Walter Winchell, ex-big shot, resurrected on the small screen
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- Once America's most powerful journalist, Walter Winchell made a name for himself with his widely read gossip columns in papers across the country, and with his rapid-fire delivery of razor-sharp wit heard coast-to-coast when radio ruled the airwaves.
He was the king of hot copy, a guy who could change your life with a few choice words. And now he's all but forgotten. Winchell, a man once as famous as the stars he glorified, fell from grace and faded into obscurity. But the fast-talking former king of gossip is being resurrected in an HBO film about his life and times.
Actor Stanley Tucci brings Walter Winchell back to life in the aptly-named HBO production "Winchell," which debuted two weeks ago and replays several times through the end of the year. Tucci, once relegated to bit parts and on the verge of being typecast, has finally started landing bigger roles.
"I had already made, like, 25 movies, playing a variety of roles, and it was a very frustrating time," says Tucci. "I really couldn't get a job, and the only jobs I could get were, like, you know, these bit parts playing mobsters. "
Now he's gone from two-bit hoodlum to the godfather of gossip. But picking up Winchell's machine-gun style wasn't easy. "It was exhausting. He did 238, I think it was 238 words a minute," states Tucci.
Winchell invented a new kind of reporting, dishing the dirt on stars and socialites, mixed with plugs for his friends and shots at his enemies, all served up in his distinctive style. No one had ever heard anything like it before. He literally captured the ears of the entire nation. Fifty-five million people listened to him every day or every Sunday night.
And, of course, there was Winchell's gossip column. In his prime, the 1940s and early '50s, it ran in more than 2,000 daily papers, written with the same frantic pace as his radio show.
According to Tucci, "He became the voice of America, but he also changed the way Americans spoke." He did it with his own shorthand, coining words and phrases like "scram," "pushover" and "belly laughs."
'Like good awful'
New York newspaper veteran Pete Hamill sees the method in Winchell's madness. "Some of it was awful, but it was like good awful." Take for example this Winchell gem, considered mild by most: "Flash! Hollywood, California! The main reason why Ben Bernie, the alleged orchestra leader, can never be president, is because his head is too big to put on a 3-cent stamp!"
Hamill says, "If you're going to write about things that are as old as mankind, you've got to find a new, fresh way to write about them, to make people interested. Winchell found a way."
But not without help. Herman Klurfeld was Winchell's longtime ghost writer and it is his book on which the HBO film is based. He recalls an item from the '30s about Joe Kennedy. "I had learned that one of his mistresses was a gangster's widow. Now, we never linked a married man with another woman. What I wrote was 'one of FDR's aides has (a gangster's) widow as his keptive.' K-E-P-T-I-V-E -- that's all. The only one who knew who we were referring to was Joe Kennedy."
Not all of Winchell's targets were treated with such care. Liz Smith, today's best-read gossip columnist, remembers a time that "Winchell reported that Bette Davis had cancer of the jaw, and some press agent said, 'Well, I don't know whether she has it or not, but if she doesn't have it, she'd better get it!'"
Smith believes the film is an incomplete portrait. "They didn't touch so much on his downside, the people he ruined, how he ruined the lives of his children, how he neglected his wives, and drove them to insanity," she says.
"My column showed you into office and my column can show you out again."
By the mid-'50s, Winchell's world had changed dramatically. The arrival of television dimmed the glamorous New York night scene that he ruled. Joints like the Stork Club and the Copa closed, and worse, so did many of the papers that carried his column. When Winchell publicly backed Sen. Joseph Mccarthy's "Red Scare," he lost even more fans.
As Hamill puts it, "He became out of step with the basic audience, because they didn't believe it. And I think that was the beginning of the end of Winchell. I think it was a self-inflicted wound."
Then, in the '60s, the fatal blow -- Winchell's hometown paper, The New York Mirror, closed.
Eventually, Winchell was reduced to handing out printed copies of his column to famous guests at New York's El Morocco. "He would say, 'This is the Walter Winchell column for today. You don't want to miss this.' And this was so pathetic, it was truly the end of everything," says Smith.
Tucci on Winchell
As for Stanley Tucci, he comes to this film at a point when his film career is cooking. Tucci wrote, co-directed, and starred in the 1996 art house hit "Big Night," followed closely by his appearance in another unlikely success, a farce called "The Imposters."
When asked what Walter Winchell might say about Stanley Tucci, were he alive today and still writing his column, Tucci responds, "God only knows. It would depend on what mood he was in." Regarding the story of Walter Winchell's rise and eventual fall, Tucci says, "I suppose it is a cautionary tale in a way. As he once said, 'There's nobody more ex, than an ex-big shot.'"
Ironically, that could well have been Winchell's own epitaph. After all, when he died in 1972, this man once so famous and powerful, was now bitter and forgotten. He was buried with just one mourner present, his own daughter.
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