Remembering Brian Linehan (For Some Reason)

Having declared all my adult life that I'd never be caught dead back in Hamilton, Ontario, long-time friends are either amused or confused by my decision to be buried in my hometown.

One month before I learned I had cancer, I was overcome with a weird urge to take care of unfinished business: My husband and I finally got our wills drawn up, for one thing. And way back in the previous century, my (now late) mother had purchased some burial plots in a Hamilton cemetery for $50. There was one left. I contacted this establishment and learned that not only could I still use it, but so could my husband — and my cat. What a deal!

We drove an hour down the highway to do the paperwork. The funeral director asked me why I'd moved away 35 years earlier, and I gave my standard answer:

Didn't he know that if you're born in Hamilton and regularly use words with more than two syllables, they walk you to the city limits on your 19th birthday and point you towards Toronto?

Hamilton is a steel town with a sprinkling of reality TV's Jersey Shore (but without the beach.) Hundreds of thousands of people live in Hamilton and some may even enjoy it, but if, like me, you have artistic and intellectual aspirations, it's not really the place for you.

My only happy memories of Hamilton involve getting the new TV Guide every Wednesday and circling all the good movies, going to the movies at the rep cinema a block from our apartment, and scrounging the city's single used bookstore for movie-related reading.

I assume that Brian Linehan frequented the same store, probably scooping up all the good books before I did.

Linehan was born in Hamilton in 1944 to a large family of steelworkers. He was the black sheep, or, to be more precise, the sickly, gay, artistic one. Linehan didn't remember his childhood fondly, and got out of town when he was, as you guessed, 19.

It's hard not to think of this scene from Zoolander.

Linehan worked his way up through the few entertainment-based employers that existed in Toronto back then, eventually landing at upstart TV station Citytv. Linehan's encyclopedic knowledge of show biz got him a researcher job. Then one day, like a scene from the movies he loved, he was pressed into going on air when the regular interviewer didn't show up.

It was a disaster — so bad that the tape was destroyed. But Linehan begged for a do-over, and the results were... less terrible.

Now, Citytv was ahead of its time in many ways.

Reporters toted their own video cameras; news anchors didn't sit behind desks but roamed around the open concept studio; the station devoted massive airtime to music videos long before MTV; and the on-air talent came in all races and ages (and levels of professional training and qualifications — sometimes zero.) They didn't necessarily look like "TV stars."

Brian Linehan really didn't. While always impeccably mannered, groomed and dressed (he claimed never to have owned a pair of jeans) there was the matter of, well, his nose. Stories about how his nose got That Way evolved over the years, but whatever caused it, there it was: A startling, snipped, pug-like protuberance that left Linehan looking like a plastic surgery "before" picture.

Fortunately, at Citytv, nobody cared. And besides, Linehan's motto even then was, "If you can't be beautiful, be memorable."

The station saw a spark of something in Linehan during that less terrible interview. He was assigned more, finally landing his own show, City Lights, in 1973.

Eventually, he became, according to many, the best celebrity interviewer of his time in North America.


Because in those days before the internet, when microfiche was still a thing, Linehan bowled over his guests, and his audience, with his sometimes comically deep knowledge of that celebrity's life.

Peggy Lee listened politely as Brian spoke about the rigours of touring. At least, that's what she thought they were going to be talking about.

"Someone asked you," he reminded her, "if there was any place you hadn't been, and you said, 'Paris, unless you count standing at Orly, waiting to get on another plane.'"

Peggy nodded knowingly.

"And yet you wrote a song about Paris..."

Peggy's eyes fluttered in surprise. "Why yes, I did!"

"...after looking at a painting..." he continued.

Peggy's eyes lit up. "I'm impressed with you. I really am."

"How did you KNOW that?!" Linehan was asked, by Shirley MacLaine and Burt Reynolds and Kirk Douglas and hundreds of other stars.

Soon, Canadian comedians started spoofing a typical Linehan wind up, sometimes to his face, like comedian Mary Walsh did at an awards show:

"1969. April. Delta Secondary School in Hamilton. You're at your locker, eyes shift to the left. You see Barbara Amiel [Now Lady Black of Crossharbour]. Brian. My question to you: Were her breasts smaller than they are today?"

The most famous take off was, fittingly enough, performed by fellow Hamiltonian Martin Short — an impersonation Linehan loved. I wonder how many non-Canadian fans of SCTV have chuckled at "Brock Linehan" without realizing who was being parodied.

But beyond Linehan's signature style was something deeper. Digging into the small selection of old interviews now available on YouTube — sadly, many of the best haven't been posted — I noticed it for the first time.

You see it in the Clint Eastwood conversation, above. As Mark Steyn reminded us recently, the very notion that "tough guy" Eastwood would evolve into an acclaimed filmmaker would have been considered laughable when his career began, but as early as 1975, Linehan clearly sensed that that side of "Dirty Harry's" talents and interests should indeed be taken seriously.

The same with two young hulking dudes just starting out. Linehan treated them with respect, and revealed thoughtful, articulate men with quiet confidence and clear visions of their own futures.

Decades later, John Travolta still fondly remembered his first interview with Linehan.

"He was the first person to go out of his way to validate me on Saturday Night Fever. I remember his opening line to me was, 'Do you know what "Travolta" means,' and I said, 'Tell me.' And he said, 'To take by storm." You've taken the world by storm haven't you?' I was a kid, but I was just so taken by that."

Linehan had that effect on non-celebrities too. Actress Sharon Gless recalled:

"I walked [Brian] over to Al, my driver, who's here tonight. And I said, 'Brian, I'd like you to meet Al. Al, this is Brian Linehan.' And they talked for a while, and apparently had a lovely talk, and I was just watching. We got in the car and Al stopped talking. I said, 'Are you okay?' He said 'Yeah.' I said, 'What's wrong?' He said, 'I have never met a man before who looked me in the eye like that. I have never met a man before who really was interested in everything that I said. He actually let me finish all my sentences before interrupting,' like people tend to do, you know? And he had tears in his eyes."

She told that story at Linehan's memorial service. He died in 2004, with Martin Short and other friends at his side, leaving his multi-million dollar estate to a foundation to help young actors, and his vast archive of research files and books to the Toronto Film Festival.

The advent of Hollywood junkets, with interviewers only being allowed a few minutes to talk to stars in assembly line fashion, led to Linehan's show being cancelled after 15 years. He kept in the game in his own way, but things were never the same. Linehan's style, everyone told him, was outdated, and would never come back.

But had he lived just a few years longer, Linehan would have seen the birth of longform podcasting, where the likes of Marc Maron, Gilbert Gottfried and Mark Malkoff (of the delightful The Carson Podcast) sit down with guests for a full hour or more, to the enjoyment of loyal listeners who enjoy geeking out on tales of "old time showbiz."

Wouldn't Linehan have been a much better host of Inside the Actor's Studio than the guy they had or have (is it still even on?)? Imagine him with a regular spot on TCM, where so many young people are discovering the stars of yesteryear.

I honestly don't know what got me thinking about Brian Linehan. Maybe it's because this week my husband teased me, as he sometimes does when we're out driving and the sign for the turnoff to Hamilton pops up.

"Let's go!" he'll joke, pretending to turn the steering wheel, and I'll scream.

It looks like I won't be using that cemetery plot anytime soon after all. So don't take me there until you have to.

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