April 7, 2012

This week in TV Guide: April 6, 1968

Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968.  This isn't reflected in the programming for the week of April 6, which was already on the newsstands at the time of the shooting.  Its effects would be seen in subsequent weeks, however, along with the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy two months later, as a revulsion against television violence would manifest itself in rescheduled and re-edited programs.  Judging by looking at today's fare, the movement against TV violence didn't stick.

On the cover this week was Barbara Anderson, co-star of NBC's Ironside, along with Raymond Burr.  A quick perusal of programming for the week gives us some interesting listings.  The big show of the week was ABC's broadcast of the Academy Awards, which had been scheduled for Monday, April 8 but was rescheduled for Wednesday, April 10 due to King's funeral. (The winners: In the Heat of the Night, Rod Steiger, and Katharine Hepburn.)  The NBA and Stanley Cup playoffs were in full swing, with the hoopsters in the semifinals and the pucksters the quarterfinals.  Baseball season kicked off, with TV Guide's Melvin Durslag projecting the Twins and Cardinals in the last World Series to be staged before the introduction of divsions and playoffs.  (They were half right: the Cards were there, but they'd lose the Series in seven to the Detroit Tigers, Durslag's pick for second in the AL.)

There's another article referenced on the cover: "Yesterday's Quiz Winners - Today."  To put it in perspective, in 1968 it had only been a dozen or so years since the height of the quiz shows, which culminated in the scandals of the late 50s.  There are the usual suspects, those whose names have remained in the public eye to one extent or another: Charles Van Doren, the golden boy whose fall was the most spectacular of the scandal, and Dr. Joyce Brothers, an honest contestant who was already on her way to becoming America's most popular psychologist, the Dr. Phil of her day.  But it was the names of two other contestants that caught my eye.

Rob Strom and Leonard Ross were two of the most spectacular winners of the quiz show era.  Both were child prodigys: Strom, an 11-year-old science whiz who took home a cool quarter-million; Ross, a 10-year-old expert on the stock market whose winnings were more than $150,000.   When TV Guide's Dan Carlinsky visited with them in 1968, they were both on the road to success - Strom, now 21, had already graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard and was now doing graduate work, and the 22-year-old Ross had graduated from Yale Law School the previous year and was looking forward to a career in government.  (By the way, check out this interview with Ross and Mike Wallace in 1957.)  For each of them, the sky seemed to be the limit.  And so, I wondered, what had indeed happened to them?  Had they indeed fulfilled the potential that had been suggested in 1968?

In Rob Strom's case, it's hard to tell.  He doesn't have a Wikipedia entry, and while a Google search doesn't provide a definitive answer, it does give us some suggestions.  For example, there's a "Rob Strom" working (as of the mid-2000s) as a IBM Research Staff Member at the IBM TJ Watson Research Center, who was credited with several scholarly papers.  The brief bio in the abstract doesn't mention quiz shows, but this 1957 newspaper article mentions that IBM had already offered the 11-year-old a job in mathematical computer work when he grew up.*  Considering all this, I don't think it's unrealistic to suppose that this is the same Rob Strom. 

*I wonder if he had anything to do with work on the Watson computer that won on Jeopardy?  Wouldn't that have been ironic?

Leonard Ross, on the other hand, tells a different story.  Indeed, we know exactly what happened to Ross, and it's not a happy ending.  Maureen Dowd, back before she became as annoying as she is today, wrote this poignant 1985 column about Ross' death by suicide earlier that year.  He had, in fact, stormed through Yale; one classmate recalled that Ross "raised his hand and answered questions on torts and contracts with such lucid brilliance that . . . ''a chill went down the collective spine of the class.'''  After that he taught at Harvard and Columbia, and worked for both Jerry Brown in California and in the early Carter administration. 

And then it fell apart.

Ross' torment was an awful one:  "Over the years, his friends had watched with horror as Mr. Ross's quicksilver mind moved faster and faster and his attention span grew shorter and shorter." Having been, as one acquaintance put it, an adult since childhood, he expected perfection and cut himself no slack.  He was compulsive about everything.  He became frustrated with government work once he discovered he wasn't able to really change things.  Eventually, nothing was able to hold his interest, and he couldn't even complete one project before starting another.  He attempted suicide, underwent psychoanalysis, took as many as fifteen medications a day, and even had an operation to "snip a circuit in the limbic system, the part of the brain concerned with emotion and motivation."

Nothing worked.  As one friend pointed out, perhaps the worst torment for Ross was that, due to his natural brilliance, he was fully aware of what was happening to him. His inability - helplessness? - to change things just made it worse.  Finally, on the last day of April in 1985, he walked into the pool of the Capri Motel in Santa Clara and was found the next morning face down at the bottom of the pool, with his arms crossed.  He was only 39. 

When we see child stars we always hope for the best, that they'll wind up a Mozart or Shirley Temple.  Too often it doesn't turn out that way.  Still, there was something hopeful, something wistful in that 1968 "Where are they now?" article.  We weren't talking about child actors or composers, but young boys whose intellect seemed to offer them the moon.  One wanted to find out that these two had fulfilled all that potential, had gone on to really make a difference.  Rob Strom likely accomplished a great deal, but Dowd's truly heartbreaking story shows that the gift that brought Leonard Ross his fame also resulted in his fall.  And that fall truly was tragic.

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