By Michael Miner
Young reporter Allen Carpenter was under the impression that he was interviewing the most unusual actor in the long, distinguished history of Second City.
There was reason to believe this. The "bio" of Peter Gwinn, which was faxed to Carpenter at the Colorado Springs Independent before he conducted the interview by telephone, reported that Gwinn "was born in London on September 17, 1928 and came to America in 1940 after having appeared in twenty-two films in England."
The bio continued, "In all, he has been in one hundred and thirty-two feature films including Lassie Come Home, The White Cliffs of Dover, The Planet of the Apes and three of its sequels. He directed Ava Gardner in The Ballad of Tam Lin." An Emmy for Not Without Honor crowned a 49-year television career, while a 1953 production of Misalliance marked his Broadway debut. "Elsewhere in the United States," the bio concluded, "he has performed in Chicago on the ImprovOlympic house team Faulty Wiring."
Surveying this resume, Carpenter felt himself at a disadvantage. He'd been assigned by the Independent--the alternative weekly in Colorado Springs--to write a preview of the performance Gwinn's Second City touring company was going to give at Colorado College. Inexperienced as a theater writer, he'd assumed he'd be interviewing a novice thespian of about his own age, 27. Encountering instead a grand old man of the theater, he hastily reframed his line of inquiry and did the best he could.
Carpenter told me he asked Gwinn, "What is someone who's been in all those films and has all that experience doing in Second City, which is basically a proving ground for up-and-coming talent."
An excellent question. To which Gwinn replied, "It's a new challenge."
Then Carpenter asked, "Does being a veteran actor onstage and on-screen--do those techniques get in the way of the extemporaneous things Second City does?"
"Really, it all works together," said Gwinn. "Everything I've done before--whether it be film, television, or whatever--everything has broadened my frame of reference."
As the interview continued, Carpenter felt--as he put it--"twinges." He told me he thought, "This guy doesn't really know what he's talking about. This guy isn't 68. He sounds very young. But the biggest thing was he didn't seem to know anything. I asked him about some of the films, like Planet of the Apes and White Cliffs of Dover, and he just kind of glossed over it. And I thought, well, maybe--it was a long time ago."
Carpenter suppressed those twinges and made a reporter's fatal mistake. He gave the benefit of the doubt to someone who was lying through his teeth. For Peter Gwinn is 28, not 68, and when he joined the touring company several months ago and Second City urged him to produce some sort of a bio for publicity purposes, the scamp lifted one for Roddy McDowall that he'd seen in the program of a local production of Dial M for Murder.
Gwinn told me that he also felt qualms. "The very first thing he asked was, 'So, it's amazing you don't have a trace of a British accent.' I thought with that he would sort of understand what was going on. And I sort of played into it. I said, 'Yeah, well, I moved when I was 12.'"
Yet "in the course of the interview it became apparent he didn't get it. And I felt uncomfortable saying 'Hey buddy, this is a joke.' Because I didn't want to make him feel stupid. So what I tried to do was just use bigger and bigger hints. He asked me what I was in Planet of the Apes. I told him I was Roddy McDowall's assistant ape. I said I trained in New York with Roddy McDowall, and he liked me so much that in almost all of his movies I was with him. I was always his sidekick, and we did comedy shtick. I haven't seen Planet of the Apes, but I don't believe Roddy McDowall and an assistant ape do comedy bits."
It's up to the reader, guided by his faith in human decency, to gauge the depths of Gwinn's concern for Carpenter's credulity. At any rate, for all the actor's winks and hints, the reporter never did see the light. Carpenter wrote, "London-born Gwinn, 68, has starred in over 130 films in England and America, including The White Cliffs of Dover, Planet of the Apes--he was the ape that was always with Roddy McDowall--and Lassie Come Home." Though he'd lost "even a trace of British accent," Carpenter observed, "Gwinn is, in typical Anglo style, more than polite."
The Independent was made aware of its mistake in a painful fashion. As editor Cate Terwilliger put it in an E-mail to the executive director of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN): "We found out we'd been taken through the grapevine after members of the comedy troupe went out for post-performance drinks with staff writers from the monopoly daily here and shared it as a joke. As you can imagine, I am not laughing. Many of us at alternative weeklies are working on a shoestring, with rookie reporters and not two reference books to rub together. We haven't the specialized knowledge or resources to reliably get such 'jokes.'"
Terwilliger called Second City demanding an apology, which was immediately forthcoming by both phone and letter. "Until this unfortunate misunderstanding, no reporter has confused the 'joke' bio with Peter's actual credits," producer Kelly Leonard wrote her. "Through the course of most interviews it has become clear than Peter is not 68 years old, English, or a major film and theatre star....Obviously the humor did not come through in this situation and for this we are very sorry....We certainly appreciate your concern and offer our sincerest apologies."
This was reasonably gracious language, given that Leonard privately thought the fiasco was a hoot. In fact, he told me the only reason he didn't pick up the phone and start calling gossip columnists with this latest evidence of the madcap Second City operation was that he didn't want to add to the Independent's humiliation. Therefore he was astonished to find out that Terwilliger was spreading the story herself.
