Turner Classic Movies
Barrett, Rona - Interview
Written by Diana Saenger   

ronahshot.jpgRona Barrett went from a young woman looking for a career that would offer her sustainability to one of Hollywood's most successful gossip columnists and celebrity interviewers. Born in 1936 in New York City, Barrett suffered from an ailment as a child that at one time was diagnosed as Muscular Dystrophy. She missed out on activities that other kids enjoyed, and that notion made the savvy young girl realize she needed a career that would offer her validation and respect.

While attending law school Barrett decided law was not that career. She eventually became a gossip columnist for the Bell-McClure newspaper syndicate in 1957, and in 1966 became a Hollywood gossip columnist on a Los Angeles television station.

A regular contributor for Good Morning America, The Today Show and Entertainment Tonight and others, Barrett reinvented herself over the years as entertainment journalism also continued to morph itself. She wrote several books including a 1972 novel, The Lovo-maniacs; her autobiography, Miss Rona in 1974 and    How You Can Look Rich and Achieve Sexual Ecstasy (1978).

Always versatile and determined in her career, it was her knack for interviewing celebrities and getting insights to the stars' personal life that propelled her to the forefront of her peers. While today journalists are guarded by stars' publicists from some questions, Barrett discussed things such as sexual foreplay with Richard Dreyfuss, handled a blunt sexual attempt by Hugh O'Brian and rose above slams from those like Frank Sinatra who criticized her when she revealed too much about them.

nothingbuttruthdvd220.jpgIn her new DVD Rona Barrett's Hollywood: Nothing But the Truth, Barrett's understated expertise shines in every interview. This includes some of her favorites including Cher, Carol Burnett,  Richard Dreyfuss,  Priscilla Presley, Burt Reynolds, Donna Summer, John Travolta, Raquel Welch and Robin Williams.


Barrett generously agreed to an interview and was pleasantly open about her life and career.

CMG: When you decided to switch from law to a journalism career - what did you do first to pursue that career?

Rona B: I had started by submitting things to my school paper but I got rejected at least 50 times. Finally I had a poem accepted a poem, and I was determined to continue. Later an editor offered me a filing job that eventually turned into an editing job.

CMG: How did you convince producers on KABC that a gossip column show would be vibrant?

ronab-_pink.jpgRona B: It was more about covering the entertainment industry. Here they sat in Los Angles with eight studios surrounding them, and there was no one covering it (entertainment) for television. It was my belief that 97 percent of the viewing public would soon be coming to TV to get there news and information. I  presented them (producers) with booklets I had put together showing how people look at information - first the headlines, then sports, and most women will go to the entertainment section looking for Hollywood news. I pointed out there was never anything on entertainment, and how I felt that I could raise ratings.

CMG: And at first you were turned down, correct?

Rona B: Yes. I was told it was a good idea but they didn't have room for it. After eight years I almost gave up. I told my father, who wanted me to return to New York, I was coming home. For the first time he said, "You're quitting?" He told me to give it 24 more hours. I thought what will happen in 24 hours; it's Sunday?

So that afternoon I wrote a telegram to Leonard Goldenson, Chairmen of the American Broadcasting Company, saying that after eight years of fussing around with me, €˜say yea or nay,' and I went to bed. At six in the morning I got a call from KABC and was told to be at the studio by 3 p.m. Two weeks later I was on television.

CMG: Where did that determination to succeed come from?

Rona B: My parents basically wanted me to have an education, get married, have children and live a good life. Having a career, I think, was the last thing on their minds because I was born with a handicap. It was a difficult childhood, and my parents were always worried how I would handle that.

There were things I couldn't do and I had to watch my friends run, play games, walk up stairs, and I was alone a lot. I wanted to make something of myself and not have people called me names. People would always tell me their secrets, and I decided because people were so comfortable talking to me that my life belonged in Hollywood. I wanted to be like Dorothy Kilgallon -- I loved the stories she wrote -- or Walter Winchell. I was intrigued how he got the information he did. I thought that would be an exciting career.

CMG: After you were on KABC, and on-air Roger Grimsby ridiculed the idea of your show on national TV, what was your reaction?

Rona B: It bothered me a great deal because my mother and father were watching. My mother  believed a house had to be devoid of one spot of dust. One day she was dusting on a stool cleaning the Tiffany lamps, and Roger had said something on the news about a garbage strike going on and then said speaking of garbage, let's go to Rona Barrett. My mother fell off the stool and never recovered. I always felt Roger was responsible for my mother becoming ill and never recovering. It was very hurtful. It felt like the kids calling me names again. And what for? I raised the station's rating!

