The reputations of talk show hosts do not have a particularly long shelf life. How many people under the age of 40 recall Jack Paar? Who under 25 knows Johnny Carson? But Stephen Battaglio’s new biography, “David Susskind: A Televised Life,” makes the case for remembering an impresario who brought a brash exuberance to the rough-and-tumble of ideas and social issues.
The premise of Susskind’s show “Open End” was that it would last as long as the host found the talk interesting. On air, Susskind quizzed a dizzying who’s who of writers and intellectuals, including Lionel Trilling, Thurgood Marshall, James Baldwin, Preston Sturges, Tennessee Williams, Bertrand Russell and Truman Capote.
Angering executives and racking up Emmy and Peabody Awards, Susskind brought serious fare to the small screen. His plays, specials and series drew the best talent of the period, crossing the color barrier and hiring blacklisted writers. Susskind had a knack for getting corporate America to sponsor his forays into high culture; an antidote to what Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton Minow once called the “vast wasteland” of television programs.