Ed Murrow: What’s in a Name?

On April 27, 1965, my father told me, “The man you were named after died today.”

I was stunned: “Who was it?”

My dad, a Brooklyn teacher who’d belonged to a black-listed group and had refused to sign a loyalty oath, replied, “Edward R. Murrow.”

“Who?” I asked.

“Good Night, and Good Luck,” which opened this month in theaters, answers that question about the legendary CBS broadcaster and more. The film is co-written and directed by George Clooney, who portrays Murrow’s Jewish producer, Fred Friendly (born Ferdinand Friendly Wachenheimer). Years earlier, I’d asked Friendly the same question I’d asked my dad.

I met the former CBS News president around 1987, when he was in Hawaii to shoot an installment of his PBS “Fred Friendly Seminar” TV series. Between takes, I strode up to the 6-foot-something Friendly, then 70-ish, bald and bespectacled, and produced the witty letter Murrow wrote thanking my parents for naming me after him. For a few moments, all production ceased as Friendly poured over the letter and called over his wife, Ruth, to read it, too.

“Thank you for your recent lesson plan and the news that I have a ‘child prodigy’ named in my honor,'” it read in part.

Subsequently, I talked privately with Friendly in his hotel room to ask what kind of a person Murrow was.

Friendly looked thoughtful: “That’s not easy to answer. Ed was complicated. To answer, I’ll send you a copy of my book about Ed.”

Months later, “Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control…” arrived bearing Friendly’s inscription: “For Edward Rampell — who has Murrow in his name & heart. Regards, Fred Friendly.”

Events recounted in this book are dramatized in “Good Night, and Good Luck,” notably the epic on-the-air struggle Murrow and Friendly waged with the anti-communist zealot, Sen. Joe McCarthy, on the CBS “See It Now” program in 1954.

In vivid black and white, Clooney recreates the Cold War’s reds-under-the-beds hysteria. The documentary-like film reveals a CBS eye’s eye view of the Tiffany network’s newsmen’s nerve-wracking decision to expose the fascistic junior senator from Wisconsin.

David Strathairn gives an understated performance as the embattled Murrow. The actor doesn’t play Murrow — who broadcast live from London’s rooftops during the blitz, tackled the U.S. Air Force when Lt. Milo Radulovich was wrongfully discharged as a “security risk” and fought his own boss — as having nerves of steel. Indeed, Strathairn’s character is so nervous that he’s constantly sucking cigarettes. Murrow’s greatness lies in his rising above fear to stand for integrity.

The superb ensemble includes Clooney as cool-as-a-cucumber Friendly (whom Murrow/Strathairn jokes, should not be told he’s Jewish because he loves Christmas so much). Robert Downey Jr. portrays “See It Now’s” Joe Wershba, whom I met in the 1980s when he spoke at a University of Hawaii class taught by Israeli cartoonist Ranan Lurie. (His son, Rod, created ABC’s female president drama, “Commander in Chief.”)

The shrewdest casting is McCarthy and his Jewish aide Roy Cohn — as themselves. Seen only in clips, the senator’s repulsive persona undid him in his attempt to rebut Murrow’s expose. The red-baiting demagogue, who publicly made wild, unsubstantiated charges assailing victims’ patriotism, proved no match for the fact-checking investigative reporter.

Frank Langella — best known as Dracula — depicts William S. Paley, the chairman of CBS. In the film, Paley personifies the network’s profit-driven corporate side in conflict with newsmen using the then-new medium of television to inform and enlighten, rather than merely entertain audiences and sell soap.

As Murrow/Strathairn warns at a 1958 industry awards dinner, television “can teach, it can illumine; yes, and it can even inspire. Otherwise it is merely lights and wires in a box.”

The brilliance of “Good Night, and Good Luck” is making half-century-old history as timely as today’s headlines.

Networks with business before Congress and an FCC chaired by the secretary of state’s son failed to examine, as Murrow might have, government claims about the necessity of today’s war, while “news” is often more tabloid than topical. “Good Night” uses McCarthyism as a metaphor for today’s Patriot Act and other Homeland Security measures that assail civil liberties. The communists of yore have been replaced by the new “ists” du jour — terrorists.

As a child, I learned that Murrow died from his three-pack-a-day habit. That was enough to persuade me to avoid Murrow’s path in that regard.

But my namesake inspired me to become a journalist, and I’ve felt a responsibility to follow in his footsteps. I think that’s something all journalists should strive for, though it isn’t easy, as Murrow’s own experience proves.

Murrow paid a price for the 1954 “See It Now” program that led to the downfall of McCarthy. Unnerved by TV’s power to illumine, CBS ensured the controversial program faded out. Although Friendly became president of CBS News, he resigned in 1966, when CBS preempted congressional Vietnam hearings to air “I Love Lucy” re-runs.

