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Nate Kaplan Gave TV Anchors Words

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“Nate was a legend,” said TV newsman Saul Halpert.

“He was the guy you looked up to,” said KNBC Channel 4 news executive Pete Noyes, who is not easily impressed.

“Nate was considered the best radio and TV news writer this city has ever produced,” added Joe Saltzman, USC professor of journalism.

Nate Kaplan died of cancer recently at 74. In his time, he wrote copy for Chet Huntley, Clete Roberts, Ralph Story, Jerry Dunphy and other top TV names. But his colleagues will tell you that his achievements far transcended these associations.

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In a business that lavishes attention on anchors, the public often forgets that it is the people behind the scenes--writers and producers, for instance--who really make or break the famous faces on the screen.

For that reason, Kaplan was a star among his peers, and they make no bones about it in remembering him.

What they remember as well is that, in addition to his gifts as a writer, he was a devoted teacher at USC for the last 17 years--that rare kind of educator who follows his students in their careers and remains their always-available mentor.

Faith Daniels, news anchor of NBC’s “Today” show, was one of his students, and she recalled: “Nate always stressed two things--write it like you’re talking, and tell it like you’re telling a story. For Nate, good writing was conversational writing.”

Another of his students, KNBC anchor Kent Shocknek, learned the hard way about Kaplan’s standards.

Kaplan got him his first job, at a station in Sioux City, Iowa. Shocknek then moved to a station in Orlando, Fla., that had a consulting agency. The agency praised a tape of Shocknek’s performance and, elated, he sent it to Kaplan--and got this reply, as paraphrased by the anchor:

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“Dear Kent: Let me give it to you straight. I haven’t seen you anchor since you left Sioux City, and I never saw you look as bad as you do on this tape. If I didn’t know you better, I’d say you were just another stamp out of the consulting company’s cookie cutter. Forget anybody else’s advice--go back to being yourself.”

Kaplan’s quiet authority at his craft still impresses those who worked with him. Story, a droll, highly popular essayist on the old KNXT Channel 2 (now KCBS), recalls:

“Nate worked with Huntley here when I first came to the West Coast. I got acquainted with Chet in the 1950s and thought he was a wise and witty man, which he was. But the more I got to know him, I got to know that many of the wise and witty things he said were written by Nate. And then the same thing happened to me. I worked with Nate, and after a while people thought I was wise and witty too.”

Kaplan had begun his broadcast career writing for such stations as KNX and KABC radio. Awards began to start coming his way. And then, in the early 1960s, he joined KNXT’s successful nightly broadcast, “The Big News,” writing “The Human Predicament” segment for Story.

“The remarkable thing,” says Halpert, “was that it was just a talking head--Ralph Story telling a story. It was unheard of in those days. No visuals. And amazingly, it was one of the most popular things on the program.

“I was a reporter for ‘The Big News.’ But Nate and I had worked together at KABC radio as writers. And he was a legend--the fastest, best news writer in the business. He was a marvel to behold--that copy paper would come out and, presto, there was a script, with rarely a typo.”

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Dunphy anchored “The Big News,” an hourlong broadcast that, notes Saltzman, “set the pattern for news programs to come. Story’s feature was emulated throughout the country. It was a new kind of newswriting for television.”

But, says Noyes, “Nate was a guy who never wanted credit for anything he did. He never wanted to be in the limelight. He just wanted to write about other people. He could write it all. Here was a guy who never did anything outrageous--he was just a very, very steady human being, a teacher who would sit down and conduct a clinic every day on how to write news.”

When the now-classic, local TV series “Ralph Story’s Los Angeles” was created, it also broke ground. “It was one of the first magazine shows anywhere,” says producer Dan Gingold--and there was Kaplan again, paired with writer Jere Witter, with Saltzman joining as line producer.

“It was a new kind of TV,” says Halpert, “going out and shooting stories around town.”

“Nate had put the words in Chet’s mouth,” says Gingold. “And he really became Ralph’s alter ego stylistically--and Ralph’s the first to admit it. We pleaded with Nate to join ‘Ralph Story’s Los Angeles.’ I don’t think he had a peer in the business. Jere and Nate were outstanding, different stylists--Jere was acerbic, sort of wry, and Nate just wrote wonderful prose, fluid copy with great style and warmth.”

Witter recalls: “Nate was a very good man in a business where there aren’t many gentlemen. He could bump up against a typewriter stand accidentally and win an Emmy any time he wanted. The way he would write a news story, you could tell it. It was all of one piece. Most news shows are like boxes and pieces, but with him it had a top and a bottom and a middle. It would flow.

“And he had one talent I never had--patience with people. You know, you appear as smart or as dumb as the material is, and Nate never betrayed anybody in that respect. I would have flashes; he was the steadier writer.”

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The creative team of “Ralph Story’s Los Angeles” then turned out a brief but intriguing series called “Rod Serling’s Wonderful World of . . . ,” with Serling hosting explorations of such topics as gluttony and prejudice. And Kaplan was there again.

In later years, he kept on writing, teaching and working as a TV consultant. His students, and thus his standards, are represented in newsrooms across the country.

“The word was the thing with Nate,” says Halpert. “No matter what pictures you get, you still have to say something about them.”

“Nate,” says Gingold, “was the most serene, organized person I ever worked with--an island of serenity in a sea of chaos, unflappable, always sitting out there sucking on his pipe, turning out copy. You’d just say, ‘Nate, I need something in the next two minutes--can you have it?’

“This guy put words in the mouths of people you know and made them seem articulate, a hell of a lot better than they might otherwise seem.”

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