Robin Leach, the British-born TV celebrity and host of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” died Friday at the age of 76 in Las Vegas. Here is my encounter with him in Los Angeles in 1985, when he was shrewdly legitimizing greed and envy as cultural values that also produced high Nielsen ratings.
AMERICANS ONCE were squeamish about displays of wealth and mumbled when guests inquired into the benefits of the new oil well being drilled in the back yard. But history may record that a transplanted, low-born Englishman changed all that beginning in the third year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
Robin Leach, whose first job on these shores was selling shoes at Lord & Taylor in New York, was, even then, happy to be here. He is, conceivably, happier now. An indefatigable journalist whose instincts for satisfying a variety of the public’s deepest fascinations have served him well through the years, Leach has risen from the tabloid lowlands of the supermarket press to his current first-class window seat as the globe-trotting host of the popular, unabashedly titled weekly television show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.
In the process he has done and is doing as much as any American (he remains, somewhat apologetically, British) to elevate the once slumping connotation of the word “rich.”
“The world would be a pretty sorry place without the rich,” says Leach. “We should be grateful for them. The museums, the charities…”
He expresses his gratitude every week, audibly. On the widely syndicated Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous (160 stations in the U.S. after one year on the air), Leach eagerly leads his camera crews past the iron-barred gates of mansions belonging to baronial entertainers and assorted world-class entrepreneurs. Barbra Streisand, Paul Newman, Ryan O’Neal, Lana Turner and Bunker Hunt swung open their doors to him in the show’s first year. For one of the upcoming shows of the new season, airing in February, he has scored what must be for him the ultimate story: the first extended TV interview with Adnan Khashoggi, the Saudi businessman and international arms dealer thought to be the world’s richest man.
“He’s a fan of the show,” Leach explains, with visible delight.
But the focus of Lifestyles isn’t so much the celebrities themselves as the loot they have accumulated – the customized swimming pools, multimillion-dollar yachts, palatial second homes, Swiss vineyards, Arabian stallions and retinues of servants. How many pairs of shoes does Cher own? Robin wants to know. The show is emblem and testament to the fruits of freeenterprise, luck or rapacity, depending on your point of view.
Leach, who is also the program’s executive producer, approvingly dubs it “a non-fiction version of Dallas and Dynasty.”
Unlike other celebrity interview shows that present three or four subjects in an hour, Lifestyles gallops through 12 to 14 segments in the same amount of time, taking in panoramic vistas of, opulence from the emerald lawns of Beverly Hills to the celestial penthouses of Houston to restored castles in the English countryside. And always there to read the price tags is Leach, whose punchy Fleet Street-inspired commentary achieves a kind of secular reverence.
(He doesn’t actually do all the interviews himself, but back in the studio he adds his voice-over narrative to those done by assistants.)
“The voice, he admits, “is distinctive or fascinating to Americans because it’s English.”
Yet for the record he makes light or his own television presence. His face shows up only in brief cutaways from the splendor at hand. “My theory of Lifestyles is that it’s one of the first 60-minute shows without a host. I don’t think the people tune in to see me. They tune in to see the stars and their homes.”He says his staff jokes about the way he appears on camera. “They talk about my rumpled coat or my messy hair, but I feel you don’t see me that much. So why should I tart myself up with lacquered hair?”
True, his ears are a little expansive, his teeth a little thin, his hairline a little lofty by movie. Standards. But it’s possible that under the circumstances Leach’s looks might be perfect, accenting his role as the commoner invited to the royal wedding.
And not everyone would agree that he is quite so inconspicuous as he makes out. Saturday Night Live’s Harry Shearer has already taken notice of him in a recurring parody (Lifestyles of the Relatives of the Rich and Famous). Impersonations of Leach’s servant to-the-manor hosannas have surfaced with a rising frequency at office and cocktail parties.
“I hear stories of people doing imitations of my voice on their answering machines,” Leach says with a hint of a smile. “I know that there is a club in Redondo Beach that every Sunday gives a Rich and Famous party where they all get into the Jacuzzi in tuxedos and evening gowns and sip champagne and watch the show.
