New York TV Producer Robert Cunniff Was a Hell of a Guy

Drawing of Robert Cunniff at work by Charles Saxon, from the May 6, 1972, New Yorker.Courtesy of Jill Cunniff’s BraveNet blog.

The pop of an acquaintance of ours died the other day. We always knew that our softball buddy Steve was pretty devoted to his dad, and he talked often about what a great guy he was, but he never talked about what his dad did for a living. We just found Robert Cunniff’s Associated Press obituary, and we were somewhat blown away by the guy’s life. In an era in which Ben Silverman is given a major television award, it’s remarkable to see what a real cultural life in television looked like.

Cunniff won an Emmy as a writer and producer of Sesame Street from 1972 to 1975, but that’s just the beginning of what he accomplished on the New York television scene. He was a writer for the Today show when Hugh Downs and Barbara Walters hosted. He booked guests for The Dick Cavett Show on ABC, bringing Norman Mailer, Ingmar Bergman, Jimi Hendrix, and more into America’s living rooms. (One memorable episode featured the amazing guest list of Salvador Dalí, Lillian Gish, and Satchel Paige.) He wrote a speech for Pope Paul VI. He won $4,750 on a TV quiz show in 1953, then lost his newspaper column in 1957 when he exposed the secrets of another TV quiz show. He wrote for Live From Lincoln Center and created Mousterpiece Theatre on the Disney Channel.

The above spot illustration from The New Yorker is from L.E. Sissman’s 1972 story about Cavett’s talk show, which contains the following description of Cunniff at work:

Bob Cunniff, a Cavett writer, whose face contains some of the cherubic demonism of Dylan Thomas’s, told about interviewing Bobby Fischer, the American chess master, in his room at the Park-Sheraton. Cunniff manages a completely convincing impersonation of Fishcer’s voice, walk, and manner; like Cavett and most of the staff, Cunniff is half a mimic and comedian himself.

We’re not one to wish for bygone days, but cripes, would it be nice if more people working in television these days were like Robert Cunniff.

Writer/producer Robert Cunniff dies [AP]
Robert Rody Cunniff, September 13, 1926- January 20, 2008 [Jill Cunniff’s BraveNet blog]

New York TV Producer Robert Cunniff Was a Hell of a Guy