Everything begins with the Voice. It rumbles at the birth of his origin story, through his earliest days as a newsman, green as a sapling, warning residents of Topeka, Kansas, to take cover — “for God’s sake” — from a killer twister. It echoes down the years of his reign as a CBS-2 anchorman, a tenure that carved him a place, as media critic Robert Feder puts it, “on the Mount Rushmore of Chicago TV news,” and his time as the flagship of cable justice and deep-dive docs. It rolls velvet even now, urbane and avuncular, purring across the archway of his third act, as a rancher-slash-conservationist and the tongue-in-cheek straight man of Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!, NPR’s enormously popular quiz show, still conveying, all these decades later, the square-jawed earnestness and iron dignity gentled just enough by an aw-shucks wink between friends.
No one — not Cronkite, not Brinkley, not Rather, not even Murrow in his heyday — has its distinctive blend of gravitas and mellifluousness. James Earl Jones? Charlton Heston on the mountaintop? Close, but they are of Hollywood, not hard news. The Voice is Yo-Yo Ma’s weeping cello. It is the timpani at the CSO.
Words can get you only so far in comprehending its full effect. To do that, you need to sit in an airless cubicle in the sprawling River North offices of Kurtis Productions and watch its possessor prepare for what is perhaps his ten thousandth time pulling on a pair of “cans” (studio-speak for headphones) and leaning into the black sponge of a microphone. Just Bill Kurtis. And the instrument itself.
After so many decades of seeing him upholstered in the official uniform of a news anchor — broad-shouldered dark suit, forward-point collar, Windsor-knotted tie — it is hard to imagine him in anything else. But this is his office, and so here he is in an open-collared white dress shirt, uncreased blue chinos, and the street-worn black New Balance sneakers that he loves like a pair of loyal hounds. At 77, Kurtis maintains a generous head of silver hair — thinned from his anchor days, to be sure, but full enough to neatly part. Time has softened the jaw, but he still looks like Bill Kurtis. “He has always looked like Bill Kurtis, from the time he was a boy,” says his wife, Donna La Pietra.
In the recording cubby, which is about the size of an old phone booth, Kurtis starts by consulting a sheaf of scripts for the day’s voice-overs. One of the extraordinary things about Kurtis is his ability to cold read. There’s no warm-up. No throat clearing, no lozenges, no herbal tea, no massaging the cheeks, no trilling the tongue, no me-me-me-meeeeeeeeing. “If you wake Bill up at 2 in the morning from a sound sleep, he will sound exactly the same,” says La Pietra.
Kurtis will scan the text but little more. He has an improv comic’s knack for adjusting on the fly, to give the words just the right amount of seriousness or whimsy. And he rarely flubs. His tongue seldom ties. It’s a gift that has earned him the nickname One-Take Kurtis.
Now the pages rattle as he thumb-licks the pile. Peering through a window that looks out onto his producer at a large soundboard, he signals his readiness, then plunges in. He moves, with barely a lull, from a TV segment on NASA-derived technologies to a documentary on the Chicago race riot of 1919 to another on the Jewish militant Meir Kahane to an Independence Day public service announcement to a promo for Wait Wait, all the while the Voice soaring and dipping for emphasis: The de-IC-ING e-QUIP-ment now used by ALL airlines … On July 4, 1776, the LEAD-ers among them a-DOPT-ed a DECK-la-RAYY-shun …
Properly conveying the intonations, in all their majestic glory, is nearly impossible. But Peter Sagal, the host of Wait Wait, sums things up nicely: “If God came down to decree judgment on all of us for our sins, he would be using Bill Kurtis’s voice.”
It is not The Man Above sitting across from me on a stone veranda a few weeks later, but a genial Kurtis, in a sky-blue polo shirt, blue sweatpants, and a khaki baseball cap stitched with a homespun apothegm: “Advice from a squirrel. Go out on a limb. Plan ahead. Stay active. It’s OK to be a little nuts!” It’s a few days before the Fourth of July, and little American flags, planted in the yard by La Pietra, stir the silence, soughing in the breeze as we gaze out onto the wondrous sweep of green at Mettawa Manor, the couple’s 65-acre Lake County estate.
