Open End: A Mirror of the 1960s
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 21, Numbers 2 & 3, May/September 1991
- pp. 71-76
- Additional Information
David Susskind on the set of Open End. Photograph courtesy of the UCLA Archive. Film & History, Vol. XXI, Nos. 2 & 3, May/September 199171 Open End: A Mirror of the 1960s Mary Ann Watson After carefully reading a recent special commemorative edition of TV Guide, "TV's Legends Then & Now," I was disappointed, but not surprised, to find the name David Susskind is mentioned nowhere in the text-not even in the section labelled "TV's Greatest Creators." Despite the fact that Susskind has been inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, and the Producers Guild of America presents an annual David Susskind Lifetime Achievement Award, his legacy has been largely overlooked in the popular and scholarly literature of broadcast history. Perhaps a 1963 issue of TV Guide provides a clue as to why this is so. "David Susskind is the least controversial man in show business," it was reported, "because nearly everybody hates his guts." Part messiah, part megalomaniac, Susskind had a special talent to annoy. While his professional accomplishments were staggering, his personal frailties were profound. The production company Talent Associates, formed in 1948, at the dawn of commercial television, by Susskind and his partner Al Levy, yielded a remarkable body of television programming that illuminates the evolution of broadcasting and popular culture in post-World War II America. From Mr. Peepers to Armstrong Circle Theatre, from the highbrow Play of the Week to the tawdry game show Supermarket Sweep, from the camp spy spoof Get Smart to the lavish mini-series Eleanor and Franklin, Susskindproduced television was omnipresent on American airwaves. He worked with a galaxy of stars and the pantheon of directing and scriptwriting talent. When David Susskind died in 1987 at the age of 66, he was the most prolific producer in the history of the medium. Most people who remember David Susskind today, though, don't think of him as the producer of hundreds of live dramas, mini-series, and specials such as the Hallmark Hall ofFame productions. Susskind was best known to the public as host of the spirited talk show Open End. This afternoon I'd like to introduce you, or reintroduce you, to Open End and try to make a case for its significance not only as a program that transformed the talk show format, but as a program that was in a very real way a Social barometer. I believe Open End is a perfect case study of the way in which artifacts of broadcast history can inform and enlighten American history. Not only the existing tapes, but the paper documents as well are rich veins to mine for those involved in chronicling the contemporary American experience. Mary Ann Watson is Associate Professor of Communication at Eastern Michigan University. She is the author of The Expanding Vista: American Television in the Kennedy Years (1990). 72 Mary Ann Watson Open End's syndication began in 1958 and it quickly became the forum of choice for movers and shakers. Guests like Norman Mailer, Adlai Stevenson, Robert Dore Schary, Truman Capote and Leroi Jones were probed while seated around a coffee table in a sparse studio set with ladders and kleig lights visible in the background. Ashtrays and coffee cups littered the tabletop. Culture, politics, entertainment, science-no subject intimidated Susskind. This confidence and range were instilled in childhood. His father, a successful insurance salesman who fell on hard times during the Depression, made sure his son was mentally stimulated. "My father had a voracious desire for learning," Susskind recalled. "From age eleven to seventeen, absolutely every Sunday, he used to take me to hear lectures. At the Ford Hall Forum in Boston, we listened to Harold Laski, Felix Frankfurter, Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes-everybody."1 In high school, Susskind's facile mind allowed him to earn nearly straight A's without taking the time to study. Instead, he worked on the school paper, belonged to the debating team and wrote a weekly column for the newspaper in his hometown of Brookline, Massachusetts, a wealthy suburb of Boston that became known as a "hotbed for overachievers." (His Brookline contemporaries included Leonard Bernstein, John Kennedy and Mike Wallace. A few years later, Barbara Walters...