I’ve been anxious to get out of “The COVID Complacency” that’s dominated my life for the past two years, and get back to the business of filming a damn movie. Well, Saturday marked my first filmed interview since – dear God! – October, 2019, and it’s clear to me that I’ve gotten a little stale (and noticeably thicker around the waist). In the past I’ve been able to set up and strike all my equipment within just a few minutes, but this time I felt flustered, out of breath, and needed considerably more time.
Thankfully, my interview subject was extremely patient, and we eased into the proceedings with relative calm.
I only came into contact with Thomas J. Watson in late January, when he reached out to me on Facebook to discuss Amsel’s famous portrait of Lucille Ball. It donned the July 6th, 1974 cover of TV GUIDE, and remains one of Amsel’s most beloved contributions to the entertainment magazine.
Watson is a leading authority on the subject, not just because he was a former researcher at CBS and a devout Lucy fan, but he would go on to work directly with the legendary comedienne, and was indirectly involved in the creation of that very TV GUIDE cover.
Watson also wrote an article on Amsel’s work, Portraits in Stardust: The Art of Richard Amsel, for Star Notes Magazine in 1993. It was one of the few published writings I could find on Amsel when I first started doing extensive research on him at the Motion Picture Academy Library. This was back in the summer of 2008, several months before my www.richardamsel.info website first went live. You’d think it’d occur to me to have looked Watson up way back then, but I’m admittedly not the sharpest knife in the drawer.
How lucky I am that, over 13 years later, Mr. Watson should be the one to reach out to me and share his story. It’s a great one, too, and started with an eventful phone call back in 1974.
“…(Amsel) called me. We were both living and working in New York – I was working at CBS – and he had just gotten the assignment from TV guide to do the "Goodbye Lucy" TV guide cover... He needed Lucy pictures (for reference), and someone told him I was a huge Lucy fan and could probably help.
“He didn't want to do her older Lucy Carter look, nor her more famous Lucy Ricardo look, but something evocative of almost any era. I pulled together a bunch of photos from my personal collection, representing almost every decade and sent them to him. I called to make sure they got there, and he said he had them positioned all around the room and he was being inspired by each of them, and hoping his artwork would somehow capture them all. When the magazine came out, I called and told him I thought it was wonderful, and he was grateful. I have since learned that that cover turned out to be perhaps his most famous TV guide cover. I know Lucy herself loved it. CBS later transferred me to Los Angeles, and when I left CBS in 1986, it was to go to work with the redhead. Richard had already passed, but both Lucy and her husband Gary were still very much in awe of his work.
“Gary arranged to have it used as the main graphic opening the 1976 two-hour CBS Salutes Lucy: The First 25 Years special. Somehow, like an idiot, I never thought to ask him whatever happened to the artwork that whomever had supplied the studio. If he still had it, trust me, it would be on my wall right now!”
Watson regrets never having met Amsel personally, but treasures the memory of dealing with him – especially since the art that resulted so beautifully captured the spirit and attention of a Hollywood icon he so loved.
Watson’s interview concluded on two bittersweet notes.
First, he’d kept Amsel’s contact information within his personal address book – it’s a relic of about five decades, with all the entries written in pencil. When Amsel died, Watson, not wanting to erase his name, opted instead to strike a line through it. (Note the names *above* Amsel's, too...)
And the second bittersweet note? Watson realized that, “at least for 6 months or so, we lived just a few blocks apart. I sublet a guy's apartment up on 88th street, and it was literally 5-6 blocks away! I am sure we used the same subways and buses!!! Such is life!”
Here's a scan of Watson's 1993 article for Star Notes Magazine: