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David Susskind’s Open End

David Susskind on the set of Open End

A word or two about David Susskind, who led a varied career that saw him functioning as a producer, talk show host, and talent impresario. As Wikipedia summarizes, “Susskind was also a noted producer, with scores of movies, plays, and TV programs to his credit [. . .] Among other projects, he produced television adaptations of Beyond This Place (1957), The Moon and Sixpence (1960), Ages of Man (1966), Death of a Salesman (1966), Look Homeward, Angel (1972), The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1958), The Glass Menagerie (1973), and Caesar and Cleopatra (1976); the television films Truman at Potsdam (1976), Eleanor and Franklin (1976), and Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years (1977); [as well as] the feature film Loving Couples (1980). [Susskind] also produced [. . .] the 1961 fourteen-episode macabre CBS TV series Way Out [created and hosted by the acerbic author Roald Dahl -- and every bit as good as The Twilight Zone, though no one remembers it]. His production company, Talent Associates, also produced Get Smart.”

For me, however, his most significant contribution was as creator and host of Open End, a television talk show that ran from 1958 to 1987 — quite a respectable run for any show — but which was also unique in its initial incarnation, from 1958 to 1961 on Channel 13, WNTA New York (before the station was a PBS affiliate, and indeed, before PBS existed), because the show really was Open Ended.

Susskind would gather philosophers, performers, authors, theologians, politicians, really anyone who was interested in intelligent discourse, and let them chat about whatever came into their heads until everyone ran out of steam. Open End would sometimes run 2 hours or so; sometimes it would run until 3 in the morning, and on one memorable occasion, until nearly 5AM. Susskind would pick a topic for the evening, but the discussion would soon range into whatever each participant wished to talk about, at whatever length they wished to speak.

No one cut anyone off; one person would speak at a time; voices were raised only on rare occasions; and Susskind was conscientious in ensuring that all points of view — political and/or philosophical — were represented by his numerous guests.  There were always five or six participants per show, and it made for lively and informative television. And, of course, there were no commercials.

Can you imagine such a program today? “We’re almost out of time,” “we have only a few moments left,” “quickly before we go,” “in our remaining moments” — in our remaining moments? Are we about to die or something? We have plenty of time to think, to talk, to discuss, to examine, to air alternate points of view, but we just don’t do it anymore. Talk shows have degenerated into shouting matches, where guests participate only if they have a movie, book, or web site to plug. Real intellectual exchanges have been forgotten.

When Channel 13 joined the PBS fold and was renamed WNET, Open End moved to Channel 5, WNEW TV in 1961, and was chopped back to a two hour format with commercials, and renamed The David Susskind Show – it ran until Susskind’s death in 1987. The new format represented a distinct loss, but still, Susskind kept the guest lists interesting, the topics timely, and maintained an open space for relaxed discussion. It’s our loss that we have nothing like this now.

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About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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