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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

For two days, Hudson's representatives maintained that the actor had flown to Paris to be treated for liver cancer or unexplainable fatigue. "Someone had anonymously mailed him [Archerd] a photocopy of the doctor's records," Archerd's wife, Selma, told The Times in 1999. "And he'd had them for months, but it was so devastating to print it. It was so shocking -- someone that you actually knew! But he waited until Rock was really out of it. The press agents tried to discredit Army. His [previous] editor said he might have to retract it. And Army said, 'Please don't do that to me. The story is right.' And, of course, it proved to be right."

Archerd's juicy celebrity items were also sometimes worldwide scoops. He was the first to report in 1991 that Julia Roberts had flaked out on Kiefer Sutherland three days before their wedding, first to announce in 1992 that Bening had secretly removed Beatty, the father of her infant daughter, from the ranks of bachelors.

"I steer away from things not considered tasteful, but if someone tells me they are expecting a child and I say 'When do you plan to get married?' and they say we haven't made those plans yet, I just say so. It's as simple as that," Archerd said in 1999.

Hollywood people trusted Archerd to get their stories straight -- and to be kind -- and often would not speak to anyone but him. When Johnny Carson celebrated his 25th year with NBC in 1987, the "Tonight Show" host left a message for his publicist: "I'm not doing any interviews, because if I do one, I'll have to do them all. But if Army calls, I'll speak to him."

Once, for a Times profile in 1999, Archerd was asked to name his friends, and immediately reeled off a few: Paul Newman, Gregory Peck, Sidney Poitier, Kirk Douglas. "How about their phone numbers?" asked the reporter. "Sure," said Archerd, opening his Rolodex. The stars returned the calls right away.

"He really is the straight arrow by which all other columnists should measure themselves," said Newman, who died last year. "He's painfully honest and he does his homework, and he never publishes anything without getting double verification on it."

"We all know he is absolutely trustworthy," said Peck, who used to call his longtime friend Armand. "If you tell him something off the record, he will never betray you. He keeps a confidence, and I think that's why he has been able to write this column for so long. He doesn't grind axes," said Peck, who died in 2003.

"Here is a guy whose word is his bond," Poitier said.

Although the tone of his column, written in workmanlike prose, tended to be mild -- heavy on information, light on editorializing -- Archerd was not afraid to leap into the fray when moved. He took on Charlton Heston numerous times on the issue of gun control. In 1995 and 1996, in at least five columns, Archerd, who was Jewish, slammed Michael Jackson for using anti-Semitic slurs ("Jew me, sue me.") in his song "They Don't Care About Us." Jackson called Archerd to apologize and to announce that he would be changing the lyrics.

In 1999, Archerd waded into the controversy surrounding the honorary Oscar that was presented to director Elia Kazan. In one piece, Archerd recounted the professional wreckage that followed the director's 1952 appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee where he named names and concluded: "I, for one, will not be giving him a standing ovation."

Armand Archerd was born Jan. 13, 1922, and grew up in New York City's Bronx borough. His father, Herman, was in the textile business, and his mother, Mina, was a milliner.

In 1939, Archerd moved with his family to Los Angeles, where he attended UCLA, majoring in languages. After graduating in 1941 at the age of 19, Archerd enlisted in the Navy, and would eventually attend officer training at Columbia University. While killing time until that assignment began, Archerd worked in Paramount's mail room.

Archerd graduated into a destroyer mine sweeper operating out of Hawaii's Pearl Harbor, and he brought his love of movies with him to the Pacific. "As an ensign on a destroyer," he once said, "I had about 15,000 duties, and one of them, as the movie officer, was to procure movies for the ship. I went off and traded some of our fresh vegetables with the bigger ships to get newer movies."

In 1944, at 22, Archerd married his first wife, Joan, with whom he had two children. In 1945, Archerd was given his first break by Thomas of the Associated Press.

"I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for Bob," Archerd often said.

Thomas was 13 days younger than Archerd, and the pair had attended UCLA together, but did not meet until after Archerd was discharged from the Navy.

Thomas hired him as a "leg man" to help compile Hollywood items for his AP column.

In 1947, Archerd left AP and went to work for another Hollywood columnist, Harrison Carroll of Hearst's Herald-Express. Six years later, in 1953, Daily Variety hired him to replace movie columnist Sheilah Graham.

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