The uniquely American odyssey of R.E. (Ted) Turner fittingly deposited him where he belongs this week--in a museum. Right here in Los Angeles.
"When you're hot, you're hot," he said.
The setting was the County Museum of Art. The occasion was the New York Museum of Broadcasting's annual television festival here. And a crowd that included his friend Jane Fonda showed up Wednesday night to hear the pop potentate of cable TV pop off about his grand triumph--the decade-old CNN.
But Turner's journey through the national scene has become so much more than CNN--almost daily, it seems. And some in the crowd that turned out to hear him seemed to sense it.
"Is CNN ever going to report," asked one man, "on Ted Turner running for President of the United States?"
"I hope not," quipped Turner, the only head of a major American television network who is an open and unabashed social activist--and makes no apologies for it. "I'm tired now."
President, no. But when you run a national TV operation, or four, as in Turner's case--CNN, CNN Headline News, TNT and TBS--your clout can be enormous. Especially when, as the godfather of cable TV and a kind of maverick folk hero, you take up cause after cause.
As in his museum session this week, Turner's public style is mischievous, irascible, funny and outrageous. President, no--you have to be duller than that. But Turner's colorful image and devastating don't-tread-on-me mockery has enabled him to get away with what duller fellows couldn't because people either fear him or don't take him too seriously.
Take him seriously.
Consider: It wasn't long ago that many conservatives regarded Turner as a kind of super-patriot voice from the South who was going to buy and shake up CBS, which, the network's enemies felt, had a "liberal bias."
And now consider: Turner's TNT network has announced plans to make a two-hour film about Paul Robeson, the great black performer, athlete, scholar and activist who was a center of political controversy, had his passport revoked and eventually accepted the Stalin Peace Prize.
In recent years, Turner, increasingly vocal about nuclear policies, has aggressively called for better relations with the Soviet Union, using his TV muscle to produce such events as the Olympics-style Goodwill Games.
He created his Better World Society to improve what he felt were the ills of the planet--a notion that once might have been regarded as a cockeyed utopian scheme, but seems right at home in the new atmosphere of concern over such matters as the environment.
Joker or visionary?
And therefore Turner somehow seems human and accessible, perhaps even to those who violently disagree with his views. Almost nobody knows the names of the presidents of ABC, CBS and NBC, but lots of people know that character with the Cheshire-cat grin and Southern-fried accent who runs CNN.
He put himself on the line again with a TBS broadcast that favored the right of women to have abortions. The program, with a pro and con debate that followed, came at the height of emotional furor over the issue. Advertisers fled. Was this the Ted Turner that used to be? Certainly didn't seem so. But somehow, as usual, things just rolled right off his back and he survived without much of a hassle.
Was it because a cable channel has a smaller audience than a major network and therefore has less national impact? Partly, yes. Thus, Turner was showing what cable could do that ABC, CBS and NBC couldn't.
But always, there's that good-old-boy image of the past that is his secret weapon. Oh, you know, there's old Ted raising hell again. Wonder what he's up to now. Hey, you remember Ted--loves to party, loves to sail, loves to have a good time. He sure is always doing something, old Ted.
Take him seriously.
In no time, his TNT channel of classic movies and new productions has become a sensation. And he's shooting the works again, lining up top talent. Example: Vanessa Redgrave, another great but controversial performer, will star with Christopher Plummer and Maximilian Schell in the miniseries "Young Catherine," with filming of this story of Catherine the Great done in and around Moscow and Leningrad.
Redgrave will also reprise her well-received Broadway performance in Tennessee Williams' "Orpheus Descending" in a TNT film that is scheduled to begin production Monday in Jacksonville, Fla. The Broadway revival of the play has been important to Redgrave in overcoming barriers to her in the United States that have existed since her remarks about "Zionist hoodlums" on the 1978 Academy Awards show in which she won as best supporting actress for her unforgettable performance in "Julia," in which she co-starred with Fonda.