It was Ted Koppel's last Nightline broadcast after more than 25 years, "A Tuesday with Morrie," revisiting one of his most popular interviews, with college professor Morrie Schwartz, who was dying of ALS (he died Nov. 4, 1995).
It was a show about accepting endings with grace and insight, an appropriate valedictory for Koppel's stewardship of the news program he built into an institution, though he was quick to point out that a host of producers had helped "sculpt" ideas into "brilliant work that I have gotten credit for."
It was also about doing a show your bosses didn't necessarily think was a big audience pleaser. Then-ABC News president Roone Arledge hated the show, Koppel said, calling death and dying "a downer." Perhaps that too was a message to the new Nightline about keeping your news compass pointed toward true north.
New Executive Producer James Goldston promised this week to make preserving the show's legacy of important journalism his charter, while trying to attract more people to that journalism with different packaging.
Between 5 and 5:30 p.m. on an unseasonably cold day in D.C., Koppel entered the basement studio at ABC News headquarters on DeSales Street—named for the patron saint of television--to pre-tape his story intros, promos, and last "closing thought." It is the biggest studio in the building, which was appropriate since it would soon be filled to overflowing.
That "final" final closing thought included a caution to viewers to give the new anchor team a chance—the show adopts a multi-anchor format starting Nov. 28. If not, he said, "the network will just put another comedy show in this time slot. Then you'll be sorry."
He also pointed out that that today's journalistic household names become tomorrow's trivia questions, and not even easy ones at that.
According to a source, when Koppel was done with the taping, the studio doors flew open on cue and a hundred or more staffers, family members, and friends, gathered to salute him and former executive producer Tom Bettag. The two will now team on documentaries just as their respective heroes, Ed Murrow and Fred Friendly, did over at CBS a couple of generations earlier.
Corks popped and the champagne and the tears flowed.
The celebration included a tribute reel of clips from Koppel's career that had also run at the anchor's going-away party at the Kennedy Center last week.
The studio's big screen went to black for a moment, then a second tribute began, a collection of tributes, in fact, from luminaries including Bill and Hillary Clinton, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Henry Kissinger, the late Simon Wiesenthal (he died in September), and Henry Winkler. (More tributes will likely be added to the tape before it is presented to Koppel.)
There must be some Koppel history with Winkler, the former Fonz, since the anchor is said to have recently taped a birthday greeting for the actor.
Hail to the anchor
On the tape, which ran about 10 minutes, former President Bill Clinton recalled walking with Koppel across a bridge in Prague in January 1994. "We talked about whether we could use the end of the cold war to make a Europe that was united, democratic, and at peace. Sure enough, it has just about happened."
Clinton said he had "had the pleaseure of watching Nightline, and sometimes it hasn't been such a pleasure, depending on what you were interested in."
The president said he "can't wait to see what your second act will be, but for tonight, thank your for the first long run. It was a terrific one and we are all in your debt."
Democratic New York Sen. Hillary Clinton added that Koppel's "dedication to fair play and informed debate have have set the standard for TV journalism. The quality of our national dialog will be diminished with your departure," she said.
Tutu said Koppel had been "a stalwart for justice, peace, and human rights." He added that South Africa owed Koppel a debt of gratitude, and he a personal one, because the anchor had used his "high profile to bring before the American public in a way unmatched the horrors of our apartheid system. You have been in the heat of the battle, and you have come out a tremendous victor for peace," Tutu said.
Praising Koppel's "sense of decency and integrity," Weisenthal called theirs a "friendship at first sight," ending his salute with a poigniant "farewell."
Hugs and Kissinger
Winkler lightened the tone with a mock tribute that morphed into a real one, at least for a moment or two:
"Ted, it is my honor to congratulate you for a job well done. You are so good at what you do. Your radiant wife, equally talented. Your beautiful daughters. You were so good on Cheers. I remember the episode...What? It's not Ted Danson? Who are we talking about? Ted Koppel. The news guy? OK, uh, Ted, I saw you in a flak jacket, talking to Palestinians and people from Israel. You were great with hostages.
"Actually, the fact is the Winkler family loves you and adores you and we are proud to know you. You are irreplaceable, Ted. America is better for the 60 or 70 years you have been doing Nightline, and we hug you through the camera."
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said Koppel "overcame my effort to ruin your career by making you my press secretary. But you went on to great things. "He also chided him for making Kissinger sit alone in a room while Koppel peppered him with questions on the show.
Last to appear on the reel was Koppel's daughter Andrea, a CNN correspondent.
The yonger Koppel had some fun with her dad, pretending to be a fan who was "so excited that she finally got the chance to talk to my all-time hero, Ted Koppel, which she mispronounced "Koh" (ryhmes with "slow") "PELL," accent on the pel.
She said she still remembered a story he did about the Arthur Murray dance studio, pointing to it as the moment when she realized what journalism could be.
She suggested that if the new Nightline anchors didn't work out, he might put in a good word for her, another Koppel atop the show perhaps, and one that even looks a bit like him, she said, tugging on her hair to mimic a famous clip of Koppel tugging at his toupe while saying the hair was, indeed, his.
Then she, too, got serious, calling her dad a personal and professional hero.
The tape ended with Sinatra singing "The Last Dance" in the background while clips and stills of Koppel rolled, ending in a shot of the anchor's empty chair and a studio shot fading to black, after which some more serious tears flowed all around, said one on the un-dry eyes in the house.