"Although a Second City publicist apologized to me," she wrote the AAN's executive director, "she also implied that it was hard to believe any reporter would have believed anything so 'outrageous.' I disagree. I've let them know that they won't be receiving any more coverage from the Independent, and that I will make this deception known to whatever other newspapers I can reach. I hope that, in addition to e-mailing this precautionary tale, you can make room for some mention in the next AAN newsletter. Thanks for helping get the word out."
For his part, Carpenter doesn't sound like a man bent on vengeance. "I've been asking people for embarrassment stories to make me feel better," he said. He's had trouble finding any that measure up.
Truth or Consequences
Clarence Page respectfully disagrees with his boss. Last week the Tribune columnist mourned the passing of a "great era in journalism...the era of undercover reporting." But publisher Jack Fuller was one of the theoreticians responsible for the corpse.
Prompting Page's eulogy was the recent court case that saw a jury in North Carolina award the Food Lion supermarket chain $5.5 million from ABC. In a 1992 report the network had accused the chain of selling spoiled food. Food Lion charged ABC with fraud--not libel--contending that the networks' investigators had misrepresented themselves on the resumes that got them jobs inside the stores. The truth of their report was no defense; it wasn't even an issue.
Page's column reminisced about the good old days. When "Nellie Bly" went undercover in a New York mental asylum. When Upton Sinclair got a job in the Chicago stockyards. When Page himself hooked on as a poll watcher in 1972 and helped the Tribune produce a Pulitzer-winning series on election fraud. And when the Sun-Times set up the Mirage, a corner bar, in 1978 to document city inspectors on the take.
"But instead of a Pulitzer," Page wrote, "the Mirage got a lot of criticism from a new wave of ethical puritans like Ben Bradlee, then editor of The Washington Post. He deplored any form of misrepresentation in pursuit of a story, no matter how beneficial the results might be to humankind."
Is Fuller another of those ethical puritans? I asked Page.
"Well, you be the judge," he said. "The fact is, it's true of newspapers across the board--ever since the Mirage there's been a trend away from that sort of journalism. We have disagreements in our business and I didn't want to get into disagreements here."
When the Mirage series reached the Pulitzer board, Tribune editor Clayton Kirkpatrick was its champion. Fuller, then an editorial writer, agreed with him. But Fuller later changed his mind. And because he rose to become editor, then publisher of the paper, the Tribune bears the stamp of his predilections. Last year he laid them out in a book, News Values: Ideas for an Information Age.
"So why should newspapers shy away from impersonation and undercover practices?" Fuller asked, after observing that these techniques don't seem to bother the public. "First, because in most cases there are other ways to get the information; deception is just a shortcut. Second, because it creates an environment that tolerates lying, which is highly dangerous for a journalistic enterprise. And third, because a newspaper's strongest bond with its audience is the simple truth."
The Tribune editorial page last week reflected its publisher's beliefs. "In the last analysis, what this newspaper or any other reputable news organization sells to consumers is its reputation for truth and accuracy," said the Tribune. "And it's difficult, if not impossible, to maintain such a reputation if your newsgathering practices include lying to gain information. It was that realization, more than anything else, that motivated the Tribune and most other major newspapers two decades ago to swear off so-called 'undercover' reporting that involved intentional deception or misrepresentation. And it is a decision no one should regret." Nevertheless, the editorial declared that Food Lion suffered no harm from ABC's misrepresentation (as opposed to its accusations) and that the $5.5 million judgment against the network was $5.5 million too high.
The editorial left unacknowledged a series of pertinent questions. When the papers swore off undercover reporting did they also swear off certain stories that can't be reported any other way? If they didn't, then where do we find those stories these days in the Tribune? And what's the Tribune's advice to ABC about how to nail the miscreants the next time a tip about rotten meat comes along? Undercover reporting, Page insisted, "tells some stories better than any other form." But he continued dolefully, "Citizens today may hate the media more than they cherish their own right to know important information about such things as the food they serve to their families."
Perhaps this hatred is a sign of undercover journalism's chickens coming home to roost. But with all respect to Fuller and his thoughtful principles, an expose based on what journalists see with their own eyes and hear with their own ears might strike the public as more legitimate, not less.
Page writes out of Washington, but he happened to visit the newsroom in Chicago last week after his column ran. "I can't tell you how many people came up to pat me on the back. It was one person after another. And the one thing they all had in common was they were people I've known since the 70s, people who remembered the glory days. There is a certain Chicago journalism culture that attracted us to this town--and that era's fading."
A couple of days before Page weighed in, John McCarron wrote his own response to the Food Lion trial. He predicted that the verdict would mean even fewer exposes of private enterprise and more of government. "Presidents and aldermen are always in season," he observed. "The private sector, you see, fights back."
Page hadn't seen McCarron's column so I described it to him.
"Well, good for him," Page said. "I've felt that for a long time too." He recalled the not-too-long-ago day when the dailies all carried action-line columns that stood up for the little guy. The trouble was that too many of the big bullies the little guy needed help standing up against were businesses, some of them advertisers. "It wasn't worth the hassle," said Page.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Peter Gwinn photo.