The absence of Bill Carlson, who has been off the air at WCCO-TV since early summer as he battles cancer, has left a void in the movie-critic ranks that extends far beyond the TV station's signal.
While Carlson never rose to national public prominence like, say, Roger Ebert -- an unfortunate result of his modest refusal to trumpet himself at every turn, which is a necessary vice for anyone looking for attention from networks -- he is respected and admired by industry insiders and his fellow critics.
As a Star Tribune movie critic for 20 years, I got a chance to work beside Carlson. The esteem with which he is held hit home in 2001 when he took two months off to undergo knee surgery. His absence from the mob of reporters that descends on Hollywood in search of movie stars was noticed almost immediately. Critics from other cities would spot me and come hustling over, a look of concern on their faces, to find out why he was missing.
And it wasn't just his fellow reporters who missed him. On at least two occasions, the movie stars I was interviewing interrupted to ask, "You said you're from Minneapolis, right? How's Bill doing?"
Keep in mind that Carlson has never been part of the Larry King fawn-until-you-foam-at-the-mouth school of reviewing in which every star's new movie is worthy of an Oscar. If he doesn't like a movie, he says so. But he does so with a tone born of intelligence and buttressed by a complete lack of ego.
When he reviews a film, it's always about the movie and never about himself. Unlike many critics who love to show off their cleverness -- or, at least, what they consider their cleverness -- by making smart-alecky remarks about films and performances that come up short, he treats bad movies the same way he treats great ones. He analyzes them, succinctly states what he likes and doesn't like and explains why. The reviews are incisive and insightful. They are never cruel.
For several years, I also had an opportunity to do TV interviews for KARE-TV. Because print and broadcast journalists usually are kept separated during interview sessions -- it's not that we don't get along; it's because movie stars have to dress up for TV interviews and prefer to show up for print interviews wearing T-shirts and flip-flops -- this gave me a chance to finally watch Carlson in action.
His work was so smooth and seemed so effortless that he reminded me of Ted Williams swinging a baseball bat: You don't appreciate how hard the job is until you try it yourself.
And he is generous to a fault. Even though I was working for a competitor, he would share stories and information about the people we were interviewing. Then again, he had no reason to fear my competition. Although he never would have said it, we both knew that even on my best day I wasn't as good as he was on his worst day.
If there's a signature event that captures Carlson's attitude, it came while we were doing TV interviews for "Pearl Harbor." The way these things work, the stars are set up in small interview booths and the reporters are herded into a waiting area where a publicist comes to fetch us when it's our turn.
The biggest challenge for the reporters -- beyond fighting off boredom -- is trying to break through the actor's boredom by coming up with an angle for the interview that will make it different from all the other interviews the star has done that day.
Carlson came back to the waiting area bubbling about an interview he'd just seen. The reporter in line in front of him to interview Ben Affleck had come up with a delightful gambit that Affleck had been quick to pick up on, resulting in an interview that was head and shoulders above anything anyone else had.
The other reporters grumbled "Why didn't I think of that?" and pondered ways to steal the idea without getting caught. Not Carlson. He congratulated the reporter who had cooked up the idea. It was a class act from a guy who never provides anything less.
Jeff Strickler 612-673-7392