George Putnam, 1914-2008
They say that the deaths of prominent people come in threes, and remarkably, three of the notable Americans whose deaths were announced this weekend were California residents. These were the novelist David Foster Wallace, whose premature and tragic passing I note below; ex-Trotskyite Peter Camejo of the Green Party, Ralph Nader’s 2004 vice-presidential running-mate (who also proved himself as adept in argument as Arianna Huffington, formerly of the Cambridge Union, proved spectacularly inept, in the famed 2003 televised debate of the leading candidates in the California gubernatorial contest brought on by the recall election); and a genuine legend, broadcaster George Putnam.
Putnam, who died in Chino, where he kept a stable of dozens of horses (including the Palominos he rode for almost a half-century in the Tournament of Roses parade), was born in 1914 in Minnesota. He entered the world of radio broadcasting during its golden age, and in the early 1940s gained the attention of the nation’s premier columnist Walter Winchell, who hailed him as the best voice on the air.
After a decade based in New York, Putnam came to Los Angeles and began anchoring the newscast at KTTV, owned by the Times-Mirror company. He instantly rose to the top of the ratings, and at once became the nationally recognized archetype of the local TV news anchorman – impeccably dressed, seemingly omniscient, and with alternately soothing and imposing stentorian tones. (As the late Ted Knight acknowledged many times, Putnam was a major model for the character of Ted Baxter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.) He continued to do regular radio commentaries (keeping them up right into this decade) and also narrated many public-service films, including the one lovingly deconstructed and reconstructed throughout the internet, which has kept his name alive among Generations X, Y, Z, and Millennium: Perversion For Profit. (When watching this film it should be kept in mind that during the past two decades Putnam stated on several occasions that he regretted the homophobic language used in it.)
In 1984, during a 70th-birthday roast for the broadcaster, former President Nixon observed:
Some people didn’t like what he said; some people liked what he said. But everybody listened to George Putnam. That is why he has been one of the most influential commentators of our times.
His death leaves Paul Harvey and Art Linkletter as the last of the active broadcasting giants who began their careers before television.