Recalling a Conversation with, and the TV Work of, Gore Vidal
Gore Vidal was very seldom warm to the touch -- and only during highly irregular weak moments.
Full of himself and even fuller of ideas, one of literature's master preeners died Tuesday at the age of 86. He went quietly, which wasn't his thing. And he left behind an extraordinary output of words put to page and then often to screen.
This is a television website, so that's the prism through which I remember the very singular Eugene Luther Gore Vidal Jr. He wrote more for television than most people might remember. Even if in the end, he became more famous for a storied spontaneous encounter with William F. Buckley Jr. during ABC's coverage of the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
Still a Lilliputian compared to CBS and NBC, struggling ABC had sought to spice up its presentation by inviting Vidal and Buckley to have at each other. The network got far more than anticipated when Vidal referred to Buckley as a "crypto-Nazi" after earlier telling him to "shut up a minute." Buckley responded in kind: "Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I'll sock you in the goddamn face and you'll stay plastered." CNN's Crossfire wouldn't come along until 1982, but the seeds had been sown.
Vidal wrote for television in two big spurts. His first credit, during the so-called "Golden Age of Television," was an episode titled "The Jinx Nurse Case." It was for the 1953-'54 season of Janet Dean: Registered Nurse, a wholly forgotten syndicated drama series about a young RN who soothed patients' psyches while also treating their ailments.
He wrote prolifically for TV during the '50s and early '60s, putting his name to vintage anthology series such as Omnibus, Goodyear Playhouse, G.E. True Theater, Armchair Theater and Sunday Showcase.
Gore re-directed his prose back to television in the latter half of the 1980s, writing the teleplays for two NBC miniseries, Dress Gray and Lincoln, and the quirky TNT western Gore Vidal's Billy the Kid, starring Val Kilmer.
He seemed to be proudest of Lincoln, a 1988 adaptation of his book of the same name, with Sam Waterston in the title role and Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Todd Lincoln.
During a telephone interview on the day of the Land of Lincoln's presidential primary election, Vidal said he had no abiding interest in who succeeded Ronald Reagan.
"Why should I be if nobody else is?" he asked. What do you think I am, some sort of freak? It's appalling."
He actually said that rather pleasantly.
Vidal twice ran unsuccessfully for political office, the last time in 1982 against Jerry Brown for the Democratic Senate nomination in California.
"We still have real issues," he said of the 1988 race for the White House. "But if you discuss them you're out of the race. (Democratic candidate Richard) Gephardt is the only one who's interesting, in his totally phony way."
He tried to warm up to Jesse Jackson. But as only he could put it, Vidal said, "He is getting so consensus-minded that I expect by the time of the convention he will be a platinum blonde. He doesn't seem to be very useful anymore."
As for NBC's version of Lincoln, "I was stunned by the intelligence of it," Vidal said.
Although homely and plagued by insecurities, Lincoln was "a master of the media, the first real PR president," in Vidal's view. "He was a very smooth article, and a standup comic, too. If you ever see a Will Rogers movie, you will see the Lincoln style. He'd be marvelous on television."
NBC kept Lincoln out of a frenetic "ratings sweeps" period, instead airing it in late March of 1988 opposite a made-for-TV movie starring Ricky Schroder.
"I don't think we'll have any trouble," Vidal sniffed when told of his principal competition.
Although he professed surprise at the quality of the finished product, NBC pared away much of the sub-plotting that enriched Vidal's Lincoln book.
"Well, television has its priorities, you see," Vidal said. "Shirley MacLaine must have eight hours to say she is God. Whereas four hours is quite enough for Abe Lincoln." (Actually, ABC's adaptation of MacLaine's best-selling Out On a Limb ran for five hours.)
Vidal's last TV hurrah, although precious few remember it, came in October, 1995 with A&E's Gore Vidal's Gore Vidal, a two-hour documentary tied to his memoir Palimpsest. Those were the days before A&E gave itself over to Dog the Bounty Hunter, Storage Wars, Hoarders and the like.
Vidal served as an on-camera tour guide to some of his favorite locales -- New York City, Washington, D.C. and Ravello, Italy, where he wrote most of his latter day books in virtual seclusion.
Friends of Vidal's also weighed in, including the late author Kurt Vonnegut. He opened the program by telling viewers, "He's the wittiest of all American writers. Most of us aren't witty at all. He has a rather prickly personality. How popular do you expect a porcupine to be?"
Vidal feigned amazement: "I am startled to read how venomous I am. Vitriolic, Vicious."
And thoroughly one of a kind. In A&E's monthly programming guide for October, 1995, Vidal said of himself: "I'm exactly as I appear. There is no warm lovable person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water."
The man who was "no good at being a child" is now no longer among us. Nor are his two principal antagonists -- Buckley and Norman Mailer, whom Vidal once compared to Charles Manson. They made most of today's shouting matches seem rather banal. So let's go to the tape a final time for one of the most famous exchanges in television history:
Read more by Ed Bark at unclebarky.com