He may not be a deity, but Kurtis nonetheless enjoys a certain status in this paradise. “Around here we call him TBG,” says La Pietra, eliciting a chuckle from Kurtis as she appears with a tray of coffee. I look at her blankly. “The Big Guy,” she explains.
La Pietra serves the coffee the way Kurtis likes it in the morning: with a bowlful of RumChata creamers. As Kurtis peels one open and pours it in, he muses on the Wait Wait taping downtown the night before. The show’s announcer since 2014, he marvels at just how rabid its fans are and how odd — and delightful — it is for him to perform in front of a live audience that treats the cast members like rock stars. In his sixth decade of working before a microphone or camera, the serious newsman has found the fresh experience of tossing zingers and cutting sly winks on a comedy show to be like taking a long draft from Ponce de León’s famous fountain.
“Talk about devoted,” Kurtis says of the crowds. “I’ve never seen anything like it. We’ll go to — I don’t care where it is, Columbus, Ohio, or Brooklyn or wherever, standing room only, 10,000 people at Red Rocks [Amphitheatre in Colorado], and they all know the drill. Because when I go into the opening line, ‘Live from Chase Bank Auditorium in Chicago’ — or wherever we are — why, they just go crazy. I’ve always thought: Is the show really that funny? But by God, afterward people come up still tearing from laughing so hard.”
As Kurtis and I chat, La Pietra pads in and out of the 10,000-square-foot, 90-year-old mansion, which the couple bought in 1990, checking to see if more coffee is needed. She doesn’t sit with us. She’s too busy playing hostess. On the surface this might seem rather traditional: the lord of the manor taking his coffee while the lady attends to him and his guest. But that would be a complete misreading of a relationship that is very much one of equals.
While her husband gets most of the attention when they are out together, La Pietra’s résumé sparkles with an effulgence all its own. After a long career at CBS-2 producing the evening news — for eight years she was Kurtis’s boss — she served as executive producer of Siskel & Ebert for a stint. Later, working with philanthropist John Bryan, she was instrumental in raising funds for what has become one of the city’s most cherished jewels, Millennium Park. She sits on the board of several civic organizations, and as executive producer of Kurtis Productions, she is to this day, if in title only, her husband’s supervisor.
Though they married just last year, they have been a couple for nearly four decades. The years have choreographed a partnership that sways to its own idiosyncratic rhythms, as lovely as it is unlikely. Where Kurtis reads easygoing and chipper, the 68-year-old La Pietra, sharp-eyed and talkative, flits and zips like an itinerant hummingbird. Sartorially speaking, she follows, shall we say, her own path. She has been known to wear stockings of mismatched colors under designer dresses and, long before it became trendy, socks with heels.
“I am sure you probably have gathered that Bill and I are somewhat inseparable, but very separable,” she tells me. “We’re two individual people, but we have — for whatever reasons and almost from day one — worked together, lived together, built a house together, and shared so many interests.”
The home in Mettawa is perhaps the fullest expression of that union. With its English manor style, classical Greek statuary, horticultural delights bursting at every turn, and lily-padded ponds where bullfrogs splash into the water, it would be tempting to see this as merely a country refuge, just another property to go along with the couple’s Lincoln Park pied-à-terre and the 5,000 acres of ranch land in Kansas that Kurtis owns with his sister, Jean Schodorf, a former state senator who now runs the property.
For Kurtis and La Pietra, however, Mettawa is a place of purpose, a giant incubator where they can practice their shared passion for conservation, including offering up the land for experimentation to scientists and others worried about global climate change. For those experts, the big attraction is not so much the spectacular color bouquets as the deep-rooted prairie grasses, indigenous to Illinois, waving like wheat across a 15-acre swath.
Speaking of which. “I don’t want to interrupt,” La Pietra says as she approaches us midsip, “but I didn’t want to forget: If you want to do that Kabuki drop thing, I’ll do it with you.”