Regardless of the personal cost, Murrow and Friendly only knew how to be the proper kind of journalist. And wouldn’t the public be well served if, when our careers are done, it can be said of us: “He (or she), too, was one of Murrow’s boys.”

Ed Rampell is the author of “Progressive Hollywood, a People’s Film History of the United States” (The Disinformation Company, 2005)


From Blaxploitation to ‘Booth’

On Nov. 15, 2002, filmmaker Larry Cohen should have been atthe multiplex, gauging opening day reaction to the film he wrote, “PhoneBooth,” about a man who must outwit a sniper while trapped in the eponymoustelephonic cabin. But the Washington Sniper changed all that.

No, Cohen was not the target of a hit. But his movie was,last October, when 20th Century Fox postponed the release because of thesnipers (who were ultimately apprehended after killing 10 people and criticallywounding three).

“Phone Booth,” directed by Joel Schumacher and starringcurrent “it boy” Colin Farrell, opens in theaters April 4. 

On this sunny day, Cohen, 64, was bathing in the sunshinethat filled his elegant, 1920s-era home; he was ready to discuss an eclecticcareer, which includes significant contributions to “blaxploitation”(1971-1974) — the urban crime flicks featuring African American actorsdisenfranchised from mainstream Hollywood. This short-lived, but influential,wave was popular and controversial because of violent, racially charged andpolitically incorrect depictions of police, politicians, pimps and drug lords.Blaxploitation recently made a kitschy comeback in rap, the 2000 “Shaft”remake, and last summer’s “Goldmember: Austin Powers III” and “Undercover Brother.”

Long before Quentin Tarantino revived blaxploitation in the1990s, Cohen was the only white — and Jewish — writer-director creating thesource material. During blaxploitation’s starburst, Cohen made the 1973 hit”Black Caesar,” starring Fred Williamson — a seminal work championed in PublicEnemy’s 1989 rap anthem “Burn, Hollywood, Burn!”

Perhaps Cohen’s “in” to this insular trend came from hisfamily’s roots in Harlem, where “Black Caesar” took place. Cohen’s mother livedon 125th Street. His father, of German Jewish descent, was a landlord, andCohen’s grandfather ran a furnishings store.

Cohen grew up in Washington Heights, where he was barmitzvahed despite a secular upbringing and attended George Washington HighSchool, from which legendary independent film director Sam Fuller was expelled.

Cohen’s current home, which he shares with wife Cynthia, waspurchased from Fuller and originally owned by William Randolph Hearst.

Cohen has Sammy Davis Jr. to thank for his footnote intoblack film history. Davis hired Cohen to create a vehicle for the Rat Packer.

Cohen was offered $10,000 to write a gangster picture in the”Little Caesar” vein. Then Davis experienced IRS problems. Cohen was stuck withhis treatment.

But American International head Samuel Arkoff approachedCohen after “Super Fly” and “Shaft” hit big.

“I had that treatment in my car,” Cohen said. “We made thedeal in 20 minutes.”

Cohen hired James Brown to score his second film. “Hereinvented himself as a result of ‘Black Caesar’ into the Godfather of Soul,” he said.

“Black Caesar’s” success caught Cohen by surprise. “Therewere lines around the block in New York … in February!” he said. 

Cohen has garnered praise from his blaxploitation peersbecause he never glamorized criminals.

He added, in a scene where honking taxi cabs leap onto thesidewalk, “those are real pedestrians running out of the way. We said, ‘Let’sjust do it.’ New Yorkers are good at getting out of the way of traffic.”

Cohen pushed the guerrilla filmmaking to absurd heights inthe sequel, “Hell Up in Harlem,” where an improvised fight scene had actorsbrawling throughout LAX, up the baggage carousel ramp, and out onto the tarmacamid taxiing 747s. Incredibly, airport security never intervened.

“Today we’d be shot or arrested or both,” Cohen said.

As fodder for potboilers, Cohen is not through withtelecommunication. David Ellis is directing his latest script,  “Cellular.”

Among the DVDs on Cohen’s shelf sits “Reservoir Dogs.”Compared to “Black Caesar,” some might consider Tarantino’s moviespseudo-blaxploitation. But not Cohen, who admires his work.

“Quentin told me he went to Baldwin Hills to see ‘OriginalGangstas’ on opening day,” Cohen said. “I asked him, ‘Why’d you go all the wayout there to see it?’ He said, ‘I wanted to see it with the audience it wasintended for.'”

“Phone Booth” opens in theaters April 4.