Remembering Russert: From Buffalo to Big Time

By Chris Ariens 

Gail Shister
TVNewser Columnist

Tim Russert guest starring in a 1995 episode of NBC’s Homicide, a show created by his high school friend Tom Fontana.

Wolf Blitzer isn’t the only Buffalonian on TV with memories of Tim Russert.

Tom Fontana, creator of NBC’s “Homicide” and HBO’s “Oz,” had been pals with Russert since they both attended Canisius High School in the late ’60s. (Go Crusaders!)

The frisky Fontana even named a “Homicide” character after the “Meet the Press” moderator — Detective Megan Russert, played by Isabella Hofmann from ’94 to ’97.

“I called Timmy and asked if I could pretend she’s his cousin,” says Fontana of Russert, who died suddenly Friday from a heart attack. “He said, ‘Great.’ I said, ‘Why not come in from Washington and be on the show?'”

He did. When Russert, as himself, shot the cameo in Baltimore, “he was like a kid in a candy shop,” recalls Fontana, a “MTP” junkie since Russert debuted almost 17 years ago. “He had a ball. He caused a buzz, but he didn’t act like a celebrity.”

Having been around movie and TV stars for decades, Fontana is unfazed by celebrity. Russert, however, was in a class by himself “because of his real effect on the country’s understanding of itself,” he says.

“Like with Barbara Walters or Morley Safer, I had to be smarter than I am with Timmy, more on my game.”

Before Fontana and two of his “Oz” buds, Dean Winters and Lee Tergeson, went to Cuba “under the radar” in the ’90s, Fontana called Russert for tips. He gave him NBC’s contact in Havana and advised him to tell the truth to U.S. Customs on his return to Miami.

“He said, ‘Don’t lie and say you weren’t in Cuba,'” Fontana says. “My instinct was to lie. I felt like I was sneaking in. He said Americans can go to Cuba. If you lie on the way back, he said it was a felony.”

Back in high school, Russert was Big Man on Campus. Literally as well as figuratively.

A year ahead of Fontana, “he was just one of those guys we freshmen looked up to. His presence was amazing. I remember him being the biggest booster of the school — at pep rallies, dances. At our big fundraiser every year, he was always out there hawking raffle tickets.”

Not surprisingly, Russert, 58, was a loyal alum, serving on numerous committees. Over the next year, he had planned to host a fundraiser in Washington for the expansion of Canisius’ campus.

He helped Fontana raise money for a new boathouse for Buffalo’s West Side Rowing Club, the nation’s largest. Named after Fontana’s late mother and father, a longtime oarsman and coach, the Charles and Marie Fontana Boathouse was dedicated in October.

When Fontana learned of Russert’s death, “I didn’t believe it,” he says. “The truth of it is that I still haven’t processed it 100 percent.”