“Good,” Kurtis responds. “We do want to.”
I watch La Pietra disappear into the house. Kabuki drop? Kurtis smiles. “Follow me.” He leads me inside, into the cool vastness of the great room, a wondrous hall of polished wood and leaded windows, latticed and refractive. At one end, about 10 feet up, looms an arched opening: a tiny Juliet balcony, complete with a polished oak balustrade.
La Pietra stands all but hidden behind an enormous furled banner, awaiting her husband’s cue.
“And here it is!” Kurtis says.
“Donna? … Donna?”
Suddenly, like Rapunzel’s hair being flung down, the banner is unrolled with a flourish to reveal a dozen-foot-long iridescent painting of a prairie grass root — an actual-size representation illustrating the depth of its plunge.
“Noooowww,” says the Voice, “you get an idea of what we’re talking about.”
Kurtis remarks offhandedly that they performed the same demonstration for Robert Redford when he visited a few months earlier. The Robert Redford? Kurtis laughs. “Yep.”
Kabuki drop over, Kurtis turns to me and says, “Shall we ride?” Before I can answer, he ducks around a corner. A few moments later, he pulls up outside in an eight-seater golf cart he uses to tootle around the grounds. Over the next two-plus hours, I get the grand tour, including a stop at a genuine split-rail treehouse. (“When I showed this to Redford, he refused to leave,” Kurtis says as we sit for a spell, easing back into the wooden chairs, enjoying the breeze.) Next stop is a swarming bee colony, followed by a small orchard with not-quite-ripe apples hanging pendulously, then the prairie grass pastures. Along the way, Kurtis declaims on most of the 30 or so species of trees that canopy the fringes, including an oak-hickory forest backbreakingly pruned of buckthorn, and points out enough spectacular flowers to supply a Rose Bowl parade a couple of times over: pink and blue hydrangeas, petunias in pink, red, and indigo. A walled English garden, winding stone paths, and a labyrinth of hedges scroll by as we bump along.
On one side of the house is an exquisite “aqua theater,” a rectangular pond into which protrudes a peninsula of grass leading to a small stage. The spot has been the site of numerous special events, most recently the June wedding of Wait Wait’s Sagal.
A tour of the main house, led by La Pietra, is equally wonder filled, beginning with the great room, where scars on the floor, the fluttering toe-shoe scuffs of Joffrey Ballet dancers, mark a special charity performance. The highlight, though, is a photo wall with shots of Kurtis over the years: next to his hero and mentor, Walter Cronkite; sitting on the grass with Muhammad Ali, with whom he struck up a friendship that lasted until the champ’s passing; gripping a microphone in Vietnam, in China, in Africa. On top of one dresser is a display of all things Anchorman, the Will Ferrell comedy that Kurtis memorably narrated. Among other items are a grinning Ron Burgundy action figure and a coffee cup with the fictitious anchor’s sign-off: “You stay classy, San Diego.”
It’s easy to mistake this all as evidence of an utterly charmed existence, an unbroken string of successes and great moments, of accolades and adulation. But no one lives a life free of setbacks and pain. Kurtis is no exception. He has scrupulously avoided speaking publicly about his two most wounding episodes: the death of his first wife in 1977 and his son’s decades-long struggle with mental illness, which ultimately contributed to his death in 2009. “I never wanted to go there,” Kurtis explained to me. “I didn’t want it to seem like I was exploiting those moments.”
For this article, however, he talked about both at length and with an unflinching candor. I later asked him why he finally decided to do so. His features softened and his voice, the Voice, thickened. “It was time,” he said.
If ever a person seemed fated for a calling, it was Bill Kurtis. Even when he was a boy in Independence, Kansas, a farm-and-picket-fence town of about 10,000 two and a half hours due south of the capital, Topeka, teachers remarked on his basso profundo voice, his mature demeanor. As he grew into his teens, his physical appearance caught up; he was tall, square shouldered, and already anchorman handsome.
