Russell Wayne Baker (born August 14, 1925) is an American writer known for his satirical commentary and self-critical prose, as well as for his Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography Growing Up (1982). He was a columnist for The New York Times from 1962 to 1998, and also hosted the PBS show Masterpiece Theatre from 1992 to 2004. The Forbes Media Guide Five Hundred, 1994 states: "Baker, thanks to his singular gift of treating serious, even tragic events and trends with gentle humor, has become an American institution."
Writing and editing
Baker is the son of Benjamin Rex Baker and Lucy Elizabeth (née Robinson). At the age of eleven, as a self-professed "bump on a log," Baker decided to become a writer since he figured "what writers did couldn't even be classified as work." A graduate of Johns Hopkins University (1947), he went on to become an essayist, journalist, and biographer, as well as the host of the PBS show Masterpiece Theatre from 1992 to 2004. After covering the White House, United States Congress, and the United States Department of State for The New York Times for eight years, Baker wrote the nationally syndicated Observer column for the newspaper from 1962 to 1998; initially oriented toward politics, the column began to encompass other subjects after he relocated to New York City in 1974. During his long career, he was a regular contributor to national periodicals such as The New York Times Magazine, Sports Illustrated, The Saturday Evening Post, and McCalls. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1993.
Baker has written or edited seventeen books. Baker's first Pulitzer was for distinguished commentary for his Observer columns (1979) and the second one was for his autobiography, Growing Up (1982). He wrote a sequel to his autobiography in 1989, called The Good Times. His other works include An American in Washington (1961), No Cause for Panic (1964), Poor Russell’s Almanac (1972), Looking Back: Heroes, Rascals, and Other Icons of the American Imagination (2002), and various anthologies of his columns. He edited the anthologies The Norton Book of Light Verse (1986) and Russell Baker's Book of American Humor (1993). He currently resides in Leesburg, Virginia.
Baker wrote the libretto for the 1979 musical play Home Again, Home Again, starring Ronny Cox, with music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Barbara Fried, choreography by Onna White, and direction by Gene Saks. After an unsuccessful tryout at the American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut, the show closed in Toronto and never made it to Broadway. "That was a great experience," Baker said in a 1994 interview with the Hartford Courant. "Truly dreadful, but fun. I was sorry [the show] folded because I was having such a good time. But once is enough."
In 1993, Baker replaced Alistair Cooke as the regular host of the PBS television series Masterpiece Theatre. "That's talking-head stuff," he said. "Television is harder than I thought it was. I can't bear to look at myself. I fancied that I was an exceedingly charming, witty and handsome young man, and here's this fidgeting old fellow whose hair is parted on the wrong side."
Praise and criticism
Neil Postman, in the preface to Conscientious Objections, describes Baker as "like some fourth century citizen of Rome who is amused and intrigued by the Empire's collapse but who still cares enough to mock the stupidities that are hastening its end. He is, in my opinion, a precious national resource, and as long as he does not get his own television show, America will remain stronger than Russia." (1991, xii)
- Terry Eastland, ed. Forbes Media Guide Five Hundred, 1994: A Critical Review of the Media (1994) p 275
- Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature, vol. 2, R. Reginald, 1979, pg 805
- "Book of Members, 1780-2010: Chapter B" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 9 May 2011.
- "Russell Baker," Encyclopædia Britannica, britannica.com
- "Home Again, Home Again," castalbums.org
- Suskin, Steven, Show Tunes: The Songs, Shows, and Careers of Broadway's Major Composers, Fourth Edition, New York: Oxford University Press USA, 2010.
- "Russell Baker Speaks His Mind," The Hartford Courant, March 16, 1994
- The Way West at imdb.com.
- Gary Edgerton, Ken Burns's America: Packaging the Past for Television. Palgrave/St. Martin's Press, 2001.
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- Baker author page from The New York Review of Books
- Baker article archive from The New York Review of Books
- Appearances on C-SPAN
| Host of Masterpiece Theatre