You probably had to be there to understand exactly how big John Forsythe was in the Eighties.
I was there and I didn’t fully understand what type of superstar he had become. I came to realize it when I went to work for the TRA in 1982, but if Forsythe ever came to that same realization it was only with a sense of mild bemusement.
In a world of “what have you done for me lately,” Forsythe was a throwback. He personified old-style grace, manners, and values.
That’s partially why he was the Eclipse Awards master of ceremonies from 1977 to 1997, instead of just until 1981.
When he became the “face” of the Eclipse Awards in 1977, he was a moderately successful sitcom leading man from the late Fifties and through the early Seventies, but at the same time his primary claim to fame was his voice. He was the unseen star of “Charlie’s Angels” and his voice also was readily recognizable for reminding America “Weekends were made for Michelob.”
Although definitely an A-list celebrity in 1977, he didn’t move to matinee idol status until he became Blake Carrington in 1981 as “Dynasty” joined “Dallas” in the forefront of the golden age of primetime soap operas.
By my first Eclipse Awards Dinner with the TRA in 1983, I knew we had a master of ceremonies who commanded guest appearance fees as high as anyone in television. Of course, for what we were paying Forsythe we couldn’t have gotten Pinky Lee.
As it turned out, one of the guest presenters for Eclipse Awards at San Francisco’s Fairmount Hotel in 1983 was one of the true icons of American film, Jimmy Stewart, someone Forsythe would have said was a “real” star.
Knowing which celebrities would be coming to the awards that year, I got several requests from hotel staff to meet and get their picture taken with. . . John Forsythe. At the time, the Fairmount itself was a celebrity as the theoretical site of another huge primetime hit drama “Hotel,” with the sweeping circular staircases of its distinctive lobby recreated on a Hollywood soundstage.
The best thing about John, however, was the slight significance he placed upon his celebrity. What tickled him most about his superstar status that weekend was the flustered, elderly women just off a tour bus stopped at the famed “Hotel,” who rushed up to him as he descended the stairs to advise him “You’re on the wrong show!”
Although the demands of his career soon made scheduling the Eclipse Awards difficult at best, with only two exceptions when filming absolutely precluded a two-day getaway from work, John served as master of ceremonies for another 14 years, always elevating the event with his class and professionalism. (He rather emphatically taught Keeneland television director G.D. Hieronymous and me that awards presentations longer than 75 minutes had overstayed their welcome.)
There were times, however, when you simply had to put your foot down with John.
There was the year when I saw he didn’t eat anything at all and realized it wasn’t just because his dinner was spent graciously greeting and having pictures taken with the horse racing world that stopped by his table. The next year, and thereafter, he acquiesced to our ordering a vegetarian meal for him, but only after he was reassured it was being done for others as well.
An annual battle was his insistence on paying for the few telephone calls he made from his hotel room, arguing they should not be part of his covered expenses. We told him we would deduct the amount from his fee, so we won that one.
The only demand he ever made for hosting the Eclipse Awards was an almost embarrassed request one year when — in light of a very bad back, pothole-strewn highways from Kennedy airport to Manhattan, and springless taxi cab suspensions — he asked if he could use a limo service instead. He was told we could take it out of his fee, so we won that one too.
Complimentary upgrades to a suite were always available for John, but he would always insist upon just a single room. We always lost that one.
John never acted like a superstar, but then he never was paid like one either, at least as far as the Eclipse Awards were concerned. Hell, he was never paid anything.
If it was small enough and horse racing-related, he would accept a modest gift of the racing’s gratitude. Otherwise, his only compensation was nothing more than a close and enduring relationship with a sport he loved.
John Forsythe received the Eclipse Award of Merit in 1988. Click here to see the page from the Eclipse Dinner Journal. (pdf file)