Still, at least early on, it wasn’t news that captured his fancy. “I wanted to be a professional football player,” he says. “You have to understand” — and here he slips into the Voice — “that high school foot-baaalllll is a religion in places like Independence.” Kurtis played the most revered position: quarterback. “I started at a time when the school was launching what would become a 47-game win streak.” But a series of injuries — including a cracked vertebra that forced him to sit out his senior year and a compound finger fracture his only year at a community college in Independence — derailed any hope he had for an athletic career.
Still pining to be close to the game, he put his energy into another outlet: play-by-play for the local radio station. “I knew I had a gift in my voice,” he says.
Where it came from, he still isn’t sure. He was born William Horton Kuretich on September 21, 1940, in Pensacola, Florida. His middle name (and, by extension, his childhood nickname, Horty) came from his mother, Wilma Mary Horton; his last name, which he would change to the more broadcast-friendly Kurtis down the road, owed to his father, William A. Kuretich, a marine brigadier general and decorated World War II veteran of Croatian descent.
Kurtis can put his finger on one contributing factor: Because his father was in the military, his family moved often in his early years, and Kurtis was able to escape the flat Midwestern twang of his peers. “I was lucky in that respect,” he says. “I also had the diction.” There were two words, though, that he had to work on: “ ‘Washington.’ I pronounced it WARSH-ing-ton. And VEE-hi-cle — I had to smooth that out.
In most other ways, however, he reaped the benefits of small-town Middle America, and that included his work ethic, which would serve him well in what would become a globetrotting career in journalism. In his 1983 memoir, Kurtis writes about ending his childhood days “dog-tired, caked with sweat and hay dust, weak-kneed from hoisting hundred-pound bales in hundred-degree temperatures.”
On his 16th birthday, he had applied for a work permit from the State of Kansas that granted him access to his first broadcasting job: a catchall gig at Independence’s only radio station. In a small studio above the town’s movie theater, he served as not only the sportscaster but also the disc jockey and studio engineer. He even swept the floors after his shift. To some, it might have seemed two-bit. “To me, it was Hollywood,” Kurtis says.
He spent the next few years working at bigger stations in Topeka and taking classes at the University of Kansas, 30 minutes away in Lawrence. He was also dating Helen Scott, whom he had met in high school. She attended Pittsburg State in southern Kansas, and each weekend Kurtis would make the two-and-a-half-hour drive down Highway 69 to pay her court.
Upon earning his bachelor’s in journalism, Kurtis began to harbor doubts about a future on the airwaves. For a safety net, after a six-month hitch in the Marine Corps, he opted to study law at Washburn University in Topeka. By this time, he and Helen were married, and Helen was working as a teacher.
“She put me through law school,” he recalls. His final year, the two welcomed a baby girl, Mary Kristin (four years later, they added a boy, Scott), and just before graduating in 1966, Kurtis accepted a job with a personal injury law firm in Wichita.
It was while preparing for the bar exam that a 25-year-old Kurtis agreed to fill in on an early-evening TV newscast in Topeka. A friend of his, a reporter, wanted to get a head start on a vacation. What could possibly happen? That night, June 8, 1966, an F5 tornado — a twister so fierce it can generate winds over 200 miles per hour, enough to strip bark from a tree — roared into Topeka and changed Kurtis’s life forever.
At just after 7 p.m., Kurtis broke into programming with a bulletin that had been thrust into his hands: The massive tornado, which had flattened an apartment complex near Topeka, was now bouncing and churning toward downtown. Kurtis’s mind flashed to his wife and 6-month-old daughter at home. Tornado warnings were frequent in these parts — issued so often that they had created a boy-who-cried-wolf syndrome. How, Kurtis wondered, could he convince listeners that a catastrophe was looming? “For God’s sake,” he instinctually blurted, “take cover!”
The storm leveled large portions of Topeka, leaving 17 dead and hundreds more injured. Without the urgency in Kurtis’s voice, the death toll might have been higher. By the time it was all over, Kurtis had spent 24 hours straight on the air, part of that time devoted to reading the names of survivors for worried relatives whose phone lines were down. His performance under pressure earned him more than attaboys from city officials. Within months, he got a call up to the big leagues: WBBM-TV in Chicago. The station wanted him as a street reporter.
