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Variety columnist Army Archerd dies at 87

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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.

According to Variety's website, Archer died Tuesday at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical of a rare form of mesothelioma, "a cancer thought to be the result of his exposure to asbestos in the Navy during WWII."

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.

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 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, Sherry Lansing 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 "Just for Variety" column. Dipping into drawers filled with one of Hollywood's most impressive Rolodexes, he could reach just about anyone he needed to. Daily Variety editor Peter Bart once bragged that Archerd had the numbers of the nurses on every floor of every important hospital in town.

He 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. . . . " 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.

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." When Edie Wasserman planned the funeral of her movie mogul husband, Lew Wasserman, she invited a few reporters on the condition they not write about it. The one exception was Archerd, whose coverage she welcomed.

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 file drawers to look them up. The stars returned the calls right away.

"He really is the straight arrow by which all other columnists should measure themselves," said Newman. "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."

"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 hard 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 the Bronx, New York. 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.

Archerd graduated into a destroyer mine sweeper operating out of 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 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 the AP and 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.

"Just for Variety" debuted on April 27: "Good Morning: Here's the public's answer to the future of 3-D: nine out of 10 want to see more." He ended the year on a poignant note: "An over-dressed gal, waiting for a table at a Las Vegas supper club: 'Isn't this disgusting, isn't this awful -- waiting.' A soft voice behind her: 'I don't mind -- I can remember waiting in line for bread.' Happy New Year!"

What followed over the next 53 years were an incalculable number of items about every major and most minor players in show business.

Besides his work as a columnist, Archerd was, for 47 years, the official greeter at the Oscars, interviewing nominees and stars as they made their way across the red carpet. He was always nervous about getting his facts straight, and would spend hours boning up on the nominees in the days leading up to the ceremony.

Archerd, who hosted the People's Choice Awards from its inception in 1974, also had a minor sideline in the movies and on television, often playing himself. In his first year at Daily Variety, the general manager of KNXT, James Aubrey (who would go on to head CBS and MGM) decided that Los Angeles needed a "young, photogenic Hollywood reporter." So five nights a week, after his column deadline, Archerd would dash over to the KNXT studios to do a five-minute report on the 11 o'clock news, "The Heart of Hollywood."

Archerd never lost his urgency for news and never lost his appetite for a scoop. "I was trained in the old style of the reporter," Archerd told Daily Variety in 1993 for a story about the 40th anniversary of his column. "You could really call up and say, 'Hold the front page. I've got a story.' And I've carried that feeling even though I now have a daily column. So often I will call up the desk and say, 'We've got to rewrite. I've got something hotter.' For instance, at the Kennedy Center Honors last month, I bumped into Dana Carvey at the White House. I found out that the President [George H.W. Bush, in his final days of office] had invited him to spend the night and sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom. I just made a beeline downstairs to the men's room and quick called up Daily Variety and said, 'Kill my lead.' It was eight o'clock Washington time Sunday evening and we were able to have it in Monday morning's paper. There were hundreds of newspapermen there, but nobody else had it. Then it was all over everything. It's that kind of excitement I love."

robin.abcarian@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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