Jerry Alten and TV GUIDE
When I began work on the Richard Amsel documentary, one of the first people I reached out to was Jerry Alten. Alten was the art director of TV GUIDE for over 30 years, and was the driving force behind hiring some of the world’s best illustrators to do the covers.
Norman Rockwell, Savador Dali, David Byrd, Mark English, Jack Davis, and Bob Peak were just a few of the luminaries whose art graced the magazine. Yet two artists are tied for creating the most published covers (37) for TV GUIDE: the legendary Al Hirschfeld, and a young illustrator – fresh out of Alten’s alma mater, no less – who caught Alten’s attention back in the early 1970s.
It would prove to be a fruitful relationship, both for the artist as well as the magazine. Richard Amsel's celebrated covers have become collectors items...and gained fans even among his many celebrity portraits.
Alten described how he came to know Amsel. “I…gave lectures at the school that I graduated from, and that (Amsel) graduated from, that's now called the University of the Arts. Back then it was called the Philadelphia College of Art. But I remember seeing a show (with Amsel’s work) at the school that was impressive. And I thought the fact that (Amsel) was local, if any changes had to be made, it would be easier to work with someone local. But of course no changes were ever made on his work, so that was not an important feature. …
“I was the art director at TV GUIDE for a good number of years,” Alten said, “and I used Richard (Amsel) a good number of times. I think more than any other artist on the cover, and it was interesting the way that started out.
"When I started with TV GUIDE, they were selling 3 to 4 million copies a week, about the same as Time Magazine, and they were satisfied with that, and they surmised that most of that came from visual impact. They would have a photograph of the show on the cover or they’d have a photograph of the star on a cover or the sport on a cover, but I found it really boring after a while and I went to the editorial chief and I suggested that we do some artwork instead of just the photographs, but their sales were different than the average magazine.
“The average magazine sold 80% roughly by subscription, and 20% by visual impact. TV GUIDE was the opposite: we sold 70 or 80% by visual impact, going to the cash register or whatever, and the remainderwas by subscription. So they were nervousabout having their visual impact not recognizable as the person walked by. But I tried to assure them that a good artist could do both visual impact and artistic interest and for the first cover I gave the cover -- I’ve forgotten what the subject was -- I gave it to Richard to do.”
Under Alten’s creative guidance, sales of TV GUIDE surged from 3 to 4 million to a whopping 20 million, and an estimated readership of 60 million people each week. Not bad for a pocket sized, grocery counter magazine.
My filmed interview with Jerry Alten was many, many years in the making. I first reached out to him over the phone in 2015 or 2016, and he was both receptive to my many questions, and enthusiastic about the project. Yet with every trip I planned from California back to the east coast, our schedules just couldn’t mesh. My father’s death in 2017, followed by a string of other circumstances (a marriage, buying a house, health issues…need I go on?), further complicated things. Excuses, excuses.
So, last July, when the oceans finally parted, and the biblical heavens eventually opened in their full cinematic Cecil B. DeMille grandeur, I got to meet Alten at his home in Pennsylvania at long last. His lovely wife, Roberta, greeted me at their door – and unflinchingly volunteered her help in carrying some of my camera equipment inside. I huffed and puffed, while Roberta didn’t break a sweat.
Jerry greeted me with a softspoken hello and a smile. Tall, handsome, and with a head of wavy salt and pepper hair, his striking looks reminded me of David Lean in the 1970s.
Once the camera rolled, Alten began sharing quite a number of stories – from conversations with Don Rickles, to Frank Sinatra, to Nixon in China, to Alten’s history and dealings with the University of the Arts. But our talks would always return to Richard Amsel.
“Now, for a weekly magazine, everything has to be completely finished in four days. That’s all the layout, all the text, all the finished boards because that only gives them two days to print and ship the whole monster that they’ve done. So time is usually of the essence and in this case, I could only give Richard four days to do his painting. I gave him some photos to research with it, but it came back, and it came back beautifully. And that was the startof using virtually half of my covers with artists instead of old photographs. So, it was an important feature to my career with TV GUIDE. …
“But I was so enamored with him that I did a book later, on The Art of TV GUIDE, that had most of the better -- and I say better, I mean Salvador Dali, Norman Rockwell, etc., in the magazine – in the book that I did, but I put Richard's painting of a Japanese warlord on the cover.I found out the most enticing and the most interesting artistically, not just a portrait, but a great costume.”
Amsel’s portrait of a “Japanese warlord” was, in fact, that of Richard Chamberlain, who starred in the miniseries SHOGUN. Based on James Clavell’s epic, bestselling novel, the program was a widely publicized television event, and became one of the most watched miniseries of its time. The magazine’s cover story was written by Chamberlain himself, about the making of the challenging, ambitious production. (At the time, SHOGUN was the only American television production to be filmed on-location entirely in Japan.)
Of the hundreds of covers Alten oversaw, it’s fitting that Amsel’s work should be selected to grace the cover of the 2011 hardcover edition of Alten’s retrospective book, The Art of TV GUIDE. But Alten’s admiration of Amsel went beyond his artistic talent. The artist’s professionalism and reliability were also noticed – especially given the tight turnarounds.
“And he never came back late,” Alten said. “Always on time and always usable. And I used to have a crowd gather when they delivered the painting. They all wanted to see what he did this time or not. Up in my area, studio area. And that was that was our relationship. We were very friendly, mostly verbally on the phone, but he was a joy to work with.
“He was so efficient and so professional. I believe he just assumed whatever he did was his best work and sent it in. And I used to have it call and tell him how much I liked that one or the other, but I never had a sequential list of what covers that he did. And one day he did it because I was busy with working about next week's cover.”
Throughout his 13-year association with TV GUIDE, Amsel’s covers ranged from such high profile stories and figures as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the television premiere of GONE WITH THE WIND, the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana, John and Jackie Kennedy, Frank Sinatra, Katherine Hepburn, and, perhaps most famously, Lucille Ball.
“By the time by the time I used her,” Alten said of the latter Amsel/Ball issue, “she wasn't young or old, but he did a flattering painting of her. And that's all I cared about. Some of them. Some of them required adjustment, but not his.”
Ball was reportedly a huge fan of Amsel’s portrait, and she would feature it again in a subsequent television retrospective.
It seems almost poetic that Richard Amsel’s last, fully completed and published work was a TV GUIDE cover: an October 26th issue featuring newscasters Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather.
Amsel would die just over two weeks later.
Special thanks to Jerry Alten and Roberta d'Eustachio for their gracious help and participation.