David Hartman Leaves GMA After a Decade Run That Rarely Showed the Muscle Behind His Mild Manner
10/20/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT
There was no bitterness expressed in his stepping down, no parting shot at TV critics who once called him an actor masquerading as a journalist. Just a simple statement: "I want to spend more time with my wife and four kids." With that, David Hartman recently confirmed that in February, after 11 seasons, he will depart Good Morning America and one of the most powerful jobs in television. He'll contribute segments to the show, as well as prime-time specials for ABC. But they'll be no Bobby Ewing-type resurrection. As such ABC news correspondents as Stone Phillips, Steve Fox and Charles Gibson scramble for the space next to co-host Joan Lunden on the GMA couch, Hartman already has begun taking Fridays off.
Hartman's departure does little to illuminate his closely guarded image. The fact is that Hartman, now 51, is far more complex than the "aw-shucks" chap you see on-camera. He is a keenly intelligent man who, says one colleague, "gets everything on the first bounce." He's also a demanding boss who has exerted an unusual degree of control, including approval of all on-air sidekicks and department contributors. Says ABC executive Squire Rushnell, who was in charge of GMA from 1978 to 1981: "I once suggested to David that he was the show's gray-flannel suit who should be surrounded by the bright colors of other contributors. He didn't buy that idea."
He can also show surprising temperament backstage. According to one insider, Hartman got "real moody when GMA's ranking started to go down." (The once-mighty GMA ceded the top spot to NBC's Today in January.) Adds a former producer: "David has a problem with anybody on the show who takes a degree of the limelight." Hartman made the show a hit, and there's never been any doubt who was the star. "David exercised enormous control," says Sandy Hill, a TV anchorwoman in Los Angeles who was Hartman's sidekick from 1977 to 1980. "I left because I was more a viewer than participant. The show was and continues to be basically a patriarchal broadcast."
In August, after five years on the show, Joan Lunden was named co-host with Hartman, the first person to hold that title—this despite a clause in Hartman's contract specifying him as principal performer. Hartman has publicly applauded Lunden, but, says one source, "they weren't getting along. On-camera, they'd be chatty and friendly. But between takes there would be this icy silence, more from David than Joan."
Some observers say that Hartman is at pains to be portrayed as just a regular guy. "He wants and has had power and authority, yet he doesn't want to be perceived as having it," says one former ABC executive. "He's an enigma, an intelligent man who mistrusts intelligence, a workaholic who drives others very hard." Notes a former staffer: "If David was displeased, you'd hear it from one of the producers, not directly from him."
To Hartman supporters, such descriptions don't sound like the man they know. "He's a perfectionist," says former GMA contributor Erma Bombeck, "but he never asks anyone to do more than he is willing to do." Adds former GMA executive producer Phyllis McGrady: "He was always enthusiastic. I've never worked with anyone as professional or as good." Other staff members say Hartman can be generous and solicitous. When GMA researcher Sue Woods opened her eyes after a cesarean section, the first person she saw after her husband was Hartman, in hospital garb, telling her that the baby was beautiful. When the husband of staffer Patty Neger died suddenly more than two years ago, Hartman attended the funeral. "He called me from a meeting in California to tell me he'd be there," says Neger. "He's a wonderful man, and we're sad to see him go."
Born in Pawtucket, R.I.—his father a Methodist minister-turned-adman, his mother a housewife—Hartman has admitted that he was a lazy, overweight teenager. His attitude changed when his older brother, Cyril, now 54, was struck at age 11 by osteomyelitis, a degenerative bone disease. "I decided to take advantage of right now and got busy fast."
After graduating from Mount Hermon prep school in Massachusetts, Hartman went to Duke University where he majored in economics. He was a campus dynamo: chorale singer, radio and TV announcer for campus stations, president of his fraternity and of the men's glee club. After college and a stint in the Air Force, David enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York in 1959. His acting break came in 1963, when he was cast as Rudolph, the head-waiter in the original Broadway company of Hello, Dolly!, a role he played for 800 performances. At the time, recalls Broadway conductor Jack Lee, "David was incredibly musical—it's a pity he's not singing now." Several years later, when Lee encountered Hartman, "He picked me up and carried me into a bar." But recently, Lee says, "I've run into him several times...I'm not sure he remembers me."
Acting in commercials led to a contract with Universal. This in turn brought series roles as a cowboy on The Virginian in 1968, a doctor on The Bold Ones in 1969 and a dedicated teacher on Lucas Tanner in 1974. In 1975, when ABC decided to create a cozy alternative to the venerable Today show, the network chose Hartman as the host. "As soon as I saw him, I said, 'This is the guy,' " recalls Fred Silverman, then head of ABC entertainment. "He had great rapport with the audience. People don't want to see a high-energy screamer at 7 o'clock in the morning." On the GMA set, a sun-colored, fantasy suburban home with real flowers on the coffee table, Hartman found a home.
At first, TV reviewers lambasted GMA's lightweight glitz. But Hartman persevered. In 1980 GMA surpassed Today to reign for six years as No. 1 in the early-morning ratings. "GMA was The David Hartman Show," contends Today producer Steve Friedman. "It will be interesting to see how they do without him."
His family, Hartman hopes, will do well with him. A bachelor until age 39, Hartman married the former Maureen Downey when both were working in Los Angeles, she as a TV producer. They have four children: Sean, 11, Brian, 9, Bridget, 6, and Conor, 4. Hartman, who has been getting up at 3:45 a.m. for the past 11 years, commutes to GMA from his home in suburban Westchester County, north of New York City. Frequently working 17-hour days, he has sometimes fallen asleep while reading a bedtime story to his children.
According to Hartman, he first discussed leaving the GMA grind with his wife during the show's 10th anniversary last fall. In August, he said, he went to ABC with a decision to quit GMA when his contract expired. "I said, 'Look, I want to make the move, let's decide how to pass the baton smoothly.' " Phil Beuth, the executive in charge of early-morning television, denies a rumor that Hartman had been asked to take a pay cut. "There's absolutely no truth to that—we wanted him to stay," says Beuth. Some observers still feel that the proud Hartman was offended when Capital Cities, ABC's new management, indicated that their corporate blueprint didn't call for such commanding "talent." Says one source: "I think David just figured, after 11 years, why should he go from such a powerful position to being an employee?"
Spending time with his family may be the top Hartman priority these days, but some Hartman watchers are convinced that his master plan is to enter politics. While critics focused on actor Hartman and GMA's celebrity interviews, the host had quietly turned into a knowledgeable interviewer of political leaders, from Ronald Reagan to Ferdinand Marcos. It is well known around GMA that Hartman loves to pursue the most arcane foreign-policy matter with his staff. "This job is an education," he has said repeatedly, and he's a quick study. "David is very smart, and he has an insatiable quest for knowledge," notes former GMA executive producer Susan Winston. "After hobnobbing with world leaders, of course he's no longer the innocent guy he was when he started." Hartman is friendly with Henry Kissinger as well as former President Gerald Ford and his family. "We think the world of him," says Betty Ford, who has entertained the Hartmans at the Ford home. "There was always speculation around the office that he was setting himself up to run for the Senate, that he wanted to be President," says a former GMA staffer, who characterizes Hartman as politically "a moderate, not ideological." (He is not on record as a Democrat or Republican.) Adds another source: "He has the qualities you need to run: the ego, a good public personality, extraordinary name recognition, the willingness to work, and he's rich." So far he has not been publicly approached for any political race. But if Hartman does dream of being the second actor to be President of the U.S., he is, typically, keeping his thoughts to himself.