What Bryant Gumbel Watches in the Morning. (Hint: It’s Not the Shows He Once Anchored)

By Gail Shister 

When “Good Morning America” recently snapped “Today’s” 16-year winning streak, former “Today” star Bryant Gumbel was underwhelmed.

“I didn’t really have much of a reaction,” says Gumbel, 63, “Today” co-anchor from 1982 to ’97. “[The streak] is a long time, but nothing lasts forever. It’s the nature of the business. I’ve been gone a long time now – 15 years. It’s frightening.”

Gumbel returns to mornings today and tomorrow as guest host on “Live! with Kelly.” Today marks his 24th gig; his second since Regis Philbin stepped down in November. No permanent partner yet for Kelly Ripa.


Why does Gumbel do “Live!” so frequently? “[Executive producer] Michael Gelman is a friend of mine,” he says. “Kelly is a friend of mine. The studio is very close to my house. When they ask, if my schedule allows and I’m not in one of my moods, I say yes.”

Gumbel’s moods are no joke, as many can attest. He describes the above-referenced one as: “Screw the business; I’d rather be in a cave and have nobody see me the rest of my life.” Even when he’s not in a mood, Gumbel characterizes himself as “somewhere between a hermit and a recluse.”

These days, he’s a happy hermit. He’s quietly beaten lung cancer, twice, and prostate cancer. He and his wife, Hilary, are about to celebrate their 10th anniversary. He just became a

grandfather for the second time. (The baby’s name: Bryant.) ‘Real Sports,’ his HBO home since ’95, is “the best program I’ve ever worked on.”

“On the list of complaints in life, I have very, very few.”

Back to the morning wars, Gumbel says “Today” is “lighter” than it was in his time. “I don’t want to sound ‘holier than thou,’ but we did an awful lot of politics, international relations, hard economics. They tend to do more reality shows, makeovers. Then again, society has changed. Everything is lighter.”

Though Gumbel publicly criticized ‘Today’ for booking Sarah Palin as guest host on April 3, he rose to his alma mater’s defense when someone else took a shot.

“I reminded him, lest I be too critical, that I remember co-hosting with ALF,” Gumbel says. “Any reasonably intelligent person could vote for ALF.”

Co-anchor of CBS’s morning show from ’99 to ’02, Gumbel has this to say about its latest morning entry, with Charlie Rose and Gayle King: “Charlie and Gayle are friends of mine. I understand what they’re trying to do. I don’t know if it’s working.”

In Gumbel’s view, it may not even be possible for a serious Big 3 morning show to exist in today’s TV universe.

“I don’t know how much Americans are willing to sit for, especially when there are alternatives,” he says. “If you’re serious about economics, there’s CNBC and ‘Squawk Box.’ If you’re serious about sports, there’s ESPN. If you’re serious about politics, there’s ‘Morning Joe.’”

Speaking of which, “Morning Joe” is the a.m. show of choice at chez Gumbel, but only “because my wife controls the clicker in the morning,” he says. In reality, Gumbel says he’s “not a TV person” and rarely watches anything but sports.

MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” is “eminently watchable, smart,” according to Gumbel. “It appeals to me. I don’t think you’d get 25-minute discussions of the budget on network TV at that hour.” Gumbel, who appears to have a lot of friends for a recluse, says he just had lunch with “Morning Joe’s” Willie Geist.

And only last week, Gumbel, a serious golfer, hit the links with ex-NBC honcho Jeff Zucker, EP of Katie Couric’s forthcoming syndicated chat show.

Did Gumbel let his former boss win? Says he: “If I were playing against Jesus Christ, I wouldn’t let him win.”

The only thing missing from his life, Gumbel says, is his beloved dad, who died at age 51. Having already outlived him by 12 years, Gumbel is acutely aware of his own mortality.

“I don’t like getting old,” he says. “You’re [almost] 64, you’re middle-aged. You don’t see any 128 year-old guys walking around. I can do the math. It doesn’t please me.”

Not that he’s complaining.