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New Master for ‘Masterpiece Theatre’ : Columnist and Author Russell Baker to Take Over as Host of PBS Series

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Russell Baker, a New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, was named Tuesday to take over in October as host of PBS’ “Masterpiece Theatre,” succeeding Alistair Cooke.

“In America, if you’re not on television, you’re not an American,” Baker, 67, quipped at a news conference here. “I’m a huge fan of ‘Masterpiece Theatre,’ and I thought this was the most honorable way to satisfy that lust to be on TV.”

Cooke, 84, a British-born journalist who has lived in the United States since the 1930s, retired last fall after 22 years as host of the acclaimed British dramatic anthology.

“We have been approached by literally hundreds of actors and actresses, historians, journalists, aristocrats about being the host,” said Rebecca Eaton, the executive producer of “Masterpiece Theatre” at WGBH-TV in Boston. “Russell Baker had been on our ‘short list’ from the beginning. When we found out that he might be interested, we were delighted. He is a distinguished and elegant writer, and we believe that he will continue the literary tradition of ‘Masterpiece Theatre.’ ”

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Eaton, who declined to specify the others who had volunteered or been considered for the job, said that the series will continue using interim hosts until the new season starts next fall.

Baker, who will continue writing the twice-a-week New York Times column that he began in 1962, started his career as a reporter in 1947 and joined the Washington bureau of the New York Times in 1954. He has written 14 books and has won two Pulitzer Prizes--one for his column in 1979 and one for his autobiography, “Growing Up,” in 1983.

“When they first approached me months ago (through Christopher Lydon, a former New York Times reporter who is the host of a public-affairs series on WGBH-TV), I laughed,” Baker told the news conference. “I said, ‘I’d like to be the man who succeeds the man who succeeds Alistair Cooke. . . . But when they asked again later, I had increased my self-esteem, and my daughter also convinced me that, after 45 years in print journalism, I needed to refresh my spirit. I thought, ‘Why not give it a try?’ ”

Baker said that he expects to play a role similar to Cooke’s, introducing the drama and commenting on it for American audiences. He said he plans to write the introductions, the closing and the continuity between the episodes.

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While his column is often filled with humorous observations on the American scene, Baker said he does not expect to “poke fun” at the works on “Masterpiece Theatre,” although he said his role might evolve over the years if he continues as host. His contract, as Cooke’s was, is for one year, he said.

Baker, whose personal taste in fiction runs to 19th-Century novels, said that he had seen almost all of the “Masterpiece Theatre” series over the years, citing Henry James’ “The Golden Bowl,” “Countess Alice” and “Jeeves and Wooster” as among his favorites.

He did, however, joke that he had seen “too much” of some series, such as “Poldark,” but he added that he hoped the producers from WGBH would find him “a vest like Poldark’s” now that he has been hired.

Eaton said that Baker’s first series had not been selected yet, and she added that Baker’s all-American profile “did not signal a departure” from the made-in-Britain character of “Masterpiece Theatre.”

Russell Baker

Born: Aug. 14, 1925

Residence: New York City

Education: BA, Johns Hopkins

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Career highlights: Baltimore Sun, London bureau chief, 1953-54; New York Times, member of Washington bureau, 1954-1962, author of “Observer” column 1962-present. Awards: George Polk Award for commentary, 1979; Pulitzer Prize, 1979, for distinguished commentary, and in 1982, for biography for “Growing Up.” Named host of “Masterpiece Theatre” February, 1993.

Quote: “I didn’t set out in life to be a humorist. I set out in life to be a novelist, and I look like a novelist. Art Buchwald looks like a humorist. . . . I don’t look like him and most of the time I don’t even look like myself.”


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