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A Life Behind the Scenes

By George Anthony

McClelland & Stewart,

342 pages, $34.99

One of my favourite parodies of Brian Linehan was this one by comedienne Mary Walsh during the 2002 Genie Awards: "1969. April. Delta Secondary School in Hamilton. You're at your locker, eyes shift to the left. You see Barbara Amiel. Brian. My question to you: Were her breasts smaller than they are today?"

The parody (quoted in George Anthony's Starring Brian Linehan) encapsulates his ability to recreate a milieu and ambience, and his intimate tone, along with a propensity for name-dropping. He interviewed more than 2,000 stars over three decades, Clint Eastwood, Dustin Hoffman, Burt Reynolds and Barbra Streisand among them. He provided real information, not just gossipy sound bites, and he won plaudits from just about everyone he interviewed, dazzling them with his scrupulous background research. "Jesus, Linehan!" Kirk Douglas exclaimed. "You know more about me than I do!" Shirley MacLaine couldn't find anyone to match him in her many lives, remarking: "We learned more about ourselves with him than we would have on the couch." Gloria Swanson, the legendary Norma Desmond of the screen, said that she had never enjoyed an interview more than the one she did with him, ranking him above David Frost, Dick Cavett, Barbara Walters and other so-called top names.

At his peak, Hollywood wined and dined him, paying for lavish media junkets. He stayed with Bea Arthur and Joan Rivers in Hollywood and New York, and flew to Las Vegas with Ann-Margret on Paul Anka's private jet. He kept his private life very private, and it took friends (such as Rivers and Karen Kain) many years to discover that Linehan had a long-time live-in male partner (Dr. Zane Wagman), who was out of his element in Brian's public world.

Nevertheless, even Canada began to take Linehan seriously for a long while - quite a coup for a working-class boy from Hamilton, with a pug nose, who couldn't wait to escape the steel-plant city and his family (including a homophobic older brother), and who cleverly reinvented himself as an elegant celebrity on the lines of a Cole Porter or Cary Grant while living the high life on Other People's Money and guarding many secrets of his private life.

His career makes for heady reading, and much of it sounds like fun - the element that he wanted his good friend George Anthony to capture in the obituary he promised to write. The actual life story was less fun, but Anthony, who shared champagne, martinis and stiletto- sharp gossip with Linehan, doesn't shrink from exposing this in what amounts to a genuinely engrossing homage and inquiry, despite some ticker-tape documentary notes, an extremely vague chronology and an inordinate amount of trivia.

Anthony writes as an insider, but he doesn't lack objectivity as he shows how Brian Linehan was his own creation, one who kept changing the year of his birth (1943) and the explanation for his pug nose. The second son and third child of six born to a hard-drinking, violent, blue-collar Irish father and a hard-working Yugoslavian mother, he was unlike his siblings. While they boxed and played baseball and football, he read magazines and books, wrote for his high school paper and The Hamilton Spectator, and acquired a movie-going habit.

When his abusive father eventually walked out on the family, Linehan shed no tears. At 19, Linehan set out for Toronto, where he screened and wrote advertising copy for films for Odeon Theatres while embarking on French, English and public-relations courses. Promoted to talent wrangler, he was assigned to greet and "baby-sit" visiting movie stars such as Gregory Peck, Alfred Hitchcock and a frosty Joan Crawford, who needed two limousines, one for herself and another for her luggage.

At 24, he was made general manager of Janus Films, a J. Arthur Rank subsidiary for distribution of foreign films by the likes of Bergman, Kurosawa, Truffaut et al. He lapped up the pleasure of meeting executives, directors, producers and stars.

When Moses Znaimer and Phyllis Switzer's City TV debuted in 1972, Linehan became part of a talented team of gung-ho mavericks. He bombed out during his first try at interviewing, but quickly learned the ropes, and the rest was history. He was impeccably groomed, displayed elegant manners and was genuinely thrilled by his guests' achievements. His interviews for City Lights and Linehan were live-to-tape, without editing or sweetening.

But then came complications. His self-importance grew, along with the length of his on-camera questions. He became the subject of parody for Ken Finkleman and Rick Moranis, and even his friend Martin Short sent him up on SCTV in the hilarious figure of Brock Linehan, who confuses black blues singer Linda Hopkins with old Hollywood actress Miriam Hopkins.

Linehan had enemies - one, in particular, being Martin Knelman, who did a hatchet job on him in a Toronto Life profile, citing Linehan's nauseating flattery of stars. There was some truth in a half-truth: Linehan yearned too much to be liked and too much for celebrity. His loyal lawyer Michael Levine called him the Purple Rose of Cairo, after the Woody Allen movie, for walking "into the movie screen because that world was more real to him than the world he had escaped from."

Linehan did grow pompous, demanding and bitchy. Moses Znaimer never forgave him for this, though Znaimer comes off in the book as showing poor taste by speaking only ill of the dead.

Linehan lost his career once television changed, leaving no time for in-depth interviews, and he couldn't get jobs worthy of his talent. His private life fell apart. He was diagnosed with cancer, and two months later his partner of more than three decades committed suicide in Finland.

The downward spiral was devastating, and it is devastatingly charted in this biography, where Anthony's neutral style in this sequence provides plain facts without obscuring filters. Guilt, anger and depression fell commonly across Linehan's soul. Unable for the longest time to erase his dead partner's last voice message on the answering machine, calling himself the Widow Linehan, losing dignity as his voice weakened, his hair fell out and his leg muscles atrophied, finally visited by some of his estranged siblings, he was consoled by great friends such as Rivers, Kain, Sara Waxman and others, before he gently expired on June 4, 2004.

Death, of course, came unavoidably, but what could have been avoided was Linehan's fatal obsession with celebrity right to the end. It makes for sad, painful reading, yet it is right and proper to honour him for paying attention to talent - Canadian included - and for (as Joan Rivers puts it) helping us remember generations of that talent along with him.

Keith Garebian is the author of Frida: Paint Me as a Volcano.

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