Arch Campbell, the accidental expert


Arch Campbell considers himself an accidental expert. The longtime Washington movie critic and ABC 7s new entertainment editor, Campbell has seen about 5,000 movies in his 35 year career of slipping in and out of cinemas. Some classics and quite a few stinkers. Only about 250 would he even consider seeing a second time.

This summer, Campbell is screening his Top 10 of the last 25 years on Sunday nights at the AFI Silver Cinema in Silver Spring. Most are household names, from Orson Welles Citizen Kane, while others, like Bean (1997, starring Rowan Atkinson) are not. People were screaming with laughter at that one, he recalls. The movie went places you didnt expect it to go and avoided the formula comedy.

Picking his top 10 (see box) was hard, he said, because you change and tastes change.

Movies in his DNA
Growing up in hot, dusty San Antonio in the 1950s, Campbells father took him to the movie house on Sundays for a few hours of escapism, and a little solace from the overbaked Texas summers. The elder Campbell, who traveled the state as a display case painter for the Fink Cigar Co., introduced him to the early greats of cinema legend, Capra, Hitchcock and Welles.

My dad with the following: My dad loved the performing arts, he recalled. He gave me a model that arts are really for everyone.

Television was just taking root in the American living room and the networks were showing movies to the masses. My dad steered me towards the classics on TV, he recalled, films like Citizen Kane and Its A Wonderful Life, movies which are now his all-time favorites. What I think is a great movie is one which does what you least expect it to do, he said. These did all of that.

He began his career in 1972 in Dallas as a general assignment reporter at the CBS affiliate. One day the news director asked if anyone would volunteer to become the stations film critic. Campbells hand went up.

Ive considered myself an accidental expert ever since, he chuckled.

D.C. career
In 1974 he arrived at the NBC Studios in Washington to work as a feature reporter at its affiliate, WRC (Channel 4), working alongside Willard Scott doing weekend weather duty and a sprinkling of political stories during the week. The newscast back then looked like a circus, he recalled.

In 1979, Campbell was tapped as the stations full-time film and theater critic, thus beginning a 28-year run as the Washington areas only on-air arbiter of Hollywood product. From 1985 to 1990, he was host of the Arch Campbell Show which featured appearances by then rising comics Roseanne Barr, Ray Romano and Martin Lawrence.

Over the years Campbell has interviewed just about every movie star imaginable, from Jack Nicholson to Billy Bob Thornton. I really like the new guys like Mark Wahlberg and Matt Damon, he said. They bring about a certain energy and imagination to their roles.

Campbell has attended literally thousands of screenings and opening nights over the years, but perhaps the most memorable was the 1990 Washington premiere of Dances with Wolves, in which an old projector failed halfway into the screening. They still talk about it, Campbell recalls. Kevin Costner and the producers hovering around the poor projectionist like a bunch of anxious cooks.

During one memorable interview with Steven Seagal, the screen legend chose not to say more than three words. It was a live interview and hed just had it. It had been a long day, and I was just another reporter, he recalled. The problem was it was live, and the producers were screaming in my earpiece to just fake it. So there I was. One of the worst moments Id ever had on TV.

A divorce
Last November, during a round of bruising cutbacks by General Electric, WRCs parent company, Campbell was unceremoniously let go, accepting a buyout offer after 32 years. They essentially gave me a choice of taking retirement and taking retirement, he said. So I took retirement.

It was a wrenching period for Campbell who had just recovered from a bout with colon cancer. It was excruciating to leave my friends after 32 years, he recalled. It was deeply painful. It felt like a divorce … or death….After turning in my badge I went into deep denial and got very busy.

Campbells former colleagues, Jim Vance, Doreen Gentzler, Bob Ryan and George Michael worked hard during the period to keep his spirits up, taking him to breakfast several times a month to reminisce and lift his spirits.

I think it was very hard on Arch, and we all did what we could to keep him from getting too down about it, said Ryan, WRCs longtime weather forecaster. We let him know that well always be his friends, whatever hes doing or wherever hes working.

For his part, Campbell reconciled himself that things do change and people get divorced. He soon realized that at age 60 he could not stop working, not stop going to the movie house in his trademark fedora and three-piece suit and afterwards telling his longtime audience his likes and dislikes.

In March, WJLA (Channel 7) hired Campbell as its critic for film and theater. They came to me and said Well give you a home, a place with an association.

Im really grateful to Channel 7 for giving me back my forum, he said. Heck, they even sent me to the Oscars.

Unlike the old NBC Studios on Nebraska Avenue, which were built in 1957 and had things hidden in the corner, the sparkling new studios and work space in Rosslyn he moved into were designed and wired from the ground up. With three platforms [a network affiliate, newspaper, and Internet presence], this is really the future of TV. This place is wired for todays technology.