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They don't make critics like New York City's Gene Shalit anymore.

Last Thursday Shalit announced his retirement from broadcasting. He's been a fixture of NBC's "Today" show since January 1973, most notably with his "Critic's Corner" segment, offering his opinions about everything from books to films.

In recent years, his once regular segments had been reduced to only two installments a month. Of course, since Shalit, who turns 85 in just a few months, has been doing his reviews for more than 40 years, it's understandable why he might be ready to enjoy a well-deserved retirement.

Shalit, famous for his colorful commentary, shock of bushy black hair, handlebar mustache, bow-tie and black plastic horn-rimmed glasses, was also very publicly criticized over the decades.

Still, I always admired him for his versatility for covering a variety of subjects and arts and leisure assignments for his beat during his career. I have also always modeled my own brand of topics coverage on that style.

There aren't many well-rounded critics and columnists who care to work this hard anymore.

I've never had the chance to meet Shalit in person, but I have certainly met his daughter Wila Shalit a few times, since she's a noted activist and founder of the Rwanda Path to Peace project, which she established to create an export business to provide economic stability and promote an environment of peace that would positively affect Rwanda's future for its 8 million citizens.

As for some of the stormy moments in Gene Shalit's career, he's always managed to float above any of the darts hurdled at him, which is just one of the hazards of working in the media arena.

However, when those darts come from colleagues, it can be a little tougher to avoid them, without at least suffering a graze.

I can still remember being a sophomore in college at Valparaiso University when "Today" show news anchor Bryant Gumbel's stinging "leaked" memo in 1989 to the show's executive producer Marty Ryan. Gumbel complained about Shalit's celebrity interviewing skills being weak and his reviews also airing late, which seemed like light judgments compared to the terrible things Gumbel ranted about "Today" weatherman Willard Scott. (Our own Indiana claim-to-fame Jane Pauley, who was Gumbel's co-anchor at the time, managed to escape being mentioned in the memo.)

More recently, Shalit was taken to task in 2006 following his choice of words used for his review of director Ang Lee's gay cowboy film "Brokeback Mountain," which later, prompted an apology.

Shalit also got his first big break in the New York City arts community in 1967, working as an assistant for one of my own personal mentors, syndicated New York gossip columnist Hy Gardner, who also appeared on the CBS panel game show "To Tell the Truth" alongside Kitty Carlisle. A few years ago, Marilyn Gardner, the widow of Hy (who was a kinder, gentler journalist than Walter Winchell) mailed me a wonderful letter she had kept from her late husband's files written by Shalit, thanking Hy for all of his guidance and for sharing career connections "in the business." Hy, who retired with his wife to Miami after his flagship newspaper The New York Herald-Tribune closed in 1966, died at age 80 in 1989.

Shalit has also always adopted a friendly persona that proves he doesn't take himself too seriously, including lending his voice and likeness to the fussy fish restaurant critic character Gene Scallop on  the cartoon "Spongebob Squarepants." In 1971, he also joined Arlene Francis as a panelist on the re-launched syndicated game show "What's My Line?"

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer. He can be reached at philip.potempa@nwi.com or 219.852.4327.

 

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