Cecil Smith dies at 92; Times TV critic advocated literate, high-quality shows
By By Dennis McLellan
Jul 14, 2009 | 12:00 AM
Cecil Smith, a former longtime Los Angeles Times television critic who covered the TV and entertainment scene for The Times from the 1950s to the 1980s, has died. He was 92.
Smith died of congestive heart failure Saturday in a hospital in San Luis Obispo, where he had been living in a retirement community, said his son, Marcus.
In a career at The Times that began as a reporter and feature writer in 1947, Smith became an entertainment writer in 1953. He served as TV columnist and entertainment editor from 1958 to 1964 and was drama critic from 1964 to 1969. In 1969, he became the paper's television critic and a columnist for The Times Syndicate. He retired as the paper's TV critic in early 1982.
"He was one of the giants in the business," said Howard Rosenberg, who succeeded Smith as The Times' principal TV critic.
"Cecil was such a graceful writer," Rosenberg said. "You could wake him up at 2 in the morning and set him down at a typewriter and within an hour he'd turn out a gracefully written piece with all the right references and all the right phraseology that would take me a week to turn out. He was just a terrific writer and a very literate person."
Smith, Rosenberg said, "really was, I think, the last of a certain breed of television critics who saw television as this vast stage for entertainment. I think later on, there were more and more critics who felt that it had much more social impact."
Lee Margulies, The Times' deputy editor of the daily Calendar section who worked with Smith in the 1970s and '80s, said: "He brought a great intelligence and knowledge of the world and all of the arts to his coverage and really was a strong voice for more literate and higher-quality television while the medium was still in its infancy."
Rosenberg recalled that Smith had a terrific sense of humor and a recognizable laugh. "He was a very funny guy and a great raconteur," he said.
Smith was born May 22, 1917, in Marlow, Okla. His family moved to the Los Angeles area and he graduated from Santa Monica High School. He received a degree in history from Stanford University and later earned another degree from UCLA.
During World War II, he was a captain in the Army Air Forces and as a pilot flew a B-24 Liberator in the South Pacific.
From 1938 to 1941, Smith wrote radio plays, and he went on to write 50 television scripts after the war. He later hosted "Cecil Smith on Drama" for two years on public television.
In a 1982 Times story, Smith recalled that during the televised 1952 Republican National Convention, City Editor Bud Lewis told him to stay home and write a piece about it.
Smith recalled: " 'I don't own a set,' I told him. As he looked around for another loafing reporter, I cried: 'I'll buy one.' "
That was, he wrote, "the beginning of a 30-year love affair with television."
"Until I began writing a daily TV column in 1958, I also worked on more substantial stories for The Times like panty raids and Iowa picnics," Smith wrote. "But TV as an entertainment medium and an art form has annoyed me and frustrated me and puzzled me and depressed me, but has totally fascinated me for three decades. It was one of the best jobs in this flea-bitten racket."
Smith married his second wife, Cleo Mandicos, in the late 1950s. Smith continued to write for The Times for a number of years after he retired, and he occasionally wrote for other publications until he was 91.
Rosenberg recalled reading something Smith had written about TV in a small publication last year. "Even at his age, it was full of 'Cecilese,' " Rosenberg said. "It was beautifully written and had great wit to it, and it was like he'd never left. Here he was in his 90s and he still had the gift."
In addition to his son Marcus, Smith is survived by his wife and their other son, Scott; as well as their daughter, Tina; his brother, Larry Smith; and two grandchildren.