Alistair Cooke dies

'Masterpiece Theatre' former host was 95

Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Alistair Cooke, the British-born journalist and commentator who brought a refinement and elegance to American television as the popular host of "Masterpiece Theatre," has died. He was 95.

Cooke, who offered insightful radio commentaries for the British Broadcasting Corp. for 58 years, died at his home in New York City at midnight Monday, the network announced in London.

The cause of death was not reported, but Cooke was known to have had heart disease. He retired from the BBC just weeks ago, citing health concerns.

As the host of "Masterpiece Theatre" from 1971 to 1992, Cooke supplied wry, informative introductions for adaptations of Evelyn Waugh's "Brideshead Revisited," Jane Austen's "Emma" and Henry James' "The Golden Bowl" as well as the made-for-television series "Upstairs Downstairs." His urbane manner recalled a kindly professor.

"Cooke introduced more people to what one would call good literature than thousands of high school and college instructors might have done," said Howard Gottlieb, director of the Mugger Library at Boston University in a 1998 interview with Cooke's biographer, Nick Clarke. Cooke donated his personal library to the university.

Cooke joined the BBC in 1934 as a film critic, but European audiences know him best for his "Letter from America," weekly commentaries broadcast on BBC radio starting in 1946 and continuing until his final report aired Feb. 20.

There were 2,869 talks in all, each a 13-minute, 30-second spot offering Cooke's observations on political and cultural life in the United States.

"Cooke had a mission to explain his adopted country to his native country," Clarke said. "He wanted to show that Americans have a depth you don't necessarily see in American films and television sitcoms."

His "letter" aired in 50 countries and gained a broad audience in England. "With equal verve and knowledge, Mr. Cooke comments on the activities of the churches, Hollywood, university presidents, baseball players, gangsters and scientists," the London Financial Times wrote some years ago. "People who want to know what really goes on in America cannot dispense with Mr. Cooke."

In London, Prime Minister Tony Blair led the mourning Tuesday for the popular commentator.

"I was a big fan," Blair told the BBC. "I thought they were extraordinary essays, and they brought an enormous amount of insight and understanding to the world."

Cooke's survivors include his wife, his son John and daughter Susan, and two stepchildren.