When it comes to the career of someone who has been famous for so long, it’s easy to forget the foundation on which that celebrity was built. An entire generation probably thinks of Kurtis as that guy in the Anchorman movies or the Michael Phelps AT&T commercials or A&E’s Cold Case Files. But anyone unaware of his journalism bona fides should know these things about Bill Kurtis:
He reported on the local riots that followed the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
He covered the 1970–71 trial of Charles Manson, which, in terms of sensationalism, rivals that of O.J. Simpson.
He won a national Emmy in 1976 for an in–depth investigation of the effects of Agent Orange on Vietnam vets.
In 1980, at the height of the Iran hostage crisis, he found his way into Tehran through an Iranian émigré. His reports for WBBM cemented the station’s reputation as a place to turn for far more than local weather.
That same year, he wrote an exposé for the New York Times Magazine on the more than 8,000 Vietnamese children conceived by American soldiers and left behind by them at the war’s end. The article got attention in the highest reaches of the U.S. government, forcing the Nixon administration to address the issue.
It was in the anchor’s seat, though, that Kurtis established himself as an icon in Chicago. After four years as a WBBM reporter and three in Los Angeles as a CBS national correspondent, Kurtis had been persuaded to return to Chicago in 1973 to help helm WBBM’s 10 p.m. newscast. The show’s ratings were languishing at the time, and the hope was to shake things up by pairing Kurtis with Walter Jacobson, a gritty, fiery gadfly of a political reporter with a reputation for making the powers that be squirm — both in the newsroom and at City Hall. “He didn’t want to team up with me,” Jacobson says now, laughing. “And I could see why. He saw me as a potential problem.”
Jacobson himself balked when WBBM’s news director floated the idea: “I said, ‘My God, you’re crazy. You can’t have a Jewish anchorman in Chicago. This is an Irish town.’ Not only that, I had no anchor skills.” But the idea of working with Kurtis appealed to Jacobson: “He was not only good, he was very smart. Very articulate. He knew everything, he was tireless, and he was willing to look into anything. So I said, ‘Well, if Kurtis wants to do this, I’m game.’ ”
The station tinkered with the traditional format, placing the anchor desk in the newsroom. “You saw all the reporters at their desks, you saw all the assignment desks, the phones were ringing,” recalls Jacobson. “There were times when I would get a call in the middle of the broadcast to complain about what I was saying. They would switch the call to me and I’d answer right on-air. None of this was an act.”
The two proved a perfect pair: Kurtis, the dignified anchor with the straight delivery, and Jacobson, the scrappy, shoot-from-the-hip conscience of the people. “We developed such a rapport, such a closeness, that he could sense in my face that something was coming that might cause us some trouble with the viewers and maybe embarrass him,” Jacobson says. That’s when he’d get a little tap under the desk from Kurtis. “I’d realize, ‘Jesus, Walter, be careful.’ ”
The combination clicked for viewers too. The newscast slowly rose from worst to first in the ratings. As close as the two seemed onscreen, though, they rarely socialized off. “We were not like Huntley-Brinkley,” says Jacobson of the former NBC News coanchors who were known for their off-camera friendship. “More like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.” Even today, they don’t often see each other. “But we love each other.”
Just as Kurtis was finding his footing as an anchor, he was dealing with a devastating development at home. In 1975, doctors diagnosed his wife, Helen, with breast cancer. “It was very aggressive,” Kurtis recalls. Worry touched every aspect of their lives. “You wake up in the morning and it’s sunny, and you say, ‘Wow, what a great day.’ And then you realize, ‘Oh, it can never be a great day, because we still have cancer,’ ” says Kurtis. “For two years, I hung on every potential or experimental drug. Nothing worked.”
In the late spring of 1977, Kurtis was in Africa covering a tribal massacre when he received a call that Helen had taken a turn for the worse. He returned to find her in a coma. “Down to the last day, the doctors said that they wanted to try another experimental drug. I said, ‘Of course.’ ” Toward the end, Helen emerged from the coma. Kurtis recalls her final hours: “I was there holding her hand when she whispered from her bed, ‘I’m dying,’ and then closed her eyes.”
