Film critic (and St. Pete Times fan) Gene Shalit leaving Today show Thursday after 40 years
His press release says "it's enough already" and he "had not left to 'spend more time with his family.'"
But the flip tone can't disguise a momentous truth: After 40 years, film critic Gene Shalit is leaving his perch on the Today show Thursday.
“I certainly decided this; I’m not a young kid any more,” said Shalit, 84, who once juggled simultaneous jobs writing for Look magazine and Ladies Home Journal with his Today duties and daily reviews on a local TV station many years ago. “I’m starting to feel mortal, and there’s a couple of books left that I really want to write.”
Shalit may have been the last high profile film critic still working on a major network broadcast, with one of the longest continuous runs of any person in the same on air job in morning television. During his time on the show, he's traded quips with anchors ranging from Edwin Newman, Barbara Walters and Jane Pauley to Tom Brokaw, Bryant Gumbel, Katie Couric and the current team of Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira.
And he has a particular tie to the Tampa Bay area and the St. Petersburg Times. A fan of the newspaper since the mid ’80s, he appeared in television ads and photos at newspaper boxes. As payment, he asked for only a lifetime subscription, sent to his home in Massachusetts, which inexplicably stopped many years ago.
“I wrote a letter to you guys saying ‘Either you made a mistake or I’m dead,’ ” he cracked, laughing loudly. “So they reinstated the subscription.”
Another incident in the area led to major change for Shalit in 1994, when he was struck by a car while crossing Gulf Boulevard in St. Pete Beach. The accident shattered his leg, taking him off Today for a while; eventually, he suggested they just record his movie reviews in his home office — where they still do them today.
These days, Shalit’s style — oversize hairdo, large handlebar mustache and penchant for groan-inducing puns during reviews — has become his signature. But when he started, one reviewer said he looked like a “freelance anarchist” (much later, another critic would grouse he looked like “a man in permanent Groucho nose glasses every morning”) and letters poured in from viewers complaining about having to look at him while eating breakfast.
“Most people, if they don’t want to be seen, dress like me,” said Shalit. “But even if they make fun of me, they remember me, too.”
He also leaves as one of the oldest people still working in TV news, younger than 60 Minutes commentator Andy Rooney (89) but older than View hostess Barbara Walters (81).
At times he was derided for being such a character and delivering reviews which may have seemed out of touch (use of the term "sexual predator" in a review of 2006's gay romance Brokeback Mountain brought criticisms from some of homophobia, which Shalit denied).
The release doesn't say why Shalit chose to leave Today now, though it does say "his plans embrace publishing, the Internet, radio and commercials."
“I was on the Today show before there was any competition, so everybody of any consequence came through,” he said. “Barbara Walters once said to me ‘We ought to pay NBC to do this job. But let’s not tell them how much fun it is.’ ”