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Rediscovering David Susskind

David Susskind was one of the most prolific yet overlooked producers in the history of American film and television. Susskind’s company Talent Associates (TA for short) was responsible for dozens of feature films and thousands of hours of small screen entertainment over the years. Included in his oeuvre are the sitcoms Get Smart, He & She, the original Supermarket Sweep, the made-for-TV productions Eleanor & Franklin, Blind Ambition, and Requiem for a Heavyweight, and such feature films as A Raisin in the Sun, Fort Apache the Bronx, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and Lovers and Other Strangers.

Of course, David Susskind is also known for his epically long-running (1958-1986), eponymous talk show.

The David Susskind Show was taped weekly in New York City and then syndicated across the nation, most often over PBS stations. Each episode typically addressed two topics. Given the show’s 28 year run, a full list of David Susskind Show topics, airdates, and guests runs to a staggering 160-plus pages.

The depth and breadth of subjects discussed on Susskind—not to mention his star-studded guest lists—reads like an annotated history for the second half of the 20th century. A very small sample:

1959: “Words and Wit” with guests Truman Capote, Dorothy Parker, and Norman Mailer

1960: Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev

1963:“LSD: Madness or Miracle?”

1965: “4 Draftees in a Hot Debate on Going to Viet Nam”

1966: “Are Cigarettes a Killer?”

Unfortunately, the majority of Susskind talk programs from the 1960s do not survive—either lost, destroyed or taped over. But what remains makes for fascinating viewing. Consider:

1971: “What It Means to Be a Homosexual”

1972: “Nice White People Scream ‘Blacks Stay Out of Our Neighborhood!’”

1972: “Is A Woman’s Body Her Business?—The Abortion Battle”

1976: “Why the Rich Get a Kick from Cocaine”

1982: “Video Game Craze”

At the time of David Susskind’s passing in February 1987, his videotape archive (most of it on 2” Quadruplex) was so vast it was divided up between different institutions, including the Paley Center (then the Museum of Television & Radio) in New York, the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago, and the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research in Madison.

But that wasn’t the end of the archive’s travels; only Wisconsin, whose collection includes most of Susskind’s fictional productions, has retained its holdings. The Museum of Broadcast Communications transferred its tapes to University of Southern California in the late 1990s. In 1992, the Paley Center—facing severe space issues—transferred their copies of Susskind’s talk show to the Library of Congress where they are now stored in Culpeper, Virginia.

We hold almost 350 episodes of The David Susskind Show, the great majority of them unseen since their original broadcast. While some are still awaiting preservation—and, in some cases, identification due to insufficient labeling on the original tapes—a great many have been transferred, including a 1982 episode featuring Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and Susskind’s wife Joyce Susskind, who occasionally served as co-host on the show. These shows are an extraordinary time machine, a fascinating glimpse into our culture, and featuring a very brave host and his often fearlessly candid guests.

The David Susskind Show (original air:  10/17/82)

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