“I know that we’ve become like a cult joke since the show has been on the air.” There is a note of resignation in his voice. “If that campiness is there, it certainly was never my intention to create that.”
“I don’t think he has much of a sense of humor,” says a colleague who has known him for some years. Robin takes himself very seriously.”
Leach prefers to think of himself as a dedicated reporter who takes his satisfaction from going after a good story and, especially, “getting an exclusive.” On Lifestyles an “exclusive” is more likely to be defined as the first televised inspection of Marissa Berenson’s New York brownstone than an interview with the actress that anyone is likely to remember.
“The old Ed Murrow shows used to do this,” says the accommodating host on a morning in Hollywood when he was previewing some of the Khashoggi footage at the Sunset Gower Studios, the The West Coast home of Lifestyles.
“But their problem was they’d be sort of locked in position with three cameras for their remote, whereas with video technology today…with one camera, we can just go right through a house in five hours. And we can really peek into wardrobes, and we can really go in the bathroom and open up the medicine cabinet. I mean, I do it.”
Why do people let him do it? “I can’t answer that question. I just do not know that answer. Sometimes when I come off a shoot. I will go outside and go in the crew van and say. ‘Why on earth did they let us do that?’ ”
One reason, some think, is as simple as Madison Avenue. Whether a star is advertising her career or an entrepreneur his land holdings, exposure on Lifestyles is unlikely to diminish the value of either.
Leach has his own theory. “It may be a little cockney cheekiness that I have. Because I’ve been working in show business journalism for 25 years. Basically everybody trusts me. They know they’re not going to get screwed or roasted over. So if I ask somebody to get in a bathtub for me, they know that in the context of what we’re doing it’s not going to look like a cheap shot.”
It wasn’t from Edward R. Murrow that Leach learned how to coax Morgan Fairchild into a tub with the cameras rolling. For almost as long as he can remember, he has walked a beat on the soft side of the news. And he has become as familiar to many entertainers as their hairdressers or psychiatrists.
“It’s tough being a show business figure. These people know that I care about them and their endeavors. They’re not all people who deserve to be hung and quartered. There’s a level of decency in all of us.”
“I don’t honestly think we’re doing anything different with this form of journalism than I’ve done all my life. Primarily “I’m a gossip and I don’t hide from the word.”
But the “gossip” on Lifestyles isn’t likely to make anyone recall Louella Parsons or even Rona Barrett. Any stars who might have been put off by Leach’s tabloid past have come around to seeing that on television he is up to no harm.
“I call it ‘soft gossip.”’ he says. “One can be sensational without being scandalous. I have a basic rule that you don’t hurt people in their pocketbook.”
UNTIL HE jumped ship to star in Lifestyles in August 1983, Leach’ was a roving reporter for Paramount Television’s Entertainment Tonight and before that for the Cable News Network. He left E, he says, because of creative differences. “My inclination, believe it or not, has always been to stay away from the puffery of the business. To really get people to talk about how they live.” At “E.T.,’· he claims, he was asked to deliver “the serious side of the business” and “so we used to lock heads every now and then.”
On Lifestyles, a program that Leach created in collaboration withAl Masini (who also created Entertainment Tonight and Solid Gold), there is no such conflict.
“If you’ll notice, in the series we very, very rarely talk about people working. You’ll never hear an actress on this show sit there and say, “I want to stretch. I want to leave my 30-rninute-a-week sitcom on the network and go do Shakespeare.’ We’re only interested in bedrooms, baths” – he pronounces it baahths– what they sleep in, how they cook their breakfast, how they furnish their homes, what they choose to buy with their money.
The show has included “the world’s richest pet” (terrier bequeathed $12 million), “the most expensive penthouse in the world ($11.5 million) and a $3 million car. Financial superlatives fall like rain.
