Thursday, August 8, 2002
Tom Duggan Enlivens KCOP
By ROGER M. GRACE
One of the most colorful and controversial figures on early Los Angeles television was interviewer/commentator Tom Duggan. He started his career here in 1956, on KCOP, Channel 13. Duggan had skedaddled from Chicago, where he was a popular local TV figure, to avoid arrest.
Whether he was a fugitive from justice or injustice depends on your point of view. (See “Perspectives” on Page 7.) Suffice it to say that if he had returned to the Windy City, he would have spent 10 days in jail on a contempt charge. By the way, whether Chicago is known as the Windy City based on its atmsospheric conditions or on Duggan’s stewardship as the city’s prime pundit of the airways might be debated.
Duggan went to work in the early 1950s at Chicago’s WBKB (now WLS-TV). In a city known for corruption, he had a propensity for taking jabs at politicians and mobsters.
The Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in one of the opinions in the case, described Duggan’s program as “a form of conversation-commentary show, dealing heavily in criticisms and sarcasms, often including unrestrained attacks on public officials and others involved in current news stories.”
He was no less restrained in Los Angeles. He engaged in incisive interviewing and bombastic oratory.
Duggan had a habit of frequently not showing up for work. He had a drinking problem. One time the Herald Examiner had a front page article querying if the controversial commentator, who verbally battled mobsters, had met a violent fate. No. He was just off on a drunk.
This is an ad from the late 1950s when Duggan, then on Channel 13, went on the air each Monday through Friday at 10 p.m.; there was a 15 minute break at 11 for the news, his show resumed at 11:15, and it continued until midnight. In the 1960s, when he moved to Channel 11, George Putnam presented the news at 10, followed by Paul Coates' interviews at 10:30, and Duggan at 11. He was on a twice-nightly show sparring with Bill Stout on Channel 5 in 1964, was off the air for a year, then assumed duties on KTLA nightly from 10-11 p.m. on May 24, 1965. He later returned to Channel 11.
Eddie Gevirtz owned a business called Regal Furs. He did his own commercials, live. He would come to the KCOP studio with his model, Gloria, and a rack of furs for her to don—and time and again he’d see that Duggan hadn’t shown up and that there would be a last-minute guest host (such as newscaster Baxter Ward) and would pack up Gloria and the furs and leave.
In the early days on KCOP, Duggan had a second show—a 15-minute sportscast following Ward’s news report. On one occasion, the show was about to go on the air. No Duggan. A young fellow who had recently gravitated from New York, and was writing copy for Duggan, was tapped. He later recalled in a book that he “was so nervous” that he thought he would “have a heart attack right there on the air.”
He survived the ordeal, did fine on camera, liked being on television, and bagged an on-air job in San Diego, drawing a plug from columnist Walter Winchell who pegged him as a man with a future in broadcasting. His name is Regis Philbin.
I gather that radio talk shows currently use the device of a “producer” of the show periodically interjecting on-air comments. Duggan’s program, back in the 1950s, used that approach.
The supposed producer was one Irwin Berke who periodically came on camera to utter some pithy remark. After Duggan and Berke had a parting of ways, the commentator advised his viewers that Berke never had produced the show—that he had, and still did.
The personable Duggan did have a gift for gab. He admitted on the air that his father (with whom he worked as a plumber’s assistant) had once told him he had the capacity to talk about subjects of which he’d never heard. He also had the inclination to do so.
Duggan’s “telephone girl” would take down questions which callers would submit, and Duggan would address the queries, knowledgeable whereof he spoke or not. I recall he was once asked the difference between libel and slander and said that slander was, well, it was more vicious.
During the first of several hiatuses from television, Duggan was replaced on KCOP by Del Moore. Moore had co-starred with Betty White in “Life With Elizabeth,” a syndicated sitcom (1953-55) that started as a local show on KCOP, and had, for years, been one of the personalities at KTTV who introduced movies and did live commercials and provided patter at the breaks. At one point, his co-host was Willy the Wolf, a man in a wolf outfit portraying a character which originally took the form of a puppet on “Time for Beany.” A Duggan he was not, however, and his Monday through Saturday stint as a late night talk show host fizzled.
Back came Duggan, his differences with the station patched up. Out went Duggan, who quit, and in came “I’ve Got a Secret” panelist Henry Morgan, on Sept. 25, 1961. Morgan tried, but was little more successful than Moore as a replacement for Duggan.
Duggan later had shows on KTTV and KTLA. He died May 29, 1969, from injuries incurred in a traffic accident.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company
CORRECTION: Willy the Wolf did not appear in "Time for Beany," as discussed in the Aug. 29 column, "Recant, You Blackguard!"
MetNews Main Page Reminiscing Columns