Kiss Today Goodbye
His last Today broadcast—Friday, Jan. 3—put an end to all that. The night before, the onetime NBC sports-caster had none of his usual homework to do. In the morning, having risen at his customary 4 a.m. to report to Today's Rockefeller Plaza studio, he was handed the morning's script and found only blank pages. The reason was that Gumbel, who said last January that he was leaving because "15 years is a long time in one place, and the world's too exciting to enjoy from just one vantage point," was the show's top headline and sole theme. For two hours, high-profile guests delivered tribute after tribute. Tom Cruise and Hillary Clinton, among others, sent video greetings. Well-wishers on the street waved farewell signs through the studio windows. Muhammad Ali stopped by with wife Lonnie. Maya Angelou arrived bearing poetic musings that paid tribute to Gumbel's good looks and groundbreaking role as a black newscaster. And the anchor kept coming unmoored. It was all he could do to choke back tears and mumble, "Thank you, that was very nice."
In the show's last 10 minutes, Gumbel lit up when the artist formerly known as Prince, sporting a suit and spectacles similar to those in Gumbel's conservatively natty wardrobe, sang "Take Me With U" and "Raspberry Beret." But at the end, surrounded by his successor, then-news reader Matt Lauer, cohost Katie Couric, movie critic Gene Shalit, weatherman Al Roker and former Today stars Pauley and Joe Garagiola, Gumbel practically sobbed, "I am humbled, I am grateful, and I am proud to have the friends and colleagues I do on this show."
Gumbel's biggest surprise may have been that "I didn't lose it until the end," he said at the studio's postshow celebration brunch, attended by his wife of 23 years, June, and their children Bradley and Jillian. "I'm not good at hiding my emotions." Neither were his colleagues. "I covered the Cheers farewell show, and there's a lot of that same emotion," says Roker. "Bryant is our Ted Danson—although Bryant has more hair." Said Couric: "It's almost been like having a work spouse."
This was not the time to discuss the controversial moments of Gumbel's career, such as his 1988 memo to producer Marty Ryan deriding weatherman Willard Scott's "assortment of whims, wishes, birthdays and bad taste." ("There is a love and affection," says Scott now, "that a lot of people would never imagine between the two of us.") Or, last year, the media storm that kicked up when Gumbel chided Republican leaders for not offering condolences to the widow of Commerce Secretary Ron Brown. "In a time of Q ratings, focus groups and popularity polls," says Lauer, "he has been willing to express his opinions."
Speaking his mind apparently hasn't spoiled Gumbel's options. There has been speculation that he will wind up on ABC, perhaps as a 20/20 anchor or Ted Koppel's Nightline backup. Gumbel won't discuss his future. "Given my druthers, I'd be a successful novelist," he says. "I'd love to be Robert Ludlum or John Grisham in another life." But the book on Gumbel's TV career probably isn't closed.
ANNE LONGLEY in New York City