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Longtime TV Anchor, Known From ‘the Desert to the Sea,’ Dies

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Jerry Dunphy, one of the most recognizable and popular news anchors in Los Angeles for more than four decades with his trademark line, “From the desert to the sea to all of Southern California,” has died.

He was guarded about his age but admitted to being at least 80.

Dunphy, who had undergone heart bypass surgery in 1978, suffered a heart attack Wednesday in front of his Wilshire Boulevard condominium and had been hospitalized. KCAL-TV Channel 9, where Dunphy was one of the main anchors, announced his death Monday night.

“Anchors come and go, but Jerry Dunphy is a Los Angeles institution,” said Joe Saltzman, Associate Dean of the USC Annenberg School of Communication. Saltzman worked with Dunphy during the 1960s at KNXT (now KCBS) on the pioneering “The Big News,” one of the first local TV newscasts in the country to run one hour each night. “Viewers were very loyal to him.”

In a prepared statement, Dunphy’s family said he “served as a constant beacon of truth and guidance in our ever-changing world.”

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With his distinctive white hair and deep voice, Dunphy was one of the key anchors for some of Los Angeles’ most innovative TV news formats. In the 1960s and for half of the 1970s, he was primary anchor for “The Big News.” In 1975, he moved to KABC-TV Channel 7, where he was an anchor for the “Eyewitness News” format, which mixed titillating stories with friendly banter.

John Severino, the former KABC general manager who brought Dunphy to the station in 1975 and is godfather to his teenage daugher, said Dunphy was “a throwback to the glory days of broadcasting.”

“When he did ‘The Big News,’ there was NBC, CBS and half of ABC. He owned the market,” Severino said.

At KNXT, the station’s news routinely attracted nearly 25% of homes in the Los Angeles area, beating the competing stations combined.

When Dunphy’s contract came up for renewal, Severino told Russ Barry, who was running KNXT, that he had no interest in hiring Dunphy. “I said, ‘He’s over the hill, we wouldn’t want him,” Severino said, later telling Barry after he had signed Dunphy to KABC, “I lied.”

In an interview conducted during the 1990s, Dunphy attributed his longevity in the precarious world of local TV news to “a certain amount of, dare I say it, credibility that I’ve established. Or maybe because they are accustomed to this old face.”

The newsman had worked at KCAL since 1997, his second stint at the station.

Though he was praised for his journalism, Dunphy was regarded, particularly in his earlier local career, as one of the best newsreaders in the business.

“He’s probably the best reader I ever worked with,” said Saltzman, who was a news writer for “The Big News.” “In those days, a writer really wanted a good reader. It was like having a great layout in the newspaper. Jerry had beautiful pitch, and he put a story over with conviction and intelligence. There was no pretense about it.”

Saltzman added, “It tends to sound degrading when you say a person is a great reader, but it’s the highest of compliments. There are a lot of very good anchors, but not that many good readers.”

Dunphy was often candid about his views on news, once criticizing KABC while he worked there, accusing the station of diluting its newscast with trivia. He also said that the station sensationalized stories with little substance, and that a credible journalist “has to compromise in the name of good business.”

“You’ve got to respond to what the public is going to watch if you’re going to get the [big] number,” Dunphy said in a 1984 interview on “Inside Story,” the public television series about the news media. “Ratings are a real important part of the business.”

He added during the interview that “there are a lot of things on television today that wouldn’t have been put on 10 or 12 years ago--a lot of entertainment information, a lot of little stories that could easily go without telling but [which] have a certain amount of appeal to them.”

“Whether they’re good news stories or not--that’s something else,” Dunphy added. “We’ve diluted the product somewhat to getting where we are. And sometimes being No. 1 and having something like that succeed, keeps you ... doing it.”

He would reflect on his earlier career, saying “The Big News” was a particularly exciting time.

“There just wasn’t any of the flimflam that you see today because it just wasn’t necessary, because there was no competition,” Dunphy said in a 1993 interview with The Times. The interview preceded his receipt of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences’ Los Angeles-area Governors Award, the group’s most prestigious honor, as part of the local Emmys.

“As soon as the competition set in, things got a little frothier, promotions get a little flakier.”

He would tell how he was paid $25,000 a year when first starting as an anchor and reporter at KNXT.

He was one of the first local newsmen to report from Vietnam in 1966. Dunphy in 1979 nabbed the first extended live television interview with Richard Nixon since the former president left office in 1974--a dialogue Times columnist Howard Rosenberg called “soft, an interview suffering from a bad case of the squishies.”

Dunphy first joined KCAL in 1989 when the station was acquired and renamed by the Walt Disney Company. KCAL lured Dunphy away from KABC to be the centerpiece of the station’s groundbreaking three-hour prime-time news block. He was rumored to have received a contract worth an estimated $5 million over five years.

His departure from KABC was also due to his unhappiness when the station gave anchor Paul Moyer (who has since moved to KNBC-TV Channel 4) a lucrative contract while denying Dunphy some of those benefits and perks, including allowance for a company car.

Dunphy went back to KCBS in 1994 when KCAL allowed his $1.3-million-a-year contract to expire. He was unable to help that station’s struggling ratings, and he returned to KCAL in 1997.

He experienced more than his share of personal drama. Dunphy suffered his first heart attack in 1978, undergoing multiple bypass surgery. Four years later, he was robbed at gunpoint by thieves who broke into his home, tied him up, stole an estimated $13,000 in cash and jewelry, and drove off in his Rolls-Royce.

In 1983, he was shot in the neck and wrist by gang members who robbed him. The woman he was with, KABC makeup artist Sandra Marshall, was also injured. Marshall, 26 years younger than Dunphy, later became his second wife.

He suffered another heart attack in 1991, which again resulted in a multiple-bypass procedure.

Dunphy was also known outside his local anchor duties. In addition to appearing in numerous films as an anchor, Dunphy served as one of the inspirations for the blustery Ted Baxter character on the classic TV comedy “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

He was “one of the most dynamic and popular newscasters in the history of the business,” said KTLA-TV Channel 5 “News at 10" anchor and managing editor Hal Fishman, who has been a local anchor since 1960.

He also was “a serious journalist, which contrasts with the fun and games that permeates much of local journalism,” Fishman said.

Dunphy was born in Milwaukee and attended the University of Wisconsin.

After starting his career in Peoria, Ill., in 1947, he briefly moved to Southern California, but struggled to find work. Two years later, he took a radio job in Davenport, Iowa, where he met and married his first wife.

Dunphy had a daughter with Marshall and five children from his first marriage.

Funeral arrangements are pending.


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