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Reuven Frank's Last Hurrah as TV Producer Airs Tonight

August 02, 1988|JAY SHARBUTT | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Reuven Frank was the night city editor of New Jersey's Newark Evening News when he got a call from a pal, Gerald Green, at NBC's television news division. Want to work at NBC?, Green asked.

"No," Frank replied. Green, later to write the best-selling novel "The Last Angry Man," got mad. He badgered Frank to give NBC a try. Frank finally did, as a writer.

Frank's try, which among other things led to two tours as president of NBC News, has lasted 38 years. His first major job: writing for John Cameron Swayze's "Camel News Caravan," with its boast of showing "today's news today."

"Which it didn't," he recalled the other day.

Tonight, Frank, who is retiring at the end of this month, starts his farewell with "The Pension Cookie Jar," his last hurrah as a producer at NBC, for which he has made about 30 documentaries.

"It's my last piece of television production," said Frank, a soft-spoken, gently whimsical man born 67 years ago in Montreal. "I don't ever expect to do any more."

Maybe not. But his dossier shows he has done quite a lot already, including authorship of a slide aired in 1979 on "Weekend," a critically praised, low-rated news magazine series he created and produced. The slide said this:

"Most men lead lives of quiet desperation; film at 11."

Frank is considered a pioneer in TV's coverage of political conventions as well as a fine documentarian whose work includes the acclaimed 1962 program "The Tunnel," a graphic account of West Berliners burrowing into East Berlin to bring out 59 people there.

He also was responsible for bringing together David Brinkley, a one-time Washington correspondent for "Camel News Caravan," and Chet Huntley to co-anchor NBC's coverage of the 1956 political conventions.

It proved a turning point for NBC News in its battle against CBS. The contrasting styles of the new co-anchors--Brinkley had the dry and irreverent concession, Huntley the stern and serious--won both critical cheers and high ratings.

Their pairing led to NBC's successful "The Huntley-Brinkley Report" evening newscasts, a broadcast created and produced by Frank, who stayed with it from its debut in 1956 until 1964, save for some time out to produce five documentaries, including "The Tunnel."

Brinkley still is co-anchoring political conventions, but now for ABC, where he also anchors "This Week With David Brinkley" on Sundays. He recalls his former producer as both an excellent journalist and a man of learning.

"He was very scholarly," Brinkley said. "Still is. I think he would have been a Talmudic scholar had he not gone into journalism."

Linda Ellerbee recalls Frank--who attended the University of Toronto, the City College of New York and the graduate school of journalism at Columbia University--as a teacher of television news.

"When I first met him, he looked like a little old white-haired man who might or might not hire me," said Ellerbee, who co-anchored "Weekend" in its last year with Lloyd Dobyns and later the quirky, irreverent "NBC News Overnight," which aired during Frank's second term as the news division's El Supremo.

"He turned out to be the greatest teacher I've had--of anything," said Ellerbee, who has since left NBC \o7 and \f7 ABC for her own soon-to-be-syndicated news series.

"It sounds corny, but he taught by example . . . and he was smarter than anyone I ever worked for--which may account for why he's not still running things."

Pat Trese, a former NBC producer-writer who worked for Frank both on "Huntley-Brinkley" and "Weekend," recalls--as did Ellerbee--that his boss' constant battle cry was to let the picture tell the story.

(Frank still feels that way, and grumbles that today, nobody in television news "cares about picture anymore . . . photojournalism is dead.")

In matters of what copy accompanied the story, Trese said, Frank "wasn't a word-changer . . . he wouldn't sit down and quibble over a word. He'd just smash your basic premise and say, "You missed the whole point; give me another take.' "

The aim of that exercise, Trese said, was to "encourage people to think. And I gained that from him. . . . He encouraged people to think far beyond the daily news."

Frank first presided at NBC News from 1968 to 1973, a tumultuous era in which network television news blossomed and was often berated for the way it covered Vietnam, civil rights and the Johnson and Nixon administrations.

He took over following the death of the division's chief, William R. McAndrew, a close friend.

"I tried to do things the way he did, which was to make news possible, not to interfere in it," Frank said. "If you didn't like the way a thing was going, you'd fire the producer and get another one."

He stepped down to return to documentary-making, then went back up from 1982 to 1984.

Life at the top of a network news division can be fun if all you have to think about is news. The problem is, "you're always talking about money--either asking for more or being told that you're spending too much," he said.

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