview. “You could get people to come on who wouldn’t normally have been on TV. NBC, and I mean this to its credit, never tried to sell a minute of commercials and never interfered with the choice of people. The producer and I chose them.”
His contributions to the radio show “Emphasis” won him a 1966 Peabody Award; judges cited “his wit and depth of understanding, both conspicuous rarities to be cherished and honored.”
“To those of us watching at home, he made us feel like we had a very smart, classy friend in the broadcast news business,” said current NBC News anchor Brian Williams.
He turned to writing books in the 1970s, taking on the linguistic excesses of Watergate, sportscasters, academics, bureaucrats and other assorted creators of gobbledygook with wit and indignation. Both “Strictly Speaking” and “A Civil Tongue” were best sellers.
Chapter titles of “A Civil Tongue” give an idea of his targets: “A Fatal Slaying of the Very Worst Kind,” “A Real Super Player with Good Compassion,” “Paradigm Lost” and “Myself Will Be Back After This Message.”
“A civil tongue … means to me a language that is not bogged down in jargon, not puffed up with false dignity, not studded with trick phrases that have lost their meaning,” he wrote. “It is direct, specific, concrete, vigorous, colorful, subtle and imaginative when it should be, and as lucid and eloquent as we are able to make it. It is something to revel in and enjoy.”
For a time, he was also a theater reviewer for NBC’s New York station, drawing upon all his skills to sum up productions in one minute flat. Of one show, he wrote, “As with so many recent musicals, none of the principals can really sing.”
In another, he wrote that “‘Illya Darling’ rests on the premise that Melina Mercouri is irresistible. … This highly unlikely premise . …” He raised a ruckus when a producer quoted him in an ad as saying “Melina is irresistible.”
Some of his less-than-kind comments about David Merrick’s shows prompted the headline-loving producer to try to ban Newman from his productions.
After retiring in January 1984, Newman enjoyed being on “Saturday Night Live” skits and in several situation comedies, where, he said, “I’ve always had the demanding job of playing myself.” (In one SNL sketch, he mans a suicide hotline and keeps correcting the desperate caller’s grammar.)
He narrated some public television programs, including the 1988 PBS series “Television.”
“So much on TV over the years has been good,” he said at the time. “The question is raised, why can’t there be more such good, worthwhile, deserving programs? But I have never met a payroll or had to sell time on the air. It is easy to be critical.”
After studying at the U. of Wisconsin and Louisiana State, Newman began his journalism career in the Washington bureau of the Intl. News Service. He took dictation from reporters for 12 hours when Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941.
After serving in the Navy during World War II, he held various journalism jobs, including a stint in the CBS Washington bureau, before joining NBC in 1952 in London. He rose to NBC bureau chief in London, then Rome, then Paris before returning to the United States permanently in 1961, covering a variety of assignments for NBC.
Survivors include his wife, Rigel, and a daughter.