Charles Templeton, the legendary broadcaster, evangelist and journalist, was Canada’s greatest media medicine man. Dead at 85, Charles Templeton was a famed cartoonist and an evangelical partner of Billy Graham, the editor of The Toronto Star and Maclean’s magazine, CTV’s top journalist and anchor man, a radio and TV star in tandem with Pierre Berton, and one of Canada’s most charismatic politicians.
These diverse and overwhelming talents bred suspicion of Templeton in both political and journalistic circles. At The Toronto Star, a favourite wise saying was: “Down deep, Charles Templeton is shallow.” Many Canadians dismissed Templeton as a cough syrup or snake oil medicine man whose political and journalistic tricks were nothing but patent medicine quackery.
In 1964 I took my wife to an Ontario Liberal party rally in Toronto-Riverdale, my home riding. Charles Templeton was the main speaker. He was seeking a seat in the Ontario legislature and seeking the Ontario Liberal leadership at the same time.
As a socialist born and bred, I had heard great socialist orators like Woodsworth, Lewis and Frank Scott speak. But they were nothing compared to Templeton. Templeton went for your heart, plucked it out, recharged it and gave you new life and new hope where none had existed before. Templeton was one hell of a political energizer.
I found myself joining others chanting: “Get on,” “Tell it as it is,” and “The best is yet to come.” I also put my money where my mouth was and took out an Ontario Liberal membership card.
Templeton signs were put up all over my basement apartment inside and out. Templeton, the great Canadian media medicine man, had cured my decades-long political cynicism.
But not for long. Templeton’s talents seemed obvious to simple-minded Western rubes like my wife and myself, but to the Brahmins of the Ontario Liberal party Templeton was just another medicine man peddling hype and blarney. Templeton was beaten for the party leadership by Andrew Thompson, later the Liberal senator who made Senate attendance a magic vanishing act.
Templeton re-entered my life two years later. My This Hour Has Seven Days stint led to a CBC presidential firing and I went off to work for the Democratic party in the United States and for Conservative strategist Dalton Camp. For Camp I did the re-election campaigns of Premier Duff Roblin of Manitoba and Premier Robert Stanfield of Nova Scotia – the two Tory premiers on the final ballot in the 1967 Tory leadership convention.
That 1967 Tory convention was a disaster for the CBC and a complete triumph for CTV and its anchorman Charles Templeton. With resources far smaller than CBC’s, Templeton kept on breaking story after story, fed to him by his ace floor reporter, Pierre Berton.
CBC’s Norman Depoe was completely isolated as anchorman in the anchor booth. No one on the floor was feeding Depoe anything. Reporters were standing at their cameras waiting for red lights to go on. They were fearful of losing air time.
The critics roasted CBC’s coverage of the convention. The press ominously noted that Templeton and his tiny CTV team had outdrawn CBC in all major Canadian urban centres.
Despite my Camp-acquired firsthand knowledge of both the Roblin and Stanfield organizations, union restrictions had prevented my coverage of the Tory convention. A year later, for the 1968 Liberal convention I was asked to be a floor reporter. I was given a direct phone to Norman Depoe. Every half hour I phoned Depoe with new stuff. Depoe kept mentioning my name on air.
Pierre Berton and I both heard Judy LaMarsh urge Paul Hellyer to stop “that bastard Trudeau.” This time I beat Berton to a CBC camera on the floor and told that LaMarsh tidbit live to a national TV audience. At that 1968 Liberal convention CBC was number one once again.
Templeton had also praised my work on air. He then invited me to join him and his good friend Robert Winters, the man Trudeau had just defeated, for drinks in his hotel suite.
If that be snake oil or patent medicine, then I love every Templeton drop of it. Having won the respect of both Norman Depoe and Charles Templeton, the two best anchormen in the country, was for me no small measure.
A year later, in 1969, Templeton became editor-in-chief of Maclean’s magazine. One day in my CBC office, a call came from Charles Templeton. He wanted me to be Maclean’s film critic. I was flattered, but in those days I was on the road six days a week. Templeton said, “See what you can do. Write me a film essay per issue.”
Templeton’s first Maclean’s issue was a critical success. Gordon Sinclair was effusive in praise of it and of my first film review for the magazine.
But the Maclean’s film critic job wasn’t easy. Once, while covering a bitter integration crisis in Mississippi for the CBC, I was suddenly phoned by Templeton who was wondering if I had anything for him.
I finished my coverage of a Ku Klux Klan parade. Then I drove deep into the heart of Mississippi Klan country where I found a little movie theatre whose marquee boasted a showing of Easy Rider.
It was a Friday night and the local yokels were hooting it up in the theatre. I screwed up my courage. Notebook and flashlight in hand, I entered the Mississippi lion’s den.
Though I was the first Hebrew seen in Mississippi parts that century, the locals ignored me to cheer to the rafters the last scene in Easy Rider where acid-heads Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper are wasted in a hail of shotgun fire by angry Mississippi farmers.
I quietly ducked out of the theatre, rushed to my motel, wrote my review and phoned it in personally to “Charlie.” He was still laughing at my Ol’ Miss caper as my review went to press.
Charlie, it was fun to work for you. Fun to watch you preach to the politically unconverted and fun to exchange gossip with you over the years. But Charlie, your many critics have always done you wrong.
Down deep, Charlie, you were always a mensch, a real human being. The only medicine you ever sold was straight from your heart and head to your readers, viewers, listeners and political followers.
There were hundreds of thousands of them. Count me as one of them.
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