On top of the grief came the realization that he was now a single parent. Mary Kristin was now 11; Scott, 6. Kurtis admits he was ill equipped for the role. “I was a product of the 1950s, where my mother did everything,” he says. “So I had never cooked a meal. My kitchen experience amounted to pouring cereal into a bowl.” He was determined to learn. The next few years were “nannies and school,” with Kurtis devoting nearly every spare moment to the kids — “and that’s 90 percent of your life,” he says. Soon, though, a quirky young woman at the station would become a major part of that life.
Donna La Pietra had been a radio news writer in Pittsburgh before moving to Chicago in 1975 at age 26. “I’d been looking for another job in radio, but when I turned on the TV, here was this incredible news coming from CBS. I was stunned by how great it was, the commentary from Walter Jacobson.” She wound up getting hired by WBBM as a writer, and in relatively short order, she worked her way up to executive producer in charge of the Kurtis-Jacobson broadcast.
As impressed as she’d been with Jacobson, La Pietra had harbored doubts about Kurtis. “I fancy myself a good judge of people,” she says. “I think you can read pretty clearly who someone is from watching them, get a sense of their personality, their depth. But I got Bill wrong.” It was the look, she now admits — “just that Ken doll perfect anchor look.”
Her view changed quickly. “I knew how wrong about Bill I was on the first day. He was genuinely welcoming. He said, ‘I’m delighted to have you on board,’ which was not the universal feeling. People in the newsroom did not welcome me with open arms. They didn’t get how someone with such little experience got a job as a writer in a major market.”
Still, there wasn’t much reason to believe their relationship would advance beyond the professional. “It was pretty clear we worked well together, but it wasn’t as if there was some immediate ‘Wow!’ ” La Pietra recalls. Kurtis agrees: “We were so opposite.” She was East Coast, very political, and given to the flamboyant fashions of the times — bell-bottoms, fringe shirts, long hair. And Kurtis? “He was someone who colored inside the lines,” La Pietra says. “He was out of Kansas, for God’s sake.”
After his wife died, Kurtis and La Pietra began to develop a relationship outside the newsroom, but just as pals at first. “It was me, Gene Siskel, and Bill. We would hang out at the China Doll and the Ding-a-Ling,” she says. At these journalists’ watering holes in the Loop, work dominated their conversations. “We were always thinking of ideas, looking at the next day’s news.”
The tale of how Kurtis and La Pietra fell in love sounds like a classic Hollywood meet-cute. Explains Kurtis: “I had lost a contact lens in the makeup room, and Donna was helping me try to find it. Well, we were both on our hands and knees and had one of those moments where we both looked up. And it was kind of like we saw each other for the first time.” Adds La Pietra: “Everything just changed, where all the work kind of thing just fell away and it became very personal.”
The 38-year engagement that followed grew into something of a running joke in Chicago power circles. “We had talked about getting married many times over the years,” La Pietra says. “It was just a little bit of that hippie in me that was kind of like, What does a paper do? What does it mean? The truth was, we were married in everything but the letter of the law.”
But over time her thinking evolved, the result of practicalities and a softening toward the institution. “Our accountant, for instance, kept saying, ‘You know you’re both losing a deduction.’ I guess there were a lot of things in our lives that I was trying to tidy up these past years. Oh my gosh, it sounds so unromantic to say we just wanted to tidy things up. In the end, literally, I made up my mind, and Bill said, ‘Sure, why not?’ ”
La Pietra decided that if they were going to get married, they would do it their way, with a little whimsy. They prevailed upon Illinois Supreme Court justice Anne Burke, a mutual friend, to marry them in her courtroom in the Thompson Center. Four couples were invited. The prosecution and defense tables served as the bride’s and groom’s sides. La Pietra’s vows took the form of a mock legal argument that included the introduction of photos and memorabilia as “exhibits A through K.” Kurtis was given a chance for a rebuttal, which Burke rejected out of hand. The couple exited to Etta James’s “At Last.”
