September 24, 2018

Saul Halpert, 93, longtime TV journalist

Back in the day, broadcast journalists came in three varieties. Walter Cronkite embodied the “voice of God” approach to delivering the news. George Putnam was more of a “personality” than a journalist, and his booming voice and blow-dried coiffure was caricatured in the character of Ted Baxter on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” And the younger generation of up-and-coming TV correspondents included razor-cut and matinee-handsome young men like Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather.

And then there was Saul Halpert.

Halpert died last week at the age of 93. Southern California television viewers of a certain age will remember him as a hard-edged and hard-driving news hawk, sharp-eyed if also short in stature, a man who disdained the happy talk that prevailed in broadcast journalism and preferred to go after the story. Yet he was also kind and tolerant, approachable and forthcoming, a real mensch, which explains the outpouring of grief that attended his Aug. 16 passing.

Halpert was a journeyman reporter without pride or pretension, and he went where the assignment desk sent him. “Back on Dec. 14, 1963, at KNXT, I assigned Saul to cover the arrest of the [Frank] Sinatra Jr. kidnappers at an FBI news conference,” recalled his boss at the time, Pete Noyes. “Right in the middle of the news conference, I paged Saul and told him to take his crew and head to the Baldwin Hills Dam, which might burst at any minute. Saul cursed me out but followed orders. He, cameraman Doug Dare and soundman Pierre Adidge were standing on the dam when it broke and barely escaped death. Eventually, they were rescued by a sheriff’s helicopter. You’ve probably seen their film of the dam collapse at one time or another. It’s an L.A. classic — and so was Halpert.”

Halpert was born in Albany, N.Y., in 1922. The family moved to Southern California when he was 16, and he attended Belmont High School in Los Angeles. He served as a second lieutenant in the Army during World War II, and he returned to L.A. after the war to earn a B.A. at USC and a master’s degree at UCLA. Later in life, he taught journalism at both schools.

“Hard-boiled” is an adjective that is stereotypically used to describe private eyes, but it also applies to Halpert’s style of journalism. “Just the facts, ma’am,” is what radio and TV detective Joe Friday used to say, and that’s how I remember Halpert’s delivery of the news. His reporting was always rooted not in talking points but in hard facts, whether he was covering the mind-boggling outbreak of Beatlemania or the breaking news of a dam collapse.

As it happens, I knew Saul Halpert when I was a young magazine and newspaper journalist in the 1970s, and he invited me now and then to join the guest panels on “Channel 4 News Conference,” the long-running show that he hosted on Sundays on the local NBC affiliate. Halpert worked at all three network affiliates over his long career, and everyone who was privileged to know him will agree that he embodied the qualities that his fellow broadcast journalists always praised, even when they did not actually practice them. 

My most precious memory of Saul Halpert, however — and one that I have reflected upon many times over the years — is a long, chatty lunch at which Saul and his wife, Ruth, began to reminisce about the death of their adult son, Robert. “He had such beautiful legs,” Ruth recalled, and they both fell silent for a moment. And it was at that moment that I glimpsed the depth of emotion that was the wellspring of the compassion that he brought to his 40-year career in journalism. That unguarded and heartfelt disclosure brought tears to my eyes then, and so does Saul’s passing so many years later.

The family of Saul Halpert has announced that memorial contributions can be made to the Ruth L. Halpert Memorial Scholarship Endowment in the name of Saul E. Halpert, CSUN Foundation, 1811 Nordhoff Street, Northridge, 91330-8321. Inquiries should be directed to (818) 677-6057 or development@csun.edu.

JONATHAN KIRSCH is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.