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Epilogue | John Eastman

Onetime TV personality held a tobacco company responsible for emphysema.

TAMPA — The money moved John Eastman out of his tiny apartment. It bought him the medical equipment he needed. It bought a van for his wheelchair and a comfortable new house in Temple Terrace.

It bought him hope.

"I'm going to die there," he told the St. Petersburg Times in 2005. "I'm not going to sit and waste away in some hospital or a nursing home. I have enough money now to pay for people to come and care for me until I'm dead. And tobacco gave me that."

• • •

That money was $3.26-million.

Mr. Eastman, a longtime Tampa Bay television and radio personality, sued two tobacco companies in 1997 for contributing to his cigarette addiction. In 2003, a jury decided he should be paid. He got most of his money in 2005.

It was the first time that cigarette maker Philip Morris was forced to pay in an individual case.

"What they paid, it's a drop in the bucket," Mr. Eastman told the Times after he received his money. "I don't enjoy looking like this. They should have paid millions and millions so people could see their evil. They weren't punished enough for it."

Emphysema was destroying him. Travel and leisure with the cash were out of the question.

"It had been a decline," said his son, John Eastman Jr. He didn't get much out of bed. But he had a great life."

Mr. Eastman tried his first cigarette at 12, in an era before surgeon general warnings. Back then, smoking was the epitome of cool. And, he was told, it was good for the throat.

It turned into a four-pack-a-day stream of Marlboros, Benson & Hedges and Lucky Strikes. He didn't stop smoking until 1990, when his disease stripped his voice and halted his entertainment career.

The man once called the "dean of Tampa Bay talk radio" disappeared off the map.

• • •

He got his first taste of Hollywood as an usher at a CBS theater in Los Angeles. Mr. Eastman, a boy from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, knew he wanted to write scripts.

He co-wrote a 1965 episode of The Fugitive television show and did voiceover work. In the 1970s, he wrote a low-budget movie called Rooster. It was about cockfighting, but really, it was about "the conflict of mid-America's system of values and attitude," he once said.

He worked at television stations in Iowa and Miami before heading to Tampa Bay in 1977 to replace Stan Major as host of Talk of Tampa Bay from 8 p.m. to midnight on WDAE-AM 1250.

Fans also loved his easygoing interview style on his WTSP -TV Ch. 10 show, where he interviewed celebrities who came through town.

"He thought of them more as conversations," said Eastman Jr., 51. "He was never the sensationalist type. He really liked to have intelligent conversations with people, even the actors and actresses. They didn't always talk about the fluff or about the movies they were doing. They talked about life. They talked about politics."

He later left television and radio amid creative differences with management. Until the emphysema, he made a living narrating and writing films on national forests.

"He was different than most dads," said Eastman Jr. "That's for sure."

• • •

Mr. Eastman married and divorced five wives. One wife played a zombie in the movie The Night of the Living Dead. Another wife was once married to Larry King.

His sons lived apart from their dad. When they saw him, it was a good time. He introduced them to famous people and inspired them to work hard. Michael Eastman, 49, is now a Hillsborough County sheriff's deputy. John Eastman Jr. is a radio host, voice actor and television presenter with Home Shopping Network.

Mr. Eastman described himself as the world's oldest 3-year-old. He was charming and chatty until he couldn't chat anymore. He lived out his days in the company of his best friend, a cairn terrier named Lucy.

On Sunday, Mr. Eastman died at 79. He was home, just like he planned.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8857.

>>BIOGRAPHY

John Eastman

Born: Aug. 14, 1928.

Died: May 4, 2008.

Survivors: sons, Michael Eastman and John Eastman Jr.

Onetime TV personality held a tobacco company responsible for emphysema. 05/06/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 7, 2008 9:00pm]

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