NEW YORK—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.
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.