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Remembering Tom Shales, a TV critic with a biting wit

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Pulitzer Prize-winning television critic Tom Shales, known for his biting wit and for never holding back and expressing his strong opinions, died on Saturday from complications of COVID. He was 79. In an appreciation published in the Washington Post, where Shales made his professional home for nearly 40 years, opinion columnist David Von Drehle wrote, this singular man struck terror in the greedy hearts of TV executives while delighting countless dazzled readers. For more than a quarter-century, Shales was the preeminent analyst of America's cultural juggernaut. Shales was neither highbrow nor lowbrow. Instead, he vigorously enforced the principle that television owed its viewers a modicum of respect. Shales was also known to public radio listeners, reviewing films on Morning Edition for two decades. When Terry interviewed Tom Shales in 1989, he'd just published a collection of columns he'd written over the years to TV and film stars, columns written right after their deaths.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TOM SHALES: Actually, it's sort of a Polaroid of me. Not to sound egocentric about it, but it's my reactions, my emotional response more than anything, to the deaths of these people who I held dear, if not near. And so most - about two-thirds of the book is authentic, sort of immediate period-of-mourning stuff.

TERRY GROSS: Of the people who you write about and legends, who had the greatest effect on you?

SHALES: It's hard to say. The first one I ever did - and we made it the first one in the book - was Bing Crosby. And why did Bing Crosby have such an effect? I mean, I don't know. I always admired not only his singing - I found his voice just terribly comforting and comfortable. But I like the way he carried himself in public. I liked his jaunty, blithe kind of attitude. I loved the kidding that would go on in the Hope and Crosby pictures. I just thought he had a wonderful, apparent outlook on life. And nothing I've learned about him since, you know, has really changed that impression I have of him. So that meant a lot to me.

John Belushi - I remember being quite broken up. I was at home. And they called me to say he had died. And I had to drive in for the purpose of writing about him. And I was very, very sad in the car. And I had a tape in the tape player, and it just happened to be some rather mournful Welsh music. And not that John was Welsh, but it just had me in a very sad way because we - I think one reason that John's death and Gilda's death made me so sad is that we thought of these people as stars who would be around for all of our lives. They were going to be our stars, you know, our generation, sort of our bid to have people join these legends and these semi-immortals. And when Belushi died, it was - and it was just - a very - it was a bucket of cold water on all of our high hopes, I think.

GROSS: Do you remember getting your first television?

SHALES: Television set. I like to have it called a television set. I don't know why because I think of television as the medium. Yeah, I sure do. I sure do. In fact, little Johnny Nights (ph), who lived next door, gave away the secret. I was on my way home from the grocery store. Is this sick that I remember this now?

GROSS: Oh, no, no, no.

SHALES: OK. Good. Is this pathetic? And I was on my way home from the grocery store with groceries, no doubt. And little Johnny Nights gave away the fact that we had a new RCA mahogany 14-inch console television set. And, of course, I couldn't race home fast enough. And there he was, "Howdy Doody," in all his black-and-white splendor. Yes, I remember that well.

GROSS: So what was your first impressions when you first watched TV in your home?

SHALES: That this was a miracle, that this was the second coming and nirvana all rolled into one. It was wonderful. And of course, kids today would think I was just out of my mind talking like this. But you have to imagine that I lived in a small town, and to me, this was a - this was an electronic link to New York, and not so much to Hollywood then, but to New York and to Chicago as well, where there was some great local TV coming out, including "Kukla, Fran And Ollie" and things like that. So it was a - it was opening a world. It was opening a window to me. It was giving me access to, like, theatre and the world of New York theatre that I otherwise wouldn't - only have been able to read about.

And it - there were great things on TV in the '50s. Live drama, of course, we've all heard about that. But there were shows like "Omnibus." And Sunday afternoon then, there were not football games. There were cultural shows put on as public services by all the networks, shows like "The Seven Lively Arts" and "NBC Experiment In Television." Can you imagine, an experiment in television? We don't have those anymore.

GROSS: Were there any shows that irrationally scared you? You know, they left you terrified, and looking back, you can't imagine why.

SHALES: Well, no. I can imagine why. "The Honeymooners" scared me as a child.

GROSS: It did?

SHALES: Uh-huh. The idea of a husband and wife fighting with this kind of frenzy - this didn't happen in our house. And it was shocking to me and a little bit scary. It was in later years that I began - I liked the other parts of the "Gleason Show" when I was a kid. I thought Reginald Van Gleason III, a guy who would look at his own mother and say, boy, are you fat - to me, that was just the height of irreverence. This was wonderful to be a wealthy playboy and, you know, do exactly as you pleased. I thought that was hilarious as a kid. That just thrilled me to no end. But "The Honeymooners" scared me a little.

GROSS: So what do you have to watch today?

SHALES: Well, I've already - I just watched the the two-hour return of "Beauty And The Beast" on CBS, which is on December 12. Are you curious about that?

GROSS: Not very (laughter).

SHALES: Well, pardon me for mentioning it, then. What might interest you, pray tell, this week's news? I don't - I haven't seen that yet.

GROSS: No. I'm just curious how much you watch each day.

SHALES: Oh, oh, oh. Well, I watch - I try to watch one of the morning shows, like the second hour. And and then I watch an old "I Love Lucy" rerun. And then I watch - I see who's on Donahue and who's on Oprah and who's on that other guy, Geraldo, maybe sometimes. And then I watch an old movie maybe or something. And then I go to work. And then I get some serious watching in.

GROSS: (Laughter) Oh, Tom Shales, thanks a lot for talking with us.

SHALES: Thank you.

DAVIES: Tom Shales speaking with Terry Gross in 1989. Shales died Saturday at the age of 79. If you'd like to catch up on interviews you've missed, like our conversation with director Ava DuVernay about her new film "Origin," or with journalist Kyle Chayka, whose new book "Filterworld" examines how social media algorithms influence our tastes, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @NPRFreshAir.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Sam Briger. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Ann Marie Baldonado, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. For Terry Gross and Tonya Mosley, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE CHRISTIAN'S "AC DC CURRENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Terry Gross
Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.