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It's a wrap for Gene Shalit on 'Today' show

Gene Shalit was known as much for his appearance — bushy hair, big moustache and bow ties — as for his movie reviews on the Today show.

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Gene Shalit was known as much for his appearance — bushy hair, big moustache and bow ties — as for his movie reviews on the Today show.

His press release says "it's enough already" and stresses he isn't leaving "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, who joined Today as a contributor in 1970 and became arts editor in 1973, may be the last high-profile film critic still on a major network broadcast, with one of the longest continuous runs of anyone in the same on-air job in morning television. During his tenure, he 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.

Shalit started as a entertainment columnist for McCall's magazine, eventually becoming senior film critic for Look magazine in 1968. His popularity in magazines led to an offer from NBC; which turned into a radio offer when the top executive got a look at him.

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."

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).

Shalit leaves Today on Thursday, when the show plans a retrospective of his reviews and interviews.

"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.' "

It's a wrap for Gene Shalit on 'Today' show 11/09/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 9, 2010 7:42pm]
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