"You don't have any experience."
There is a story in the Bible about a wedding, and there are not enough guests, so the people in charge go out on the street and dragoon strangers into the wedding. Then as soon as they get this one poor devil inside, they berate him unmercifully for not being dressed properly for the wedding. For God's sake, I know I don't have any experience. Oh, well, I figured that concluded my stillborn TV career.
Now for the bad news. Al Primo called a few weeks later from WABC-TV. Al Primo had just fired Jim Bouton from Eyewitness News. It killed him to do that, Al Primo assured me, but he just had to do it for the good of Eyewitness News. I said I understood. He told me also that Win Baker had been promoted in the Westinghouse TV chain to the head office in New York (well, already we know what good taste this man has; it's about time it was recognized) and had urged Al Primo to consider me as a replacement for Jim Bouton. I'm ball five. It was so urgent that I agreed to go to WABC-TV the next day.
Looking back from the distant perspective of history, I would have to say that this was probably my high-water mark in the heady world of big-time television. That Al Primo would want to see me! In TV news this is like dying and going to heaven. Al Primo is to Eyewitness News what Teddy Roosevelt was to the Spanish-American War, what Ray Kroc is to hamburgers, what Judge Sirica is to third-rate burglaries. Al Primo practically invented Eyewitness News, happy-chatty friendly news, with dual anchormen side by side. Al Primo is Mister Eyewitness News. When he first arrived at WABC, there was a $100,000-a-year weatherman named Tex Antoine, who always wore a smock and drew little pictures with his "schtick" as he talked about the weather. But Al Primo was putting everybody in blazers. Tex Antoine balked, as well he might, since the smocks and the little pictures had gotten him the six figures. Al Primo said, "Tex, either everybody wears blazers or everybody wears smock's." It was a great line. Later I asked Al Primo if he actually had said that. He said, "Yeah, wasn't that a great line?"
So at the crest of my video career I got all dressed up and used cosmetics, and went to see Al Primo. I mused, "Just think, Sally Quinn probably started this same way." Al Primo was in his office, sitting with his feet up on the desk. Did you ever get the feeling, like at the start of a blind date, that you were an immediate disappointment? A complete letdown? I got that feeling the minute I walked into Al Prime's office. It was so obvious, I might have had the feeling even if he had shaken hands with me. It was etched on his face. He wasn't just disappointed; he wasn't just let-down. You could see he was downright crestfallen. I've often wondered what Win Baker told him about me. For that matter, I've often wondered what Win Baker ever saw in me; it seems to have eluded everybody else, beginning with Gene Shalit and Edwin Newman, right on along to Al Primo. Especially Al Primo.
Once he got himself together after his initial shock and once I figured out what to do with my right hand when I understood Al Primo didn't shake hands, we managed to chat aimlessly for a few minutes. But then he got down to brass tacks, and especially to what was eating at him. Al Primo looked me square across his desk over his feet and this is exactly what he said: "You know, Frank, you're funny looking."
I was somewhat taken aback by this appraisal. Was this a trick, a test to see how I would react under fire? Maybe he was also going to tell me my house had just burned down. But then, maybe Al Primo was right, maybe all my life everybody has thought that I am funny looking, and only Al Primo was forthright enough to voice this opinion. I imagined people saying, "Shhh, here comes funny looking," and "Yucck, that's one funny-looking bird," and things of that nature. You can't be too sure.
But don't get me wrong. I rather liked Al Primo. He was a disarming kind of guy and, between you and me, not bad looking. Not bad looking at all. He was so sure of himself. Al Primo was so sure of himself that at one point in our conversation he admitted that he was too sure of himself. Of course, he hastened to add, this was not bad because he was invariably right. But, he went on, if you are as sure of yourself as he was, then you may become afraid to act. He had to be on guard for that eventuality.
This had something to do with his disposing of Bouton. Primo asked me what I thought of Bouton. I said he was much the best sports announcer in New York, although that might be damning him with faint praise inasmuch as I didn't think any of them were special. Certainly, I said, he wasn't in a league with Bill Currie and Warner Wolf. I knew enough by now to throw in those names. This analysis did not sit well with Al Primo, so he changed the subject back to something dearer to his heart.
"You know why I think you're so funny looking," he said. "It's your part. It's the part."