“Are You In Any Sense A Newscaster?”

Walter Winchell wielded a fearsome power from the 1930s through the 1950s, via his newspaper gossip column and radio show, and often used his influence poorly and viciously. He was immensely famous during his prime and nearly completely forgotten by his death in 1972. Winchell appeared on What’s My Line? in 1952. At the 18-minute mark. 

Dick Cavett recalled spending an evening with the late-life Winchell, in the New York Times“Winchell had fear-induced influence most everywhere, and in his heyday had acquired from his cop friends the sort of official police car radio forbidden to ordinary citizens, allowing him to habitually cruise the night and, upon hearing of a crime in progress, speed there for a column item.

‘They never give me a ticket for speeding,’ he boasted to me. A moment too soon. Minutes later, we got one. Somewhere on lower Park Avenue, while responding to a police call.

To his chagrin, my companion of the night’s name and visage cut no ice with the young rookie.

Despite the lives he purportedly ruined when at his peak — careers made and destroyed with a few words in his column or on the air — it was still sad to see the old lion now toothless. At one precinct we’d visited earlier, where in better times a chorus of, ‘Hey, Walter!’ would have gone up, only an ancient sergeant knew who he was. Walter devoured the scrap.

To the young cops, he was a cipher. My knowledge of his past victims — said, even, to include a few suicides — at that moment didn’t matter. That evening, as I accompanied him on his nightly prowl, I felt like quietly paying someone to say, ‘Hey, ain’t you Walter Winchell?’

And then it happened. At one precinct, a young gendarme with a good ear suddenly said, ‘Hey, Pop. Say something else! Talk again.’ He did.

‘Oh, my God! I know who you are!’

W.W. beamed.

‘You’re the announcer on The Untouchables!

Someone had been smart enough to cast the uniquely voiced Winchell — an excellent actor with, once, the most instantly identified voice in America — to narrate The Untouchables, the then popular T.V. crime series about the tough cop Eliot Ness in Prohibition Chicago. Winchell’s staccato delivery was perfect for the intermittent narration bits.

At the moment of recognition, Winchell grinned and seemed to visibly drop 20 years. To almost anyone not a victim of his past predations, it would be hard not to be moved by that moment, seeing the effect on the old fellow. Fame — though vastly reduced to a voice-over — had administered a craved injection.

Delighted, the former giant grabbed a pen and, eagerly and gratefully — although it had not been sought — signed an autograph.”

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