'Masterpiece' role a lesson in brevity for Russell Baker TURNED ON IN L.A. - Fall Preview

July 28, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

LOS ANGELES -- Russell Baker met the press here yesterday in his new role as replacement for Alistair Cooke on PBS' "Masterpiece Theatre." And Baker was at his self-deprecating best.

"It's an astonishing opportunity to make an utter ass of yourself in front of several million people," the Pulitzer-Prize-winning humorist said when asked what he thought of his new job at PBS.

"I suspect I'm going to need a thick hide to survive the first few weeks of comment when all these people say, 'Well, it's not Alistair Cooke. My God, what is it?' "

"That's seems to be a problem that's current all over television these days," Baker added.

"Jay Leno's having that trouble not being Johnny Carson. Somebody's not going to be David Letterman pretty soon."

Baker didn't have to tell anyone in the audience that he's not too deeply involved in the world of television after he pronounced Leno as Lee-no.

He said he has taped five episodes of "Masterpiece Theatre," including his debut, which airs Oct. 3, and it's been pretty tough sledding most of the way.

"I'm amazed at how little you can say in television," Baker said.

"You all know what 700 words is. I wind up writing at 700 or 730 words [for a syndicated newspaper column]. Well, in television that would take all night.

"When I discovered that the amount of words I have [as host] is approximately a single page, double-spaced, I realized that there is not a lot of information you can impart. All you can do is strike a mood or set a style for what's to follow."

Baker said there have been other equally unhappy discoveries for him in TV Land.

"I've discovered that I can't walk and chew gum at the same time," Baker said.

"In one of the shows, they wanted me to pause in my presentation, pick up a book and then read from it. This required me to put on eyeglasses."

At that point, Baker paused to act the part of a man befuddled by the simple act of putting down a book and picking up and putting on eyeglasses.

"This is the book. Put on eyeglasses now and read. And it was almost impossible. We finally gave up on it. But I've been practicing ever since."

Baker said he finds the job "extremely time consuming right now.

"I need to read the books, look at the films. And my writing takes a great deal of time.

"I'm one of those people who tends to be overprepared against every contingency, so I'm making a lot of work out of it right now."

Baker's best moments came in fast, wry one-line answers.

How did he plan to distinguish himself from the Englishman Cooke?

"Well, I suggested that I might wear bib overalls and sit on a bale of hay," he said.

He was asked if he knew that one of Jim Henson's muppets played Alistair Cooke and how would he feel if the muppets took to parodying him?

"I'd be delighted," he said. "Fame at last. Top of the world, ma."

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