Tuesday, January 06, 2009

A story about "Call Me Ted"

by Ted Turner

Ted Turner and I have a very special relationship.

When I was a kid in the ATL, there was no cable television. There was WTBS, Channel 17 – the SuperStateion! – running an endless and constant array of cheesy sit-coms, classic Hollywood movies, game shows, wrestling matches and a ton of Bugs Bunny cartoons. Even the late-night news fare was askew, with a news desk that was as accessible and irreverent as anything else that came on their airwaves. They seemed to come out of nowhere, and suddenly they were everywhere – and at their helm was Ted Turner, that swashbuckling iconoclast, a maverick in the truest sense of the word.

I didn’t know exactly what Ted did all day long, but I knew that this station was his and subconsciously in my little kid heart, I thanked him for it. Why? With a father and a mother, two older brothers, two younger brothers and one tv set, there were a lot of people to please – and somehow, this one little channel managed to pull it off. There was no one to tell me that I shouldn’t watch this particular line of programming, or that it was in poor taste, or that I shouldn’t watch television at all. In a strange way, I felt as though it belonged to me, because so much of what they programmed made me so happy.

Don’t get me wrong: I didn’t live on the couch. With so many brothers afoot, I was a sturdy, athletic little tomboy of a girl. My parents were extremely traditional, so I was cooking, cleaning and running the house before I hit puberty. We lived on several wooded acres, so there was always plenty to explore in the great outdoors. I was a voracious reader – i learned how to read when I was three years old – so books were a great escape.

What I realize now is that as an artist, WTBS/Channel 17 was a really important part of my childhood. Every time I watched any of that programming, I was doing my homework. Each old movie was a chance to watch a great director at work on every level—to absorb the mise-en-scene, to let the dialogue swing through my head like a melody, to ogle the clothes, the hats, the accessories, to unhinge the elaborate musicals, to understand what made it good or bad and why. Bugs Bunny cartoons were filled with show tunes and tin pan alley songs and strange ditties and so many obscure vaudeville references and gags that I watched so carefully and so often that in my head they were commonplace.

Funny thing. I took it for granted that everyone had this kind of an “education”—and I was wrong, wrong, wrong. God knows everyone needs it. Even now, I will talk to other artists – actors, writers, whatever – and there are all these movies and tv shows and cartoons that they have never seen and/or can’t reference, stuff that’s an integral part of the very fabric of this industry we call entertainment and the pop culture we all swim in as citizens of the world. Oh, well. As an artist, I never wanted to be that kind of uninformed.

So yes – my time glued to the tv watching Ted’s station was very important.

It was with all of this and much more that I picked up Ted’s autobiography Call Me Ted.

The book is an easy, straight-forward, accessible read, in part because it sounds for all the world like Ted is sitting next to you, telling you all of this himself, with an occasional antecdote from a business associate or family member to augment whatever he’s saying and give insight into the person Ted really is. Ted is very honest and is quite candid about his childhood traumas, his sister’s illness, his father’s suicide, and so many of the intimate details in his life.

Here’s one that floored me: he was sent to boarding school at the age of four. That alone would be enough to upend most people but Ted bounces back from this with all of the resiliency of a bright red rubber ball. At one point in his youth, he simply makes up his mind to be positive and not dwell on the bad things in the past.

And yes, I was loving all the antedotes about Fidel. I keep wanting to run away to Cuba and meet Castro and learn how to speak Spanish once and for all, before he dies and they turn Havana into a strip mall. So I was more than a little jealous that he got to meet him, and go hunting and fishing and the whole nine yards.

After a certain point, though, I realized that much of what Ted said sounded canned, rehearsed. Like he’d told these little vignettes a thousand times before, at this gala or that dinner party or to this dignitary or some good ol’ boy around the way. And along the way, he glossed them into such a high sheen that sometimes they blindsided me. It was like that with the stories everyone else told, too. Even the negative things that happened—“there goes Ted, shooting his mouth off again!”—turned into clever twists that only undid him momemtarily. Ted didn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on the past. He kept it moving. I suppose there’s a lesson in there for all of us.

There were lots of details that he clearly wasn’t about to fork over, like the intimate goings on regarding his three marriages. But nevermind the personal details. The book really comes alive on this whole other level when it delves into the anatomy of the art of the deal. There are moments when he swoops in and conquers by the sheer velocity of his vision and his unswerving belief in it. When you consider all of the factors – he doesn’t really have the hundreds of millions of dollars necessary to pay for whatever he just bought, for example, but he has 30 days to come up with the money…and he does! – you find that he is literally doing what can only be described as the impossible, again and again and again. And in so doing, he created an empire and defined news media for an entire generation.

But Ted wasn’t necessarily doing the impossible, and he was hardly a fluke. His success is a result of years of hard work, a dizzying amount of sacrifice, a lot of well-thought out planning and execution and a tenacity that i recognize all too well in myself. He never sits back on his laurels and says, Enough. He simply can’t leave well enough alone. He constantly reaches for more—and for excellence, for doing a job well—and he’s really strategic about it. It’s the way he thinks. It’s who he is.

I was profoundly disappointed to learn that Ted basically abandoned his family for the sake of business ventures and yachting competitions. His children were raised by his second wife and a black man named Jimmy who worked for Ted’s father when he was a kid. (Too bad Marlon Brando didn’t have a decent wife and some real help. But then, I suppose I could say that about a LOT of famous people.) Then again, I’m not so sure that he would have been able to accomplish as much as he had if he’d stayed home and made his marriage and family a priority. Clearly, his temperament isn’t suited for such a life. But it was more than this. He seemed to be completely open, and yet i sensed that he was as closed as a fist, and i couldn’t say exactly why.

As the book went on, i realized that the litany I sensed in the book’s delivery and presentation had echoed throughout his life. There were certain personal issues that Ted simply didn’t want to deal with, certain places he would not go—and understandably, this in part led to the demise of his marriage to Jane Fonda.

Still and all, he soldiers on with his philanthropic work, his business ventures as a restauranteur, his travels—and as God would have it, he gets to be a grandfather. Throughout, I love his style. The way he calls rich people on their BS, the way he’s worth nearly a billion dollars at one point and he wears the same suit and drives the same car year in and year out. I love the way he mouths off to the press and gets himself in so much hot water, he’s still feeling the heat several decades down the line. What i think I really love is his panache, his nerve—the thing that drives him, that has him out thinking everyone in the room, thinking ahead of whatever anyone thinks is happening, whether it’s a conversation or a corporate merger. It burns through the sheen and the gloss like some sort of cleansing fire.

I suppose all of this begs the question “What makes Teddy run?” There’s something explosive in there, embedded inside the glint of his willfulness. In reading this book, there were moments when I thought I actually glimpsed it.

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