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Walter Winchell is one of the most famous gossip journalists of the 20th century

HBO hands up 'voice of America' Walter Winchell

Web posted on:
Monday, November 23, 1998 3:30:46 PM EST

From Correspondent Sherri Sylvester

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- At one time, he was Hitler's enemy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's friend and William Randolph Hearst's employee. Decades have passed, but as the new HBO film "Winchell" demonstrates, gossip columnist and reporter Walter Winchell's name is still remembered for the fear and respect it commanded.

As a columnist and radio man, Winchell spoke to 55 million people a day, a market share that news executives will most likely never see again. Nor will any one journalist be likely to carry the kind of power he enjoyed.


Based on a biography by one of Winchell's ghostwriters, HBO's "Winchell" -- which debuted this weekend, with replays scheduled through the end of the year -- casts Stanley Tucci, Paul Giamatti, Christopher Plummer and Glenne Headly in an exploration of the legendary power broker.

"He was capable of tremendous generosity, and of real cruelty," said actor Stanley Tucci, who portrays the onetime "Mr. News." "When he had a political agenda or any agenda, he put that forth and nothing would stop him."

Paul Mazursky, who directed the film, was impressed by the power Winchell wielded with his pen. "The column was extremely powerful, because a good mention from Winchell about a performance would ensure whoever he wrote about more success, probably higher salary. A mention in Winchell's column was gold," he says.

Tucci as Walter Winchell

For good and for bad

Winchell would use blackmail to get information, then deliver it in his own stylistic "slanguage" at 230 words per minute. It was a pace Tucci worked hard to reproduce. "The key thing for me was his voice," he says, "and I worked on the voice for months. I would play tapes for people, and sometimes they couldn't tell the difference."

The telefilm alleges that FDR used Winchell to promote his policies. Winchell's successful platforms included his stance against Hitler.

His support, in later years, of Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist blacklisting brought his downfall.

Although his love for delivering a juicy story was well-known, Tucci maintains the media coverage of President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky goes far beyond Winchell's style. "It's out of hand, tapes being released and reports being released with all of this stuff that nobody should know about," Tucci says. "Walter Winchell would be wincing, he would be embarrassed."

Would he? The world will never know. Winchell died in 1972, a broken man deprived of the power he had used and abused.

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