Fred Ziv's best TV story is his own

Tuesday, October 27, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Perhaps Mr. Frederick Ziv is toying with me. Teasing. He says if I want to write about him I have to wait until he's gone. Gone? I don't want to seem indelicate, but he is 93 years old. What, exactly, does he mean?

Well, he thinks maybe I should wait until he leaves Cincinnati in January for "the desert," his California home. He smiles, raises his eyebrows. Tortoise-shell glasses glint.

He is sitting under hot lights, sipping tea, taking a break from a four-hour interview for the Archive of American Television. The interviewer, the gaffer, the cameraman, the studio executive are very solicitous, respectful. As well they might be.

The small white-haired man is very big in their business. Frederick W. -- Fred -- Ziv produced The Cisco Kid, Highway Patrol, Sea Hunt, Bat Masterson and Boston Blackie. He had an eye for young talent -- Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, Humphrey Bogart, Mary Tyler Moore, Steve McQueen, Angie Dickinson, James Garner.

Freshest thing in town

As his company grew, he built a Hollywood studio, but home base would be Cincinnati. Where his father invented the first buttonhole machine. Where his wife, Dorothy, chaired the May Festival. Where his uncles operated three popular restaurants: the Wheel, the Hub and the Spoke. Where he played football and baseball for Hughes High School.

And where he came up with the slogan for Rubel Bakery to help them sell bread: "The freshest thing in town."

His town. But then he wondered whether that might not translate into a slogan that would work in other places. He sold the campaign to bread companies all over America.

Bingo. Syndication. From that idea came decades of national radio and TV shows. He always wrote the first script himself, punching it out with two fingers on a typewriter. "It all begins with the paper," he says, "a good script."

Not to mention taste, vision and a certain stubborn gallantry. After Lloyd Bridges was blacklisted, Mr. Ziv hired him anyway for Sea Hunt. "He was a good actor, a nice man. Plus, he could swim." Meanwhile, Mr. Ziv was making sure he owned the rights to everything he produced. "People thought I was crazy. They didn't think television would last," he says. "But then some people said that about radio, too."

Questions unasked

He can remember the beginning of both. That's why his living room is filled with cables and lights and strangers on this day. "People are going to be looking at this in 50 or 100 years," says Karen Herman, who is interviewing Mr. Ziv.

He joins about 50 videotaped conversations with people such as Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Art Linkletter and Howard K. Smith. Eventually, these interviews will be in a multimedia archive, available to the public.

To this end, Mr. Ziv sits on a straight-backed chair, carefully not squirming. He pauses to clear his throat, coughs. It is slow going, tedious. But he will make the effort.

He even agrees, finally, to let me tell some of his story. Anytime. He says this even as the camera's eye focuses on his face, recording not only his recollections of the industry but his unexpectedly sweet smile. The microphone suspended over his head picks up not only the rasp in his voice but his reliable wit and impressive intelligence.

This medium that he has pioneered can be trivial and profane. But under his steady gaze, it is neither. And because of TV, Mr. Frederick W. Ziv of Cincinnati will never be gone.

Laura Pulfer's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. E-mail her at, call 768-8393, or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio and on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. Her new book, I Beg to Differ, a collection of her most popular columns and radio commentaries, is available at (800) 852-9332.