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Dick Clark, RIP

By Rich Heldenfels Published: April 18, 2012


You couldn't write about TV for long without crossing paths with Dick Clark, the entertainment legend who died today.

There was American Bandstand. TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes. Where the Action Is. His name was in the title of half a dozen other series dating back half a century. He was the man behind the American Music Awards, and — even after a stroke that would have ended others’ careers — a presence on ABC’s annual New Year’s Rockin’ Eve special.

His impact may have been greater on music than on TV. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which inducted him in 1993, says this on its website:

"He stood up for the music when it was under attack from censorious voices who branded it immoral. By playing R&B records by the original artists on his show, Clark helped stop the longstanding practice whereby records by black artists were "covered" in lame, sanitized versions by white artists, thereby robbing the former of income and recognition. Such figures as Buddy Holly and James Brown made their national debut on American Bandstand. The show’s success helped spread the word throughout the entertainment industry that rock and roll was no fluke."

But he also left a huge mark on television. Think about this: The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer began hosting the music-and-dance show that became American Bandstand in 1956. Forty-five years later, NBC premiered American Dreams, a show that was partly about American Bandstand. And Clark was an executive producer of that series.

While that show had some anachronisms, it still had Clark watching the details. I visited Dreams’ Bandstand set once with a group of reporters and watched Clark in this mock-Bandstand’s booth, looking at the papers stuck on a bulletin board. No one watching at home would see what the papers were, but Clark nodded approvingly when he saw they were right for the time and place.

For most of his life, Clark was not one to miss a detail, a loophole, or an opportunity. He was clearly a fierce workaholic. I talked to him on the phone one Friday in 1995 while he was preparing a Golden Globes telecast planned for the next night and an American Music Awards set for the following Monday — and "inhaling a turkey sandwich" for lunch in between.

"I’ve been accessible from day one, and I always will be," he said "The key to my career is I get along with Axl Rose and Boyz II Men and Barbara Mandrell."

If it was possible to wrap his arms around a roomful of reporters at once, Clark probably would have tried it. I once saw him try to get several dozen scribes to go off the record together, so he could plug a star’s surprise appearance on an upcoming special.

Yes, he was also a smart, even ruthless, businessman. He leveraged Bandstand’s clout into shares of music publishing and record deals (ending them when a payola scandal swept the radio and music businesses). He carefully protected the rights to the clips of performances on Bandstand and other shows. But that was all playing out off-camera.

In front of it, he was a mellow, gentle, comfortable presence. The closest current model is Ryan Seacrest, building his own Clark-like empire, and since 2005 hosting Clark’s New Year’s show, which began two years before Seacrest was born.

But where Seacrest can often seem fawning with celebrities, Clark approached them more as equals— even when he was their superior in money and fame.

I spent more time than I can count watching Clark productions: bits of Bandstand when it was a weekday show, more of it as a Saturday offering; Where the Action Is, another weekday effort, in the ‘60s; the New Year’s appearances.

In 2004, he had a stroke and missed that year’s New Year’s special. But he was back a year later — speaking voice impaired, mobility limited but implicitly telling the audience there is nothing to be embarrassed about in the effects of a stroke. And no reason to stop doing what you love. You could argue that, for all his other achievements, those post-stroke appearances were his greatest moments.

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