Legendary Broadcaster Alistair Cooke Dies

Alistair Cooke, the quintessentially urbane host of television's "Masterpiece Theatre" and interpreter of U.S. culture for decades on British radio's "Letter from America," died Tuesday at his Manhattan home. He was 95.

The British-born Cooke had retired just three weeks ago, following the advice of doctors who had diagnosed his heart disease. He passed away at midnight in his adopted home country, according to the British Broadcasting Corp. No cause of death was given.

"He was really one of the greatest broadcasters of all time, and we shall feel his loss very, very keenly indeed," British Prime Minister Tony Blair told the BBC.

Sitting in his trademark wing chair, Cooke hosted highbrow television for the U.S. audience -- British imports like "Upstairs, Downstairs" and "I, Claudius" on PBS' "Masterpiece Theatre."

His role on the show, Cooke once said, was as its headwaiter: "I'm there to explain for interested customers what's on the menu, and how the dishes were composed. But I'm not the chef."

Across the Atlantic, Cooke provided British radio audiences with his "Letter from America" for 58 years, offering insights on anything from the World Series to Washington in spring -- whatever caught his fancy.

Blair was among the feature's legion of fans: "I thought they were extraordinary essays and they brought an enormous amount of insight and understanding to the world."

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, another "Letter" aficionado, praised Cooke for his "lifelong efforts to increase mutual understanding between peoples."

William Farish, the U.S. ambassador in London, said many Americans will always associate Cooke with "the best of Britain."

"He had movie star good looks, a poised and effortless manner, a first-class mind, and -- most flatteringly -- a sincere and abiding interest in all things American," Farish said.

Cooke became a naturalized U.S. citizen on Dec. 1, 1941, six days before Pearl Harbor, as he liked to note.

Sixty years later, after Sept. 11, 2001, he was explaining another attack on U.S. soil to his "Letter from America" listeners.

"What is more unbelievable than the enormous, hellish wasteland of downtown New York is the stamina and courage of the firemen rescue workers -- 350 lost by now," he said.

As evidence of his enduring appeal on two continents, Cooke received four Emmys and three Peabody awards for broadcasting -- and was made a Knight Commander, Order of the British Empire.

It was an honorary award because of the consummate Englishman's change in citizenship.

"He personified the special relationship between England and America," said "Masterpiece Theatre" executive producer Rebecca Eaton. "He was the perfect combination of journalist, social historian, gifted writer and actor."

Evidence of his status as a cultural icon was provided by two wildly disparate incidents: An invitation from the U.S. Congress to serve as keynote speaker at the 1976 bicentennial celebration, and a "Sesame Street" parody featuring the Cookie Monster as "Alistair Cookie."

BBC reporter Nick Clarke, a biographer of Cooke, said news of the veteran reporter's retirement earlier this month had worried him.

"When he was forced to stop work three weeks ago, I thought, this won't be long now," Clarke told Sky TV.

"Letter from America," which was carried on the BBC World Service and on Radio 4 in Britain, started in 1946, and was originally scheduled to run 13 weeks.

"Alistair is a national institution," Christopher Sarson, the original executive producer of "Masterpiece Theatre," once observed. "He has defined what public television was and is for so many people that it is difficult to imagine life without him."

Born Alfred Alistair Cooke in Salford in northern England in 1908, he earned an honors degree in English from Cambridge University. In 1932 he came to the United States for a one-year fellowship in dramatic research at Yale University, and he journeyed across the country by car.

"That trip was an absolute eye-opener for me," he later recalled. "Even then, even in the Depression, there was a tremendous energy and vitality to America. The landscape and the people were far more gripping and dramatic than anything I had ever seen.

"It truly changed me. You see, from then on my interest in the theater began to wane, and I began to take up what I felt was the real drama going on -- namely, America itself."

Returning to England and using his middle name, Cooke joined the BBC in 1934 as a film critic. He became the BBC commentator on American affairs in 1938.

In a speech to the Royal Television Society in New York in 1997, Cooke traced the development of his refined, soft-spoken style to his wartime work with the BBC.

"During the end of the war, the BBC in New York invited various famous exiles, Frenchmen mostly, to come and talk to the underground in France -- famous, famous, great literary men," Cooke said. "And I had the privilege of sitting in the control room, and I thought that I will learn about broadcasting from listening to these men ... What I learned is that they were dreadful broadcasters."

Cooke realized a new job was emerging: "Writing for talking." He quickly emerged as one of the masters of the medium.

Cooke published 12 books, including "Alistair Cooke's America" (1973), which sold more than 800,000 copies in hard cover.

In addition to his BBC work, Cooke was London correspondent for NBC in 1936-37, The Manchester Guardian's U.N. correspondent from 1945 to 1948, and chief U.S. correspondent of the Guardian until 1972.

He was host of the "Omnibus" television program in the United States from 1952 to 1961, and presented "Masterpiece Theatre" on PBS from 1971 to 1992.