Morley Safer Mourned by CBS News Colleagues, Calvin Trillin, Wynton Marsalis

Morley Safer -Getty-H 2016
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The '60 Minutes' correspondent was remembered in a memorial Thursday, roughly four months after he died.

Morley Safer had the longest career of anyone in broadcasting – 61 years – joining the CBC in his native Canada in 1955. He died on May 19, four days after a retrospective aired on 60 Minutes, at the age of 84. On Thursday, his CBS News colleagues including 60 Minutes executive producer Jeff Fager, Charlie Rose, Steve Kroft and Scott Pelley and others in the industry (former CBS president Sir Howard Stringer, Safer’s good friend Tom Brokaw) gathered at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Hall in New York to commemorate Safer’s life and career.

Fager started off the program by conjuring legendary CBS News figure Edward R. Murrow. Safer, said Fager, "was among the very few who lived up to the profile of the CBS gentleman correspondent set by the Murrow boys. They were scholarly, experienced, and classy. [60 Minutes creator] Don Hewitt loved all of that about him. He knew it would help dignify his new broadcast."

Safer was already a well-known war correspondent who made his mark covering Vietnam for the CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite. So he took a risk by joining the still nascent 60 Minutes in 1970, in its third season. At that point, the show was only on twice a month — opposite the No. 1 series on TV, Marcus Welby, M.D., and ranking 100 out of 102 shows on television. But 60 Minutes, with its broad range of subjects, fueled Safer’s eclectic interests and abiding curiosity. It also allowed him to travel to Europe frequently, where he indulged in food, wine and just good living. (And in 1978, the show would crack Nielsen’s Top 10.)

Safer was notable for his poetic, wry writing style. He continued to work on a Royal typewriter well after the advent of the MacBook. He chain-smoked Rothmans cigarettes and was an avid poker player, even purchasing a Bentley with his winnings when he was based in the CBS News London bureau in the 1960s.

Urbane and disarmingly funny, Safer loved to prank his colleagues. And his pieces were punctuated by the comic timing he exuded in life. Fager recounted a story told by longtime CBS News producer David Browning: “We were at the Spokane airport waiting for an early morning flight to L.A. The TSA guy says to Morley, ‘Aren’t you Harry Reasoner?’ Morley says, ‘No, I am not.’ TSA guy says, ‘Sure you are — I just saw you on 60 Minutes last Sunday.’ Morley says, ‘Sir, Harry Reasoner has been dead for 15 years.’ They get to L.A., on an elevator to an interview — woman next to Morley has a double take, says, ‘Aren’t you Ed Bradley?’ Without losing a beat, Morley says, ‘No ma’am, I am Harry Reasoner.’ The woman says, ‘Harry Reasoner, of course! I saw you on 60 Minutes Sunday night.’” 

Phil Pendry, Safer’s first cameraman, recalled an assignment in Northern Ireland with Safer during height of The Troubles. Safer, said Pendry, viewed Northern Ireland as a “theater of the absurd.” The fighting would cease between 6-7 p.m. when Catholic and Protestant fighters would retreat to their homes to “watch themselves on the news.” When the broadcast was over, they “resumed their rioting hoping to get themselves on the 11 o’clock.” Pendry also recounted one assignment during which he and Safer were stopped at a checkpoint and questioned by members of the Irish Republican Army: “They asked, ‘Are you Protestant or Catholic?’ Morley said, ‘I’m Jewish.’ They asked again, ‘Are you Protestant or Catholic?’ Morley said, ‘I’m agnostic Jewish.’ There were no more questions after that.”

Novelist Calvin Trillin recalled an infamous 60 Minutes piece that Safer did in 1993 — titled "Yes … But Is It Art?" — in which Safer offered a resounding takedown of abstract art, calling it “worthless junk.” The art world was up in arms. It was one of Safer’s favorite pieces. He called himself a “Sunday artist” and developed a habit of painting his hotel rooms when he was on the road. He had a show of his hotel room art in 1980, recounted Trilling, in SoHo at the Central Falls restaurant. The show prompted Time magazine to dub him “the Matisse of the Marriott.”

Wynton Marsalis, who leads the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, ended the program with a second line for Safer. Before that he recounted a conversation with Safer about their respective upbringings, Safer’s in Toronto, his in New Orleans. When Marsalis said to Safer that he was “ignorant of the history" of his city, related Marsalis, Safer countered, “You weren’t ignorant of it, you were of it. We don’t study the things we are part of.'”

Concluded Marsalis, “When it came to stories that illuminated the human condition, he was of it.”