Cameraman Went 'On The Road With Charles Kuralt'

The On the Road with Charles Kuralt series began in 1967, and ran on CBS for more than 20 years. In that popular program, the veteran journalist rode across America in a bus, meeting "regular" folks and telling their stories. A collection of On The Road episodes has now been released on DVD. Host Scott Simon talks with Izzy Bleckman, who was the cameraman for most of those 20 years.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, Vicki Kennedy on her marriage to Senator Edward Kennedy, their courtship, their life together, and his final months.

But first - 1967, a young TV journalist with a receding hairline and a deep voice had a bright idea for a short series. It would last for more than 20 years.

(Soundbite of TV show, "On the Road with Charles Kuralt")

Mr. CHARLES KURALT (CBS News): Hello, I'm Charles Kuralt. We're off again to meet a few people on the back roads of America. These are people you know, not from the front pages. Theyve never been on the front pages. They're people you know from next door and down the block. Their stories are some of my favorites from 25 years on the road.

SIMON: "On the Road with Charles Kuralt" aired from 1967 until the mid '90s. When the series began, it was the middle of the Vietnam War, Americans were fighting overseas and protesting back home. Charles Kuralt thought viewers of the CBS Evening News might like to be reminded of some of what was best about America. So he asked for an RV, a small crew and crisscrossed the country meeting craftsmen, do-gooders and characters.

Seventy-seven episodes of "On the Road" have just been released on DVD. Izzy Bleckman filmed most of them. Izzy Bleckman was Charles Kuralt's longtime cameraman, joins us now from member station WBFO in Buffalo.

SIMON: Izzy, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. IZZY BLECKMAN (Cameraman): I'm delighted to be here.

SIMON: How'd you get the gig?

Mr. BLECKMAN: Long story, but I'll try and make it short. The first "On the Road" was a group of kids playing in the fall leaves in New England. Very simple little story, got on the air and the switchboards lit up at CBS. It was unbelievable.

Cameraman name Jimmy Wilson was the first cameraman. He was in the Washington bureau, and he thought he would quit and move off to California and try and work in the films. And I had a wonderful bureau manager in Chicago in 1969. After the '68 convention in Chicago, John Lane called up Kuralt and said, I hear youre looking for a cameraman. I got a guy here. Might work out for you, why dont you try him out for week? Tried me out for a week and it turned in 25 years.

It was the dream job as a cameraman.

SIMON: And tell us why. Remind us why.

Mr. BLECKMAN: Well, nobody threw bricks at you. We were welcomed everywhere we went. And to get in this bus with Charles Kuralt and see America with a front row seat, there couldnt be anything better than that.

SIMON: And how much did you really travel in the bus? Wasnt there also a lot of flying back and forth?

Mr. BLECKMAN: Not too much. Charles loved being on the bus because you never knew what we were going to see. Just looking out the window, we'd run across a story sometimes. And there was...

SIMON: Well, tell us what that would be like. You'd see something and say, hey, maybe we should do this.

Mr. BLECKMAN: Well, heres one. We did a story called "Waiting for Roger." And it was a...

SIMON: Oh, this was the return home from Vietnam.

Mr. BLECKMAN: Yes.

SIMON: I still remember that.

Mr. BLECKMAN: It's an incredible story. But we were just driving down a country road and I think it was a lovely sunny day. It was like a movie set: a farm house, a big sign over the porch that said Welcome Home Roger, yellow ribbons around the trees, and people outside like they were having a picnic. And Charles says, You know what? We ought to go back and see who Roger is.

And of course Roger turned out to be a veteran from Vietnam coming home. A baby he had not seen was born while he was away. His wife, his entire family, grandparents, people would walk out to the road and I'd get a shot of them looking down the road, peering to see if Roger was coming.

And Charles came over and he said, Let's go. Time to go. I said, Yeah, but Roger. He said, No." He says, We dont need to see Roger. Let Roger stand for every Vietnam vet coming home and show people how they ought to be treated.

SIMON: Let's play another clip, if we could, of the kite man.

Mr. BLECKMAN: Oh, Ansel Toney.

(Soundbite of TV show, "On the Road with Charles Kuralt")

Mr. ANSEL TONEY: The reason I like flying kites, youre always looking up. Youre not looking down like you do when youre playing golf or some of the other things. Youre looking at that pretty blue sky. It's a beautiful sight.

Mr. BLECKMAN: That was a pretty one to shoot, because Mr. Toney working at his old sewing machine that he bought for 20 bucks 40 years ago, and the kids hanging out flying the kites in a cornfield that had been plowed up - we were shooting on the ground and I said, Charles, I said, boy, wouldnt it be great if we could shoot that from the up where that kite is? We need something to get us up there.

And Charles said, Wait a minute. And he went inside and he called - found out where the power company was. And I couldnt believe it, two hours later they came out with a 60-foot cherry picker.

SIMON: You know, one of the things you notice when you take a look at the stories in this series is they're done with utter respect for people. They're -doesnt make fun of the people that you profiled. There is not really even irony in it.

Mr. BLECKMAN: A lot of people wondered why - why would you come out and do story about me? And maybe after they saw it, they saw something they never knew about themselves, that they did have something to say, that they did have an interesting story to tell. Wed have a tough time after spending time with some of these folks detaching ourselves, getting back in the bus. Wed just seen something terrific, a calm and beautiful existence.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. BLECKMAN: And we wanted to be part of it, but eventually we had to get back in that bus and go on down the road.

SIMON: You know, you nicely raised something that, alas, we have to raise. And I say this as someone with a great deal of affection professionally and personally for Charles Kuralt. You know, it - maybe you knew this in advance. None of my business. But as it developed after his death, he had a complicated personal life, essentially a second family. And I remember reading his autobiography years ago, where he was talking about why he wanted to get out of the traditional news business because he said, I wanted - I didnt want to be with my family, I wanted to be where the news was. I wanted wilder and wilder stories. And it does raise the question - was Charles on the road because he didnt want to be home at either of his homes?

Mr. BLECKMAN: I was addicted to this too, to "On The Road," to traveling across America, meeting these people, seeing things that I would never have known about. I had a divorce because of it, because I could not give it up. And Charles and I were just addicted to getting in that bus and finding a story to tell America.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BLECKMAN: That was his greatest joy.

SIMON: Izzy, nice talking to you, thanks so much.

Mr. BLECKMAN: Youre welcome.

SIMON: Izzy Bleckman, long time cameraman with Charles Kuralt's series "On The Road." Set one has just been released on DVD, and its available from Acorn Media.

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