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Faces of the Dead

By RD Heldenfels Published: December 12, 2005

Television can be like a scrapbook, and not a well organized one. Think of the channels as different pages holding bits of your past, little reminders that you  either seek out or come across without expecting them.


When you do what I do, that scrapbook can be even more startling, because over the last 20-plus years I have been in the presence of a lot of actors who have since died.


Some of them are people I have talked to directly. The other day I was channel-hopping and glimpsed a movie with Gregory Hines. In 1997 he starred in a sitcom for CBS. The show had some good things, but was not successful, lasting only one season. Still, I remember talking to Hines at a CBS party, and enjoying the conversation, and so feeling a deeper pang of sadness when Hines died in 2003.


All of this leads up to ''Peter Jennings Reporting: Breakdown -- America's Health Insurance Crisis,'' which airs Thursday on ABC. As you all know, Peter Jennings is dead. This program consists of reporting he did before being diagnosed with lung cancer; Jennings is seen on-camera during interviews, although his health problems kept him from narrating the special.


The documentary is solid enough, and I expect to have something about it in the Beacon Journal later this week. But I couldn't help watching it on a couple of different levels.


One, of course, was a serious news documentary -- the sort of thing ABC News is promising to keep doing even if Jennings himself is gone. (At least, that's what Charles Gibson says at the end of the special. Gibson, who reportedly came close to getting Jennings's job after the anchorman's death, also introduces the program.)


The other, though, involved watching just Jennings, whom I had met and interviewed here and there over the years. I thought again about the man, and how he might have been happy that people got another reminder that he loved his work. And -- couldn't help myself -- I looked for signs of the health crisis he was about to face. During one interview, he seems to struggle for breath for a moment, and does so again later in the same interview. Is that it? I wondered. Is that a sign of what he is about to face?


Some of you may look at the show in the same way, and some of you may tune in just because it's a last, lingering look at Jennings. I know that's a big reason why I watched it. I don't review a lot of news specials, after all. But I felt the need to turn to this page in the TV scrapbook.



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