Adventures in television — and life

Adventures in television — and life

Andy Friendly’s book recalls Bergen County blizzard, cable TV in Fort Lee, and working with Geraldo Rivera

Andy Friendly, his wife, Pat, and Geraldo Rivera in Los Angeles in 1994. (Courtesy Andy Friendly)
Andy Friendly, his wife, Pat, and Geraldo Rivera in Los Angeles in 1994. (Courtesy Andy Friendly)

Ask Andy Friendly about his time in New Jersey and he immediately mentions Baumgart’s in Englewood, the only Asian food/ice cream parlor he says he’s ever been in.

His memories also include the Englewood carriage house where he lived when he worked in Fort Lee, from 1990 to 1995, and a 1995 snowstorm that forced him to climb out of a window so he could shovel the front door.

He also remembers the small house in Edgewater, where he also lived at around that time.

But it is that employment in Fort Lee that is most interesting. It dates back to 1990, when he was brought in to invigorate CNBC at night. The network was the cable business leader during working and stock market hours, but after the close of business its ratings became anemic.

Mr. Friendly’s concept was simple, and in retrospect obvious: talk. The only primetime talk show at the time was Larry King on CNN. So Andy brought in Tim Russert, Tom Snyder, Phil Donohue and, most memorably, Geraldo Rivera, and gave them and others relatively free reign.

The idea wasn’t an instant success. That came later, with O.J. Simpson.

Clint Eastwood, Tom Snyder, and Andy Friendly in 1979.

“The Geraldo show was struggling to find its way,” Mr. Friendly recalled in a telephone interview. “The night of the slow-speed chase, I called him at home. Knowing he was a lawyer, I told him you can explain this to the country. This could be our Iran hostage story, which put “Nightline” on the map. They did it every night, which we did, too.”

Geraldo’s ratings jumped from 0.2 to 1.2, and that “lifted all boats.”

Mr. Friendly’s success at CNBC was one of many in an extraordinary career: he created the first late-late program on network TV, Tom Snyder’s “Tomorrow Show,” as well as the first episodes of “Entertainment Tonight.” He also shepherded such programs as “Inside Edition” and “Hollywood Squares” while he was president of the King World production company.

All of this is documented in his new memoir, “Willing to Be Lucky: Adventures in Life and Television.”

That Andy would have these adventures seems almost beshert. He was born the same week in 1951 that the CBS news program “See It Now” debuted. That award-winning series featured the legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow and was produced by Andy’s equally legendary dad, Fred. It broadcast many important and memorable documentaries, most famously exposing the dangers of Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy.

He grew up in Riverdale, in the Bronx, but not surprisingly, Andy’s earliest memories involve not his neighborhood but TV. “I was kind of a studio rat,” he said. “If I wasn’t in school I was hanging around the studio at CBS. I’d met people like the great Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, and I was also hanging around with the editors and cameramen. I had fun, but they also taught me so much.”

Tim Russert and Andy Friendly at a 2004 luncheon that Mr. Friendly organized; Mr. Russert talked about protecting freedom of the press.

His career started with a boost from Dad, who arranged an interview for a temporary opening as a researcher for the WNBC local news operation.

The senior Friendly could be hard nosed at work — and at home. “He set up the interview and told me, ‘This is the only time I’m going to help you — and it’s going to be the last time I do it.’”

Andy admits being the son of a luminary “was a mixed blessing, but mostly positive. There is a downside to being the son of a powerful producer and executive if you want to work in television. Everyone assumes that the only reason you’re there making a living is because of your dad. I had to work harder than anyone else to overcome that presumption. It was a motivator.”

Mr. Friendly is still proving his mettle — with a tip of his hat to Dad. Andy, who went to Hebrew school and was a bar mitzvah, is not very religious. “I don’t go to temple enough, but I do support Jewish causes and am very dedicated to the plight of the Jewish people.” Also, there are still holiday dinners with families where, often, a letter from dad Fred is read.

The older Friendly was a reporter for Stars & Stripes during World War II. He accompanied the 11th Armored Division as it liberated the Mauthausen concentration camp. He sent a long and emotional letter to his mother, recounting what he saw and what he felt, memories he insisted would stay with him forever.

Andy Friendly, who is a board member of Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation at the University of Southern California, is hoping to use some of the 300 hours of testimony from and about the camps’ liberators to create a six-part documentary series.

“It’s a real passion of mine,” he said. “It’s in development, so I can’t really talk that much about it. It will tell the story of the camps not from the survivors’ side, but from the liberators’, young soldiers who really had no idea of what they were getting into.”

It is of course a tribute to Dad and his letter, and proof that Disney was right. It is The Circle of Life.

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