Louis “Studs” Terkel (1912-2008)
Author, actor, radio and television host, all-round character
Peabody Award recipient, 1980
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, 1985
Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1997
George Polk Award winner, 1999
Terkel, a Chicagoan born and bred, graduated from the University of Chicago School of Law in 1934 and promptly decided he’d rather be a hotel concierge.
Then he hooked up with an acting company When he ended up cast in a play with another actor also named Louis, the manager tagged Terkel as “Studs”, after the James K. Farrell novel, Studs Lonergan, that he happened to be reading. It stuck.
From there, Studs Terkel got into radio with the WPA arts projects of the mid-'30s. In the happily accidental way his life ran, he got back into radio in 1952.The Writer’s Almanac says of it,
One day, he was listening to the radio and he heard a Woody Guthrie song on a station called WFMT. He said: "I wondered, who plays Guthrie records except me? So I called WFMT. They were delighted to hear from me." The station had been on the air less than a year, and they invited Terkel to host a show. The Studs Terkel Program debuted in 1952 and aired for 45 years, until 1997. The show included eclectic music and Terkel's musings, but was mostly interviews with subjects of his choice: blues musicians, labor activists, poets, and actors (he stayed away from politicians). He did intense research on his subjects, and never referenced a book or a performance unless he had read it or seen it.
In the 1950s he was the star of an unscripted local TV drama, Studs’ Place. He started doing oral histories of ordinary, non-famous folks, and found in their life stories lives most extraordinary, which he chronicled in a long series of books.
In his 60s he began garnering national, even international, fame, and honors. Terkel went on and on, seemingly indestructible, surviving open heart surgery at 93.
At 94 he was a plaintiff against AT&T turning over phone surveillance data to the federal government; he continued giving interviews until a few months before a fall that hastened his death ("I was walking downstairs carrying a drink in one hand and a book in the other. Don't try that after 90.")
Movie fans will remember Terkel and director John Sayles as the wisecracking, cynical journalists covering the Chicago Black Sox scandal of 1919 in Eight Men Out (1988)
Terkel (center), with director John Sayles (left) and actor John Mahoney in Eight Men Out.
Roger Ebert, “How Studs Terkel Helps Me Lead My Life,”, May 24, 2008