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Alistair Cooke, 95; Host of 'Masterpiece Theatre' Aired 'Letter From America'

March 31, 2004|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Alistair Cooke, the British-born journalist and commentator who brought a refinement and elegance to American television as the popular host of "Masterpiece Theatre," has died. He was 95.

Cooke, who offered insightful radio commentaries for the British Broadcasting Corp. for 58 years, died at his home in New York City at midnight Monday, the network announced in London. The cause of death was not reported, but Cooke was known to have had heart disease. He retired from the BBC just weeks ago, citing health concerns.

As the host of "Masterpiece Theatre" from 1971 to 1992, Cooke supplied wry, informative introductions for adaptations of Evelyn Waugh's "Brideshead Revisited," Jane Austen's "Emma" and Henry James' "The Golden Bowl" as well as the made-for-television series "Upstairs Downstairs." His urbane manner recalled a kindly professor.

"Cooke introduced more people to what one would call good literature than thousands of high school and college instructors might have done," said Howard Gottlieb, director of the Mugger Library at Boston University in a 1998 interview with Cooke's biographer, Nick Clarke. Cooke donated his personal library to the university.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday April 01, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Alistair Cooke -- The obituary of commentator Alistair Cooke in Wednesday's California section stated incorrectly that "Brideshead Revisited" and "Emma" were part of the PBS series "Masterpiece Theatre," on which Cooke served as host for many years.

Cooke joined the BBC in 1934 as a film critic, but European audiences knew him best for his "Letter From America" -- weekly commentaries broadcast on BBC radio starting in 1946 and continuing until his final report aired Feb. 20. There were 2,869 talks in all, each a 13-minute, 30-second spot offering Cooke's observations on political and cultural life in the United States.

"Cooke had a mission to explain his adopted country to his native country," Clarke said. "He wanted to show that Americans have a depth you don't necessarily see in American films and television sitcoms."

His "letter" aired in 50 countries and gained a broad audience in England. "With equal verve and knowledge, Mr. Cooke comments on the activities of the churches, Hollywood, university presidents, baseball players, gangsters and scientists," the London Financial Times wrote some years ago. "People who want to know what really goes on in America cannot dispense with Mr. Cooke."

In London, Prime Minister Tony Blair led the mourning Tuesday for the popular commentator.

"I was a big fan," Blair told the BBC. "I thought they were extraordinary essays, and they brought an enormous amount of insight and understanding to the world.

"He was really one of the greatest broadcasters of all time, and we shall feel his loss very, very keenly indeed," Blair added.

The U.S. ambassador to Britain, William Farish, was another of Cooke's admirers. "His death is like that of a longtime friend or a wise and kindly uncle, and reminds us all of the impact a life well lived can have," he said.

Clarke told British reporters Tuesday that "Letter From America" "was the thing that mattered to him more than anything. He reckoned it was work in progress. He never thought the thing was over.... I think he thought retirement was a very bad idea and when he was forced to stop work three weeks ago, I thought, this won't be long now because here was a man living for this one task."

From the time that Cooke moved permanently to New York City in the late 1930s, he was appreciative of his adopted country but not blind to its flaws. In his final letter, he compared President Bush's decision to invade Iraq with the U.S. invasion of Iraq by the president's father in 1991 and suggested that this time, as last, it could cost Republicans at the polls.

"The new, invigorating party conviction is a belief that Democrats had not dreamed of so far," Cooke observed. "It is the belief that George Bush can be beaten in November." With typical wry humor, he added: "This thought apparently took hold of the primary voters long before it dawned on the Democratic Party as a whole."

By English standards, "Cooke was more American than the Americans.... Cooke loved America far more than he loved his home country," Clarke told The Times in 1998. Cooke became a U.S. citizen in 1941.

A self-made man, Cooke explained his enthusiasm in one of his earliest letters from America.

"I never remember hearing anyone in America, no matter how snobbish, say that somebody didn't know his place," he said. "It is a deep, almost unconscious belief of Americans, that your place is what your talent and luck can make it."

Cooke first attracted a U.S. following as host of "Omnibus," a pioneering commercial television program about the arts and culture. The show aired from 1952 to 1961 -- first on CBS and later on ABC. He proved to be a thoughtful observer with a rare appreciation for both British and American culture.

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