PBS series profiles influential, much-feared journalist
Anyone in tabloid journalism owes a debt to someone who became a trademark of it, Walter Winchell.
The staccato-voiced columnist and media personality built his power on others’ fear of what he might write about them … the model for Burt Lancaster’s character in “Sweet Smell of Success.” However, Winchell also was courted by leaders such as President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who wanted him to relay their messages to the masses. Narrated by Whoopi Goldberg and featuring Stanley Tucci — who earned an Emmy for HBO’s 1998 drama “Winchell” — PBS’ new “American Masters” profile “Walter Winchell: The Power of Gossip” airs Tuesday, Oct. 20 (check local listings).
Winchell biographer Neal Gabler is among the interviewees for director Ben Loeterman. Making his “American Masters” debut, the latter notes that with its other subjects such as Sammy Davis Jr. and Mae West recently, “You have their films and their art (to show). With Winchell, all you have is words — and sometimes, not very many strung together. It’s a very scaled-down form of filmmaking, but what are ya gonna do in a pandemic? We had planned to shoot re-creations, but they were pulled the day before we were to start. Suddenly, all we had was our research and the newspapers, so we threw all the money into graphics and got somebody good like Tucci and hoped for the best.”
Loeterman intended to interview Tucci about Winchell, but the actor portrays him again instead, often shown from the mouth down … thus focusing on the journalist’s words. “Stanley became not only very wrapped up in the character of Walter Winchell, but also in the idea of playing him,” Loeterman explains. “It’s someone he cares about. When I had him read some parts of this, he corrected me. He had invested so much in learning about him.”
Landing Oscar winner and “The View” co-host Goldberg surprised Loeterman: “We basically did the narration over a cell phone. I asked her at one point why she said ‘Yes’ to this, and she said, ‘When I was a little girl, we all knew the Josephine Baker story.’ ” (When she came from Europe to America, entertainer Baker had a complicated connection to Winchell, as the documentary details.)
Winchell aimed to prove himself a serious reporter by covering the trial of Bruno Hauptmann, accused of kidnapping and killing famed aviator Charles Lindbergh’s baby. Then, Winchell included Adolf Hilter and Sen. Joseph McCarthy among his targets, but his “mean” public image ultimately backfired on him.
“Walter Winchell was the highest-paid, most-read, most-listened-to person, and he died alone and in obscurity,” Loeterman reflects. “I don’t think ‘American Masters’ has ever done a master S.O.B. before, but he was one.”