Army Archerd: Hollywood's last inside man
For someone like me who makes a living writing about Hollywood, getting a friendly phone call from Army Archerd was the equivalent of a young actor getting a "way to go" pat on the back from Jack Nicholson. Army, who died Tuesday at age 87, was one of the few showbiz journalists who belonged on Mt. Olympus. When he got his start at Variety back in the early '50s, the legendary figures in the business were all still alive and kicking, doing every day what put them in the history books -- Harry Cohn was still screaming at his underlings, Ben Hecht was still cranking out screenplays and Frank Sinatra was boozing and brawling and breaking up with Ava Gardner.
I'd done a piece on Army back in 2002, which was a huge kick, since Army let me sit next to his desk, while he worked the phones and wrote a column. He liked the article, even though -- being from a more irreverent generation than his own -- I’d slipped in a few slightly disrespectful details (saying, for example, that Army “had a suspiciously full head of neatly combed gray hair”). If it bothered Army, he never let on. We became bosom telephone buddies, with Army calling to check in on a regular basis. We talked earlier this summer, with Army calling to offer feedback on something I'd written, though feedback hardly does the conversation justice, since what Army usually did was offer a 15-minute tutorial on the history of whatever subject I'd touched on.
Whenever I wrote a column complaining about the dullness of the Oscars, Army would check in, offer a few approving words and then patiently explain what the academy should really be doing to fix the telecast, punctuated with a few anecdotes about some of his favorite Oscar shows from the distant past. As was pretty evident from his work, Army was an inside man -- he had a Rolodex the size of a missile silo and knew how to use it. I remember one year, earlier this decade, when the academy's award review committee organized a postmortem on the telecast, Army got everyone on the phone -- and on the record in his column -- before they'd even had the meeting.
Army was a man of his times, a reflection of a journalistic era when -- if you were a reporter for the trades -- you let the celebrities speak for themselves. You didn’t quote anonymous friends or spies, reporting on who was checking into rehab or canoodling with a hot babe at a club while the wife was out of town. In an era full of crass, Army was a throwback to a time when people could actually do their jobs with class. He not only didn’t belittle or snark about celebrities, he didn’t trash his fellow journalists, as is the custom these days in the blogosphere.
Even when Army wrote up his best-known scoop, breaking the news in 1985 that Rock Hudson had AIDS, it was written in classic Archerd fashion, with Army appealing to the better instincts of the Hollywood community, saying: “The whispering campaign on Rock Hudson can and should stop.” Army rarely took noisy stands on hot-button issues, but when he did weigh in on a touchy subject, he got everyone’s attention.
When his old pal Marlon Brando told Larry King that “the Jews run Hollywood, and that’s why minorities are treated the way they are,” Army offered a gentle rebuke, making it plain that Brando had stepped over the line. An old-school liberal, he was also openly critical of the academy for giving a lifetime achievement award to Elia Kazan, one of the great filmmakers of his era who’d informed on his friends during the 1950s Red Scare. Army expressed his sentiments in his signature style, writing that “I, for one, will not be giving him a standing ovation.”
We disagreed on that issue -- I thought that Kazan’s larger-than-life achievements carried more weight than his questionable personal behavior -- but with Army, you could always agree to disagree without provoking any bad blood. He’d just say, “Kiddo, you and I are on opposite sides of the fence on this one.”
I guess I liked Army because he was an old pro. He never called attention to himself or hyped his work, the way so many of today’s Hollywood bloggers do. He just did his job and did it well.
I remember sitting by his side as he tracked down Halle Berry in Spain, where she doing a James Bond film. In the space of a few minutes, Army had put her at ease, made her laugh and pumped her for the kind of information he needed to fill in the blanks in his column. He was a true gentleman of the old school, managing to find out whether Berry was going to do a nude scene in the film by posing the question this way: “You don’t have to disrobe again, do you?”
When I first arrived at his office, I asked him how much of his column he’d already researched or reported. He laughed and pointed to his computer screen. All it said was “Good morning,” his customary opener. “That’s all I got,” he said. “The rest is spelled F-E-A-R. I’m always thinking, ‘Where is the news lurking? Who can I call? There are days when I shvitzs [sweat] a lot.”
Army made writing a daily column sound like a lot of work, but the great thing about his writing was that the sweat stains never showed. He made it look effortless, the same way a great actor can underplay the most difficult scene. It was telling that in Variety’s obituary, his wife, Selma, said that when the couple went on vacation, they’d go to visit movie sets. Army loved his work so much that you couldn’t tell where the worked ended and the fun began.
Photo: Army Archerd. Credit: Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times.