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Army Archerd dies at 87; Variety columnist watched over Hollywood for half a century.

Reporter known for being a trusted figure who stood apart from the industry broke the story of Rock Hudson's battle with AIDS.

September 09, 2009|Robin Abcarian

Army Archerd, a prolific reporter who chronicled the personal and professional lives of Hollywood stars and moguls for more than half a century from his columnist's perch at Daily Variety, and rocked the entertainment world when he announced in 1985 that actor Rock Hudson was suffering from AIDS, has died. He was 87.

Archerd collapsed at home in Westwood on Monday afternoon and died Tuesday at 2 p.m. at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, said his wife, Selma. Five years ago, he was diagnosed with a rare form of mesothelioma, she said, which doctors ascribed to his exposure to shipyard asbestos when he was in the Navy during World War II.

Over the years, as the relationship between entertainment journalists and movie stars evolved from fawning to sometimes harshly objective, Archerd, perhaps best known for his televised job as official greeter of stars each year outside the Academy Awards, remained a respected figure by generations of industry insiders who praised him for his integrity, truthfulness and kindness.

"Army was extraordinarily passionate about his work and was a great crusader -- against the blacklist, for example," said former Variety editor and studio chief Peter Bart, who met Archerd when Bart was sent to cover Hollywood in 1961 for the New York Times. "He was a very honorable man and a damned good journalist."

Archerd, who retired from his "Just for Variety" column on Sept. 1, 2005, but returned soon after with a Variety blog, was also known as a journalist who never forgot which side of the red carpet he was on. In 1996, he told The Times, "I don't burn out because I'm not part of the scene, I'm looking at the scene. I don't get involved like some unnamed people who cover this business."

Though he didn't consider himself part of the crowd he covered, he befriended many Hollywood movers and shakers and was in his own way a Hollywood institution. When Daily Variety threw a charity bash at the Beverly Hilton Hotel to celebrate his column's 40th anniversary in 1993, more than 1,000 people showed up. A-listers who lauded him from the stage included Kirk Douglas, Gregory Peck and Sidney Poitier. The audience included Warren Beatty, Annette Bening, Jack Nicholson, Anthony Hopkins and Aaron Spelling. Even then-President Clinton videotaped a greeting to the columnist.

Dubbed in various profiles "the town crier of Hollywood," "a running intelligence report" and "the town's breeziest boulevardier," Archerd wrote well over 10,000 columns, a three-dot compendium of news, observations and occasional bombshells, sprinkled with the lingo peculiar to Variety, where films are "helmed" instead of "directed" and people "ankle" instead of "quit."

Without benefit of a secretary or an assistant, Archerd began working the telephone as soon as he arrived in his office to churn out his column. Dipping into drawers filled with one of Hollywood's most impressive Rolodexes, he could reach just about anyone he needed to. Bart once bragged that Archerd had the numbers of the nurses on every floor of every important hospital in town.

"A couple years ago, I dropped by to see him and he started to pull out cards from that Rolodex, and some were so old and about to crumble," Bart said. "He'd say 'Here's Jack Warner's private number,' and it fell apart."

Archerd met everyone and interviewed everyone -- Charlie Chaplin in the director's chair, Humphrey Bogart on his deathbed and Jon Peters at the hairdresser's chair. On Oct. 17, 1958, his lead item was about the world's biggest sex symbol: "Marilyn Monroe, who is expecting, requested a grand piano be moved to her Bel-Air Hotel suite to save her going to the studio for rehearsal in her delicate condition. She was off work again Wednesday. . . . " (Monroe suffered a miscarriage that December). There was only one star he longed to interview, but never did: Greta Garbo.

He became such an integral part of the daily ritual of Hollywood that when a bout of flu in 1983 forced him to miss work for the first time in 30 years, the Associated Press reported that "consternation and confusion reigned when the column failed to appear for three days."

Archerd's biggest scoop was published July 23, 1985, the announcement that Hudson was battling AIDS. The actor had never publicly acknowledged his homosexuality, and became the first major Hollywood figure to be linked to the scourge. "The whispering campaign on Rock Hudson can and should stop. He has flown to Paris for further help. . . . His illness was no secret to close Hollywood friends, but its true nature was divulged to very, very few. Doctors warn that the dread disease is going to reach catastrophic proportions in all communities if a cure is not soon found."

The story sent shock waves around the world. "It was a thunder strike," said Bob Thomas, the veteran Associated Press reporter who helped get Archerd his first reporting job in 1945.

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