November 10, 2011

The Bookshelf #1

Often I'll walk into a bookstore - Half Price Books, a chain in our area - looking to see what they have in the TV DVD section, and emerge instead with books about TV. (Imagine that - coming out of a bookstore with books.)

The thing is, I've often contended that just as you can learn more about an event by how it was covered on TV at the time than you can reading about it afterward, you can frequently learn more about television by reading about it than watching it. And so, from time to time, I'll dip into my bookshelf to take a look at some of the books that talk about television - its history, its shows, and its personalities.

A while back I shared my review of Gerald Nachman's Ed Sullivan biography, one of the larger-than-life personalities of television in the 50s and 60s. Today we'll take a look at another of those outsized figures, David Susskind, in Steven Battaglio's David Susskind: A Televised Life.

Today's TV viewer might not recognize Susskind's name at all.  Those of a slightely older bent possibly remember his talk show, which ran for over 25 years in New York and, through syndication, the rest of the country.  But for those of another era, the name David Susskind meant one thing: quality television.  Susskind was one of the most prominent figures in television of the 50s and 60s, starting out as a talent agent but soon evolving into one of the most prolific and respected producers of the time, particularly in the golden age of anthology television.  He was famous for specials - The Moon and Sixpence, The Power and the Glory, A Man is Ten Feet Tall, Eleanor and Franklin - television series - N.Y.P.D. (the original, not the racier NYPD Blue of years later), Get Smart, East Side/West Side - and movies - Straw Dogs, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, and Fort Apachie, The Bronx.  For most of you, the names probably don't mean much, except perhaps for Get Smart, and maybe some of the movies, but in their time they were major accomplishments - event television, when there was such a thing.   (His company also produced the game show Supermarket Sweep, which failed to burnish his image but did help pay the bills.)

Susskind was short in stature, but an enormous presence in the entertainment business.  He was complex - a chauvinist who nonetheless employed women in high positions, a man who loved women so much that he couldn't stop even when he was married, a talk show host who prided himself on quality television yet became the godfather to hosts such as Phil Donohue.  He loved the art of the deal, he gloried in the publicity that his achievements brought him.  He was vain, but he was also talented - always a dangerous combination.

Battaglio captures the many sides of Susskind, his public and private achievements and failures, and he does so without falling into the "too much information" trap that many biographers do.  He presents a fascinating picture of the excitement of early television, of the days when sponsors ruled the programming roost, and the transition to the system we see today.  It's a valuable insight into a pioneer of television who deserves to be remembered.

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Here's author Steven Battaglio talking with Inside Media about David Susskind: A Televised Life.


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