SUSSKIND, DAVID

U.S. Producer and Talk Show Host

David Susskind was a key "mover-and-shaker" in the television industry during the medium's golden age and continued to take a high profile as a media personality long after the gold turned to waste, through some kind of reverse alchemy. In the process of leaving his mark on the histories of both live drama and television talk, Susskind would be honored with a Peabody, a Christopher, and 47 Emmy Awards.

As Jack Gould observed in 1960, there were "virtually two Susskinds." Susskind I was a behind-the-scenes figure who was a major force, perhaps the major force, in the East-Coast branch of the television industry in the 1950s; the other Susskind was the public man who would first achieve celebrityhood as the moderator/interviewer of Open End, a Sunday night discussion series aired by WNTA-TV in New York City. Some might say that his achievements were only surpassed by his arrogance. Described by his critics as "combative," "controversial," "blunt," "endearingly narcissistic," Susskind once aspired to be "the Cecil B. DeMille of television." As a self-styled "iconoclast" and "rebel," Susskind cultivated a reputation as a television insider who was an outspoken critic of the medium and its mediocrity. According to Susskind, "Ninety-five per cent of the stuff shown on it [TV] is trash."

Susskind's ability to get things done, his genius as a logistician, was honed in the Navy during World War II. Serving as a communications officer aboard an attack transport, Susskind saw action at Iwo Jima and Okinawa. By the time he was discharged in 1946, he had given up his old ambition of landing a "job at Harvard as a teacher," and set his sights on show business. He actually went looking for his first job in his Navy uniform and quickly found a position as a press agent for Warner Brothers studios.

It was as an agent, that most despised, parasitic, and necessary of show business professionals, that the behind-the-scenes Susskind would first encounter success. After a brief stint as a talent scout for Century Artists, Susskind worked his way into the Music Corporation of America's television program department where he managed such personalities as Jerry Lewis and Dinah Shore. In the early 1950s, after the obligatory dues paying, he came to New York and joined with Alfred Levy to form Talent Associates, Ltd.--an agency that would represent creative personnel rather than actors and specialize in packaging programs for the infant television industry. The new firm's first package sale was the Philco Television Playhouse, a live, one-hour drama series on which Susskind would later find his first producer job filling in for one of clients, Fred Coe. After this heady experience, Susskind re-invented himself as a producer whose horizons extended far beyond the small screen, producing over a dozen movies and over a half-dozen stage plays in his forty-year career. As to television, in addition to serving as a producer on The Kaiser Aluminum Hour, The DuPont Show of the Week, and Kraft Theater (among others), he also performed as the executive producer of Armstrong Circle Theater. During this period, Talent Associates, Ltd., also thrived. In 1959, Susskind's company contracted for nine million dollars in live shows, more than the combined efforts of the three major television networks.

From the 1960s to the 1980s, Susskind would come into his own. Open End, a forum which sometimes lasted for hours, went on the air in 1958. Called "Open Mouth" by Susskind's detractors, the show originally started at 11:00 P.M. and ran until the topics--or the participants--were exhausted. In 1961 the show was cut to two hours and went into syndication; and in 1967 the title was changed to The David Susskind Show. Susskind's most significant interview, by far, was with Soviet Premier Nikita S. Krushchev. Broadcast in October 1960, during the chilliest days of the Cold War, the interview dominated the headlines across the nation. Although station breaks featured a spot for Radio Free Europe depicting an ax-wielding communist soldier smashing a radio set, most observers scored the event as a propaganda coup for the impish Krushchev. As Jack Gould put it, "The televised tête-à-tête terminated in an atmosphere of Russian glee and Western chagrin."

In his twenty-nine years as a talk show host and moderator, the abrasive Susskind would often rub a guest the wrong way resulting in what he termed "awkward moments," "like Bette Davis flying off the handle and attacking me." Tony Curtis even threatened to punch him "right on his big nose" after Susskind characterized Curtis as "a passionate amoeba." Susskind courted controversy by addressing such hot-button subjects as civil rights, abortion, terrorism, drugs, and a number of exotic or alternative lifestyles. His guests were as wide-ranging as his discussion topics. The roster of people who accepted invitations to appear on his show includes Harry S. Truman, Richard M. Nixon, Robert F. Kennedy, Vietnam veterans, even a ski-masked professional killer.

Susskind continued to be intermittently involved as a producer of prestige programming, including Hedda Gabler (1961), The Price (1971), The Glass Menagerie (1973), and Eleanor and Franklin (1976). It is ironic, yet somehow fitting, that the grand impresario who introduced millions of television viewers to Willy Loman would, himself, suffer the death of a traveling salesman. Susskind died alone in a hotel room of a heart attack at age 66 in 1987.

-Jimmie L. Reeves

 


David Susskind

Photo courtesy of Diana Susskind Laptook

DAVID SUSSKIND. Born in New York City, New York, U.S.A., 19 December 1920. Educated at University of Wisconsin; Harvard University, graduated with honors 1942. Married: 1) Phyllis Briskin, 1939 (divorced); 2) Joyce Davidson, 1966 (divorced, 1986); three daughters and one son. Served in U.S. Navy, 1943-46. Began career as a press agent; founder with Alfred Levy, Talent Associates Ltd.; hired by Music Corporation of America to produce Philco Television Playhouse; produced other early television programs; hosted own talk show for nearly thirty years; expanded production activities to Broadway and films; company purchased by Norton Simon, Inc., renaming it Talent Associates-Norton Simon for theatrical as well as film production, 1970; company sold to Time-Life Films, 1977. Recipient: Emmy Awards ,1966, 1967, 1976, and 1977. Died in New York City, 22 February 1987.

TELEVISION SERIES (selection)

1947-58 Kraft Television Theatre
1948-55 Philco Television Playhouse
1950-63 Armstrong Circle Theater
1952-55 Mr. Peepers
1956-57 Kaiser Aluminum Hour
1954-56 Justice
1958-67 Open End (host)
1967-87 The David Susskind Show (host)
1960-61 Witness
1962 Festival of Performing Arts
1963-64 East Side/West Side
1965-67 Supermarket Sweep
1965-70 Get Smart
1967-70 He and She
1967 Good Company

MADE-FOR-TELEVISION MOVIES (selection)

1960 The Moon and Sixpence
1967 The Ages of Man
1967 Death of a Salesman
1972 Look Homeward Angel
1973 The Bridge of San Luis Rey
1973 The Glass Menagerie
1976 Caesar and Cleopatra
1976 Truman at Potsdam
1976 Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years

FILMS (selection)

Edge of the City, 1957; Raisin in the Sun, 1961; Requiem for a Heavyweight, 1961; All the Way Home, 1963; Lovers and Other Strangers, 1969; Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, 1974; Loving Couples, 1980; Fort Apache, The Bronx, 1981.

STAGE (selection)

A Very Special Baby, 1959; Rashomon, 1959; Kelly, 1965; All in Good Time, 1965; Brief Lives, 1967.

FURTHER READING

Asinof, Eliot. Bleeding Between the Lines. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1979.

 

See also "Golden Age" of Television; Talk Shows