In Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Will Ferrell plays a local news anchor who wouldn't know a current event from an ocean current, who misuses and mispronounces words, who has an ego the size of Jupiter but without any discernible talent or intelligence to back it up.
Burgundy's is a character profile that fans of television's The Mary Tyler Moore Show know well. For seven seasons, pompous blowhard Ted Baxter anchored the news on Minneapolis' WJM-TV, mangling the English language, acting as his own biggest fan, placing more importance on the color of his blazer than on his understanding of the news. He was an insufferable buffoon who rarely did anything right, who believed the world existed for him and him alone.
Fans of the show loved him. Critics loved him. His peers loved him, awarding actor Ted Knight a pair of Emmys for his portrayal. Who knew that Knight and the show's writers were creating an archetype that would still be going strong three decades later?
Even the new film's writers, which include Ferrell himself, acknowledge their debt to MTM by naming Burgundy's dog Baxter.
"It's kind of great, actually," says Allan Burns, who, along with partner James L. Brooks, created the show and all its major characters. "I'll take it. We and Ted created a character that has endured."
Knight, with his snow white mane, tanned good looks and baritone voice, certainly looked the part of the vain Baxter. And Knight, who had previously been known for playing small dramatic parts (he even had a non-speaking role in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho), turned out to be a brilliant comic actor. Just think of the way he'd lower his voice an octave to intone, "This is Ted Baxter saying good night, and good news." Or the way he'd make his voice tremble when seeking pity from station owner Lou Grant (for Baxter, "Lou" was a 10-syllable word). Or the way he'd glide effortlessly from one lame news story to another, treating each as though he were broadcasting the second coming.
"I only keep the ones I like best," Ted says to Mary Richards (Moore, playing the station's assistant producer) while showing off a collection of tapes of his broadcasts. "So far, I have all of them."
Burns, who would go on to win a pair of writing Emmys for MTM, says he and Brooks patterned Baxter after a pair of news anchors popular in Los Angeles at the time the show debuted in 1970.
"[Moore's] aunt ... was the assistant to the president of the local CBS affiliate here in L.A., and so Jim and I spent a lot of time hanging around that newsroom, just to try and get the flavor of it," he says. "There was an anchorman there, Jerry Dunphy - Jerry was one of those stentorian, firm-jawed, gray-haired guys who looked right on camera, but who was not a newsman, like so many of the anchors are not. They're really news readers more than anything else.
"He seemed to be a lot like what we wanted this character to be, not the smartest individual you'd ever met, but with an ego the size of the studio he was broadcasting out of. There was also George Putnam in L.A., another one of those prototypical anchormen who just seemed to be more an anchor than a newsman. We made Ted an amalgam of those two guys."
As originally envisioned, Burns says, Baxter was a one-note character, a comic foil used primarily as a punchline. But Knight, who died in 1986, proved too good an actor for such a shallow role. "Ted's bluster was just that, it was a glossing over a multitude of insecurities," Burns says. "I just loved what Ted Knight did with the part, he made it his own. He really forced us, in a way, because of his talent, to find more shades of color in his character than we'd originally written.
And then there was the constant feuding with news writer Murray Slaughter, whose words were forever at the mercy of Baxter's ineptitude. At the slightest provocation, Murray couldn't resist throwing verbal zingers Ted's way.
"He's already one up on Ted," Murray says when a replacement is brought in for the vacationing Baxter. "He's walking and talking at the same time."
Actor Gavin MacLeod, who played Murray and counted Knight as one of his best friends, refers to Baxter as "the buttermouth guy who exemplified so many of the broadcasters all over the country. Every time I would go anyplace on behalf of the show over the years, every television station would say, 'We have our own Ted Baxter.'
"For a lot of people in the audience, Murray was speaking for them," he says over the phone from his Pacific Palisades, Calif., home. "Why should this guy, because he was so attractive, with an IQ of 22, because he could almost read copy, why should he take home more money than anyone else at the station?"
Although news anchors have been living down the Ted Baxter persona for decades, neither Burns nor MacLeod recalls much in the way of a negative reaction to the character - save from Knight himself, who grew frustrated that the public seemed unable to separate him from the character he played. Once, Burns had to talk Knight out of a deep depression over the role, only to have Brooks almost ruin everything by coming in and praising the Baxter character as one of "the great schmucks of all time."
"Yeah, we had to put Humpty back together again," Burns recalls.
Even the inspirations behind Ted didn't seem to mind the characterization all that much.
"George Putnam, one time he showed up at this Christmas parade on a horse, with a 10-gallon hat on," MacLeod recalls with a laugh, "and he yells over to me, 'Gavin, I am the real Ted Baxter.'"