There will never be another Tom Ellis, in Boston or anywhere else – a local TV news anchor whose face was instantly recognizable to absolutely everyone in the market, who was paid what would today amount to at least a million bucks a year, and whose every career move was chronicled and analyzed on the front pages.
He made the front page for the last time yesterday: “Tom Ellis 1932-2019 He Was Boston TV News.”
Yes, he was. Tom Ellis was a dominant figure in a television world that no longer exists, where local news dominated, and where anchoring a newscast made you a prince of the city.
As compared to today when… quick, can you name three local TV anchors? Two? One?
Tom Ellis was a wonderful guy. I worked with him at the old Channel 7, WNEV. He was The Man, I was a reporter, and he made at least 12 times what I made, and that was after I doubled my salary when I made the move to TV from the old Hearst-owned Herald American, which was on death’s doorstep.
Tom was not a journalist, but that is by no means a knock on him. His job was to read the news, and he was the best at what he did.
How do we know he was the best?
Because he had the highest ratings, at one network affiliate after another, although he did pretty much crash and burn at the end at Ch. 7, but then, so did we all. Ch. 7 probably turned out more future network stars than any other Boston station – Bill O’Reilly, Matt Lauer – but something was always going wrong in those days before Ed Ansin bought the station.
The joke was that 7 Bulfinch Place was built over an old Indian burial ground, and that a curse hovered over the whole operation. Considering what eventually happened to the two guys I just named, not to mention all the station’s other assorted perverts, shoplifters, stab victims, etc., maybe there was something to that Indian story.
Some local TV news people sneered at Tom Ellis – what were then Ch. 5 types, mainly. They thought they were better than him, more serious. Boy, were they kidding themselves.
Long before she was tearing up on election night 2016 as Hillary Clinton went down in flames, the woman then known as Martha Bradlee used to tell me and Andy Hiller:
“We are not in ‘news,’ we are in TV news. We are not reporters, we are TV reporters.”
And Tom was the anchor, along with Robin Young – the Dream Team, as they were described in the papers, on, yes, the front page.
But in the end he couldn’t beat the Ch. 7 jinx. It was the same old same old – the new owners hired a new consultant. They fired the news director, and then they fired the new news director. They repainted the set – “earth tones,” as I recall. They told Paula Zahn to stop crossing her arms. They told us reporters to walk during our live shots.
The suits decreed more banter between the anchors and the reporters doing those live shots. I remember one directive – reporters had to write the questions that the anchors would ask them after they finished their report. Stuff like, “Is the jury sequestered, Howie?”
I went to the executive producer and asked if it wouldn’t seem more natural if the anchor, i.e., Tom, listened to the story and asked me some questions that had occurred to him.
“So,” the producer said to me, “you want Tom to be ad-libbing his questions to you?”
I started writing out Tom’s questions.
But again, news wasn’t really Tom Ellis’ job. His job was to be an affable, good-looking hunk. Maybe you’re thinking Ted Baxter or Ron Burgundy – it was that era, after all – but Tom wasn’t a caricature.
The station kept floundering, and finally they’d shot everybody else and it was Tom Ellis’ turn to get hit. He was, after all, making the big bucks. All the anchors are interchangeable today, but back then, they were like baseball managers – hired to be fired. Except for Natalie of course.
Tom would generally retire the men’s room around 3:30 – his job, after all, was to look simply fabulous. Sometimes I’d go in as he stood in front of the mirror and we’d commiserate about our fates – but only after he’d checked to make sure no one was in the stalls. Paranoia ran deep, into your life it would creep. That was Ch. 7 – if it’s news to you, it’s news to us. When the news breaks, we fix it.
I got fired first. Tom’s contract was too big for him to be fired outright. When it was all over, he had plenty of dough, but it was never the same.
He lived down on the Cape, and later did weekends at NECN, doing newscasts that I guess somebody must have been watching. But he never seemed down, he was always the same good-natured guy he’d always been, never a backstabber, never a whiner, despite what the “journalists” at Ch. 5 used to say behind his back about him after he joined
Tom Ellis, rest in peace.