In one segment in the first season viewers were whisked to Midland, Texas, “home to more millionaires per square mile than anywhere in the world.” No millionaires turned up on screen. No people at all. As the camera panned across prairie skyscrapers and ranch mansions we simply heard Leach reciting a Dunn & Bradstreet profile of the town’s wealth.
“The American public’s appetite for this kind of gossip journalism – silk pajama journalism as I call it – is voracious. It just does not quit.”
One could assume that the appetite is shared by the man leading the video assaults on all these castles and mountain hideaways – a reporter, who, after all, has devoted much of his career to discovering what Mary Ann Mobley’s swimming pool looks like or how many rooms Paul Anka and his wife need to live comfortably. Yet Leach insists otherwise. “I have absolutely no persona interest in how famous people live their lives. None Whatsoever.” Then he adds, “Professionally I’m very interested.”
“That’s his stock answer,” says a Lifestyles staffer in the Los Angeles office. “I don’t know why he always says that. I think he loves the whole celebrity thing.”
LEACH IS thrilled by the United States. He left England to come here when he was 21, after taking a hard look at the rigid salary scale dictated by British newspaper unions.
“Everybody has a dream, and America is the only country in the world where that dream is allowed to take seed and come to fruition, and you can be a winner. Americans forget that that privilege exists in this country It doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world.
“If only Americans realized how lucky they were to live in this country. Every time I run into a whining, sniveling American, I would love to be able to afford to send him on a trip to Europe. Not vacation – go and live there. And see what socialism has done. They’d come back in very short order.”
Yet curiously, Leach maintains that his primary motivation for creating Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, for tracking down the stars day in and day out, is not money.
“Money to me, I could give a damn about. I don’t make a lot of money. It’s not important to me.” Though he owns a piece of the show, which is likely to return him a small fortune some day, , in the meantime he is proud to point out that he pays himself only scale.
“My kick doesn’t come out of the paycheck. It’s getting inside the Vatican, getting permission from Buckingham Palace to let our cameras spend a night on the town with Diana and Charles.”
“Robin’s the most hard-working person I’ve ever come in contact with,” attests John Kalish, a director who worked with Leach on Entertainment Tonight. “He makes you feel guilty for taking time out for a sigh now and then.”
Leach, who is 42, spends a lot of time on airplanes, and when he is not airborne he divides his time between New York and Los Angeles, where the show’s two production offices are located.
He owns “a very ordinary” house in Connecticut and rents a “tiny house” in the Hollywood Hills for the 10 days a month he spends here. He drives a Chrysler New Yorker when he’s back east and Hertz rent-a-cars out here. He doesn’t want you to get the impression in other words, that he is becoming that which he covers.
“I wouldn’t want the worries these people have,” he says in an uncharacteristic disclaimer about life among the beautiful people.”
He is divorced, with no children, and is currently seeing soap opera actress Jackie Zeman. a regular on General Hospital. He is reluctant to talk about her or even to give out her name. “I’m old-fashioned. The hardest thing for me is to talk about affection for a woman,” says the man who has chronicled the couplings and uncouplings of countless “supa-stahs.”
His idea of a perfect evening is staying home and cooking a meal for “my lady and me.”‘
But such evenings apparently are rare because of his rigorous schedule. When he’s not on the road, he gets to the office, either east or west by 6 a.m., sometimes staying till midnight. Besides going on location on stories, he oversees the program and writes much of it himself. Lifestyles employs a staff of 30, including five segment producers.
He prefers New York to Los Angeles, where he has “never gotten used to people coming to work in tennis shorts.” He feels better in a coat and tie. Still, he comes here regularly in deference to the symbol of Hollywood and because about 40 percent of the people who have been featured on the show live in Southern California.
Seated directly in front of a TV monitor that is unreeling pictures of the inside of Adnan Khashoggi’s private jetliner on this morning, Leach looks on studiously. Then, as the eye of the camera travels over a sable bedspread, he moves forward in his chair and with his index finger touches the screen where a gleaming buckle is visible in the center of a sash encircling the bed. “Gold,” he says.
