Longtime Variety columnist Army Archerd died this afternoon at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center of a rare form of cancer. He was 87. He was posting on his online column as recently as July 27th. But he was best known for his “Just for Variety” column in the print edition of Daily Variety from 1953 to 2005. And, long before Ryan Seacrest even held a microphone, Army was a fixture on the Red Carpet at the Academy Awards as the interviewer of record. Conventional wisdom had it that an Oscar campaign wouldn’t be successful without multiple mentions in Archerd’s column. Among his countless news exclusives was the tragic 1985 news that Rock Hudson had the AIDS virus. This, like everything showbiz, Army handled without sensation. Though Hudson’s publicist Dale Olson had tried to cover up Rock’s illness, Archerd learned of Hudson’s hospitalization in Paris and “wrote one of the most carefully written pieces I have ever seen,” Olson recalled to Variety when Army retired his print column. “That’s one of the secrets of Army’s success. He would do a story, even if it was a difficult personal story, and not write it like gossip. The message was there, but it was gentle. His column will really be missed. There is no way to replace Army Archerd.” I, too, thought Archerd one of the last true gentleman journalists working in Hollywood, and one of the most accurate. He was always sweet and supportive towards me. My condolences go out to his wife of many years, Selma.
Press-shy celebrities from Marlon Brando to Johnny Carson always sought out Archerd. According to a 2005 tribute to the journalist, when Carson was about to celebrate his 25th anniversary on NBC in 1987, he told his publicist: “I’m not doing any interviews, because if I do one, I’ll have to do them all. But if Army calls, I’ll speak to him.” The reason was because Army was easy to talk to. Sure, his voice would go up an octave under the stress of putting out that daily column, but he rarely lost his cool. Instead it was a terse, “Can I call you back?” and when he got you on the phone a half-hour later, then he’d sound relaxed again.
When he came to power, and make no mistake about it — he was a god in Hollywood for a very long time — press agents ruled the information game in Tinseltown. They gave him tips about everything — who was clubbing, who was ailing, who had a hit motion picture show in the can, who was signing for a new TV show. To them, it wasn’t news until Army had reported it in his column.
As the tribute noted, Army and Selma had parties where the likes of Gregory Peck, Jack Lemmon, Kirk Douglas and Elizabeth Taylor would be hanging around the pool, or Danny Kaye cooking a special Chinese dinner for the couple. I was present one night outside the Beverly Hills ballroom when Warren Cowan and Army reminisced about growing up in NYC together (they attended the same high school and UCLA). And it was clear to me that Archerd hadn’t changed from the wide-eyed college graduate, to the post-war AP cub reporter, to the “leg man” for Los Angeles Herald-Express columnist Harrison Carroll, to Variety‘s most popular reader’s feature: he loved everything about showbiz. And despite all the Triple-A list celebrities he rubbed shoulders with routinely, people in Hollywood knew that no matter if they were down and out, they could still count on a kind mention in Archerd’s column. As Warren told that tribute to Archerd, “He disproved Leo Durocher. Army proved that nice guys can finish first.”