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Jewish Journal

An Army of One

American Friends of Hebrew University honors Variety columnist with its Scopus Award.

by Tom Tugend

January 23, 2003 | 7:00 pm

Army Archerd at the Academy Awards with Denzel Washington.

Army Archerd at the Academy Awards with Denzel Washington.

All things pass in Hollywood, but for Army Archerd. For 50 years, while great stars faded and powerful studio chiefs sank into obscurity, Archerd has written his daily column for Variety, the entertainment industry's must-read, and he can count the times he's missed a deadline on the fingers of one hand.

"Army is a legend in Hollywood and his column is read like the Bible," said Rabbi David Baron, Archerd's spiritual leader at Temple Shalom for the Arts.

On Tuesday, Jan. 28, the American Friends of the Hebrew University will recognize Archerd's "dedication, generosity and deep commitment to his community" by presenting him with the Scopus Award.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, lauds Archerd's "love for the Jewish people, and especially Israel."

"Anytime something terrible happens to Jews around the world, we talk about it. The Holocaust has had a tremendous impact on him and he has never forgotten his Jewish roots."

Born 81 years ago in the Bronx as Armand Archerd -- "Army" is a boyhood nickname that hung on -- he sits quietly for an interview in the kitchen of his art-filled Westwood home, facing the UCLA campus -- but the daily 4:30 p.m. deadline is never far from his mind.

He excuses himself for a phone chat with actors Michael Douglas and his wife Catherine Zeta-Jones, one of 40-50 such calls that provide the material for his next day's Just for Variety column.

Archerd can justifiably claim that he writes for the brightest, most talented and creative, and wealthiest readership of any columnist.

Starting with legendary moguls Louis B. Mayer, Samuel Goldwyn, Harry Cohn and the Warner brothers, he has interviewed just about everyone who matters in Hollywood and his only regret is that he never got to talk to the reclusive Greta Garbo.

Archerd culls the names of show biz's great and near-great from an unmatched contact list, stashed in three drawers of his desk, that would make any other reporter, or agent, "plotz" with envy, he said.

But after a newspaper career that began in 1945, and included early stints with the Associated Press and the L.A. Herald-Express, filling the 83 lines of his column each day is still hard work.

"It's a daily challenge that hasn't gotten easier with time," he said. "I keep a pad on my nightstand and when I wake up during the night, I jot down some little shtiklech or who I should call tomorrow."

Archerd grew up in what he calls a "very Jewish home," with a French-born mother and Romanian-born father, and he has on hand the tallit and tefillin from his bar mitzvah.

Always a precocious student, he graduated from high school at age 15, besides having a slew of extracurricular activities and an evening ushering job at the Criterion Theatre on Broadway.

His family moved to Los Angeles when he was 17 and in 1941, at age 19, he graduated from UCLA. At a party hosted by his Jewish fraternity, Zeta Beta Tau, Army met Selma, an attractive Fairfax High student. Both went on to marry other partners but reunited 33 years ago.

Selma Archerd, an actress, describes her marriage as "blissful" and her husband as "an ethical, wonderful person, clean in soul and deed."

Immediately after Pearl Harbor, Archerd enlisted in the Navy and, commissioned an ensign, served in the Pacific as deck officer on a destroyer.

As he goes about his work, Archerd says, "I have an antenna for any indications of prejudice in the industry, including, but not only, anti-Semitism."

He has taken on such icons as Michael Jackson, when the lyrics of one of his songs insulted Jews, and Marlon Brando, when he tossed off an anti-Semitic quip during an interview. Both the singer and the actor apologized for their trespasses.

Lately, it seems to some of his readers, Archerd has ratcheted up his denunciations of terrorist attacks in Israel and his praise for supporters of the Jewish state.

For instance, in a column last August, he expressed deep shock at the suicide bombing at the Hebrew University's Frank Sinatra Student Center cafeteria.

In typical fashion, he called on his memory and past columns to resurrect Sinatra's original 1978 visit for the dedication of the center in Jerusalem, the members of his party and the fact that the crooner cooked up an Italian dinner in the butler's pantry of the presidential suite of the local Hilton Hotel.

Archerd's activities include founding the Hollywood Press Club, launching TV's "Entertainment Tonight" and regular host stints for the Retinitis Pigmentosa International award dinner. He has appeared as himself in over 100 movies and TV shows.

Archerd has no thought of retiring. "You see," he says before hurrying off to his office, "I'm not such an A.K. [alter-kacker] after all."

The Scopus Award dinner honoring Army Archerd will be held Tuesday, Jan. 28, at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel. For information, phone (310) 843-3100.   

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