HIS FATHER worked 40 years for a company that sold vacuum cleaners. “And when he retired, they gave him a gold watch,” Leach remembers all too clearly. “I decided that wasn’t for me. I wanted to be able to afford to buy the gold watch myself.”
By the time he was 10, he was already sending articles to the local paper in Harrow, the town outside London where he grew up. It is home to one of England’s most elite prep schools. “I went to the school at the bottom of the hill,” he explains. “Winston Churchill went to the one at the top.”
He headed right into newspapers at the age or 15, passing up college. ‘”I was the youngest reporter on Fleet Street.”
While still serving his apprenticeship, he did an interview that seems to have changed his life. It was with Leslie Bricusse, the songwriter who had just written Stop the World – I Want to Get Off” for Anthony Newley.
Bricusse liked the article so much he invited Leach backstage on the show’s opening night in London in 1960. There the young man witnessed something he has never forgotten. “There had been thunderous applause, standing ovation and everything, and Tony Newley was backstage literally crying, saying he hadn’t given enough or what he wanted to give to that opening night. And it made me want to’ find out what made people tick in this business.”
“Then I started the movie page on the local newspaper. And from then on it was always show biz.”
In the U.S., Leach moved up from his job as a shoe clerk to covering show business for The New York Post. Rupert Murdoch’s Star, The Globeand The National Enquirer. For four years in the late ’60s he published his own nationally distributed rock ‘n’ roll tabloid, GO. He still writes a weekly personalities column that appears in the Star and 110 newspapers around the world.
Television, he has discovered, is much harder than newspapers. “It’s tough, tough work. The hours are much longer. The burnout factor in television is much higher than print. I mean, you fry people in this business.
If Leach is frying on the inside, he looks only soft-boiled in the dim light or the studio where he is screening the Khashoggi tapes and segments of two other celebrity specials the Lifestyles company has created for the new year. His excitement at the results in front of him is barely contained. “Good stuff,” he says out loud.
We are watching Brooke Shields (“a good friend”) on safari in Kenya. She is being introduced to a tribe or Masai warriors. The Masai are nearly naked and are carrying spears. “We’re going to get some flak on this one,” he predicts.
He’s prepared, as always. “I’ve been accused of white-washing people, of being sycophantic in the way I do interviews, that I’ve been morally bankrupt in my commitment to the profession of journalism. People are welcome to throw the barbs.
“I’m not ashamed of what we turn out for television. I’m proud or what we do.”
Robin Leach is proud of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.
This may come as a surprise to a network television writer I know who, during a discourse on the subject or Leach, told me, “I’m convinced there is an empire awaiting this guy. There are depths of cynicism in him that are profound.”
Harry Shearer, the comedian who has imitated Leach from time to time on Saturday Night Live, believes “The show is proof that envy is where we’re at in this country.”
Other critics have been less charitable, some even moved to observations along the theme that Lifestyles may be the strongest evidence yet that Western Civilization is finished.
If Leach sees the humor in such reactions he isn’t letting on. He claims he has received only two pieces of mail complaining about the show’s moral railings – both, interestingly, from Los Angeles.
If he has whiffed a stale odor near the Hollywood dream or considered the downside of being a billionaire, he’s keeping his misgivings to himself.
“Remember that we’re in the entertainment business,” he instructs. “People from all income strata love the show.
“We haven’t mocked what we’re doing. We leave it all to the audience to decide whether this is the right kind of lifestyle to like or dislike. We’re just Joe Friday. We just present the facts. No judgments. The public is the filial arbiter of taste.”
A common enough observation in television. So why does it sound fresh when repeated by Robin Leach? The PUB-lic is…the final AH-biter of taste. It’s more than the burbling tone, more than bottom-of-the-hill-at-Harrow accent that shapes the words. It’s what’s missing: the customary grumble of concession heard when this is repeated up and down Sunset Boulevard and over the hill in Burbank. From the lips of Leach it is not a concession. It is wisdom, warmly expressed. It is common, yet it is priceless.
Los Angeles Herald Examiner 1985