CMG: You were a pioneer in your field. Did you understand that at the time?

ronab_at_jw.jpgRona B: I didn't realize I was a pioneer. People didn't use that word until much latter in my career. Because I knew how difficult it was, I was always looking for new ways to open doors for other women. I had so many bumps on my head trying to crack that glass ceiling; that's why I wore my hair so high (she laughs). I became determined during my childhood. I really wanted to be important and respected; then children wouldn't call me names.

CMG: Did your success sneak up on you or was it the hard work behind the scenes that got you where you wanted to be?

Rona B: Both. One time years after I had started my career someone asked me, "so how does it feel to be important in Hollywood." I replied, I don't think about things like that. I was only worried if I would have another show to broadcast tomorrow and what would be my lead story. I worked from morning to night, and looking back I realize it was a major sacrifice, certainly regarding a personal life. But I don't regret it. I think what has happened has brought me right to where I'm supposed to be.

CMG: Do you have favorite interviews?

Rona B: When you've done as many as I have it's hard to choose. I will say the last one I had with John Wayne, while not the longest interview, was very meaningful to me. He had just come out of the hospital being treated for cancer, and it wasn't long after that that he passed away. I believe this was one of his last interviews. It was very poignant and honest of this big man who every body adored and was the  #1 screen idle for so many years. I ask if he regretted anything her had every done and he said, yes, I was no good at marriage.

CMG: Did any of your interviews ever go totally south?

Rona B: A couple. One was with the late Charlton Heston. We were on subject of one of the union problems, and he explained his point of view. I understood him and he understood me, and it was not a good interview.

CMG: You are soft spoken and were and still are so beautiful - was that ever a stumbling block to interviews?

Rona B: No. I never knew what I was like on camera. If you're going to get a real honest interview it takes about 15 minutes to warm up a person. They knew the reason I was there -- I wanted to know who were they, what made them tick, and how much of the person we saw on the screen was like their real life. It depended on how I asked the question then when the right time came, I went in. It's like the peeling of an onion.

CMG: In some of the books you wrote, you revealed a lot of intimate details. Did any ever come back to haunt you?

Rona B: No. I didn't realize when I wrote my autobiography that the book would be an inspiration to many young people who felt they were unattractive and that no one liked them, and I showed them that there was a way out. The letters I received that may me feel good because I realized by revealing some things, it helped people. So many people look at stars and idolize them and in their own lives they are going through turmoil. So when you get someone like Carol Burnett, who is telling you what her life was like with alcoholic parents, I think 1000s of people are surprised that she had the same problems as others did.

CMG: How has the business changed from the years you were involved?

ronab_magazine.jpgRona B: I knew times had changed when I came on the scene and we were going through a major shift in our country just like we are right now.  I had come into baby boomer generation and those people were looking for something new and different. So I began to talk about the people they were interested in; Jimmy dean, Natalie Woods, Steve McQueen Paul Newman, Troy Donahue, James Garner. Now days that couldn't happen so openly; stars are controlled very differently. Times do change.

Also, the attitudes of the younger people are different. They reflect -- I want it, I want it now, give it to me now! It's instant gratification. They can eat four chocolate bars and probably don't want a fifth, so they say lets go on to something else. And that's why there are not a lot of stars today that linger on.

CMG: What do you think about today's tabloid journalism where they make things up and pay 1000's of dollars to paparazzi who stalk the stars?

Rona B: It has changed. I don't believe in checkbook journalism. I don't expect to write everything great and puffy; I want the facts.

CMG: You retired in 1991 to a ranch to grow lavender. You also started the Rona Barrett Foundation, which provides financial support and recognition to nonprofit organizations that address the critical challenges faced by seniors. Why was that the right cause for you?

Rona B: It started when a dear friend, who I call my angel on earth, broke a hip and needed help, and eventually went into a care facility. She had no money, even though she had worked hard to help make this a better country. Through a nurse I discovered some programs that could help. But I realized there are a lot of people in our country in the same situation, so I started the foundation for those  who helped make this country what it is today but can't take care of themselves. I'm still fighting the battle, but it's a good  fight. And as my career has proved, I  never run away from a fight.

Read Classic Movie Guide's review of Rona Barrett's Hollywood: Nothing But the Truth

Photo credits: Infinity Entertainment




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