Alistair Cooke says goodnight to PBS' 'Masterpiece Theatre'

July 22, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Los Angeles -- His audience might not be as large as Johnny Carson's. But another TV institution is about to leave the airwaves after more than 20 years of being a regular visitor in the homes of American viewers.

Alistair Cooke, 83, will retire as host of PBS' "Masterpiece Theatre," with his last appearance scheduled for Nov. 29, said Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of the series.

"Masterpiece Theatre" is the longest continuing prime-time drama series on TV. And Cooke has been host since it began 22 years ago.

"I have been promising my publisher a book for the last two years, and I must get to it. The rest of my declining energies I want to devote to the thing I most love doing: the weekly BBC 'Letter From America,' " Cooke said in a prepared statement released here yesterday.

Eaton said that she received Cooke's letter of resignation last month, and had asked him to reconsider.

"We begged him to stay. We tried everything," she said. "He's defined Masterpiece Theatre for 21 years. For many people, he's defined PBS. . . . But he decided it was time for him to stop."

Cooke remains active, according to Eaton: "He still plays golf, jazz (piano) and goes to Wimbledon." His "Letter From America" is a 15-minute report that airs once a week on BBC radio.

In an interview two years ago in connection with the 20th anniversary of "Masterpiece Theatre," Cooke described his role on the show as that of "headwaiter," saying, "I'm there to explain for interested customers what's on the menu and how the dishes were composed. I'm not the chef."

Cooke was not initially interested in being the host of the series, Eaton said. When the original producer offered Cooke the job, he turned it down, recommending H. L. Mencken and several other humorists, each of whom turned out to be dead when the producer tried to contact them about the position. "I wondered how long it would take him to figure that out," Eaton recalled Cooke saying.

Eaton told the story as an example of Cooke's puckish humor. It was a humor often in evidence in his opening and closing chats with the Sunday night audience for "Masterpiece Theatre." Eaton added that when she finally accepted his resignation and asked him to suggest a possible replacement, Cooke jokingly suggested Johnny Carson.

Eaton said no replacement has yet been named, and that the producers will take as long as they need to find the right person.

I= "Those are very, very, very big shoes to fill," she said.

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