After a wildly successful nine-year run, the Kurtis-Jacobson newscast came to an end in 1982, when Kurtis got a call from the network. He soon found himself in New York, anchoring CBS’s two national morning news shows with Diane Sawyer.
Apprehension, however, marred what had been a lifelong dream. “I was so worried about my journalistic reputation that I didn’t allow myself to enjoy it,” he told the Sun-Times in 2001. “I felt like the ghost of Edward R. Murrow was standing over my shoulder. When you find yourself on a cooking set or interviewing a starlet, you wonder, What would he do?” Almost as taxing was the physical toll of waking up at 3 every morning.
The newscasts weren’t working. Kurtis knew it, and CBS knew it. After three years, the network declined to renew his contract. His run as a national anchor came to an abrupt halt, but in that time Kurtis had found what would become his true calling: documentary news shows. For all the negatives of the job, Kurtis had been granted the opportunity to create a group of in-depth reports, like one about a TWA plane that nearly crashed because of a mechanical glitch.
He returned to Chicago and formed Kurtis Productions to do voice-over work and produce documentaries and TV shows. He laughs today at how in over his head he was at first. “I didn’t even know how much it cost to rent or buy an editing suite. We’re reporters, we’re not trained as entrepreneurs, so I had to teach myself.”
Not only did he figure things out, but he entered a prolific period that would ultimately define the second half of his career. In the past three decades, he has produced more than 500 documentaries and episodes of TV series such as PBS’s Peabody Award–winning The New Explorers and the A&E hits Cold Case Files and American Justice, and he has narrated twice that many. A 2001 documentary he produced for A&E, Investigative Reports: Death Penalty on Trial, won a Thurgood Marshall Journalism Award, honoring excellence in capital punishment coverage. (He returned to anchoring for a stretch starting in 2010, when WBBM paired him up with Jacobson again. But the broadcast never recaptured the magic of the earlier years, and the experiment ended after three years.)
Over his career Kurtis had carefully burnished his reputation for trustworthiness. So he hesitated when he got a call from Hollywood in 2003. Adam McKay was directing a spoof of 1970s TV news and felt Kurtis would be the perfect narrator. McKay had lived in Chicago from 1990 to 1995 and heard Kurtis often. “My friends and I marveled at his commanding presence and voice,” he says. “To us, he was the Man.”
Kurtis was intrigued but wary. “I thought if it was bad it could be a career ender,” he says. Seeking advice, he called up his friend Harold Ramis, the late comedian and director of Caddyshack and National Lampoon’s Vacation. “What’s the buzz you’re hearing about this?” Kurtis asked.
“Well, you never know when it’s going to be good or bad,” Kurtis remembers Ramis saying, “but good people are involved. I’d go ahead, what the heck.”
Kurtis boarded a plane for Hollywood to officially read for the part, but the decision had all but been made. The director knew his instincts were right when, with the Anchorman cast gathered, he asked Kurtis if there was anything he wouldn’t say in the role and Kurtis immediately answered, “Penis?”
Another painful experience in his personal life, however, tempered the professional fun. Something was going on with Scott — something serious and frightening. “He was such a cute kid,” Kurtis says. “So smart and good-looking, with curly hair.” But beneath the surface he was struggling.
His issues first manifested in 1990, when 19-year-old Scott decided to take a motorcycle trip to Anchorage, Alaska, with friends to work for a stint at a cannery. A few days after he left, Kurtis received a call from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. “He was at a small town on the way, sleeping in an abandoned car in a kind of a junkyard,” Kurtis recalls. “They said, ‘Does he have a history of mental illness?’ That was the first time that that phrase had been used in connection with Scott. I said, ‘No,’ but then started to think about it and said, ‘It’s possible.’ ” The police put Scott on a bus home.
Doctors diagnosed him with paranoid schizophrenia, and at that moment, Kurtis plunged into a desperate search to help his son. “We went through all the drugs — lithium and others. But they only masked the hallucinations.” And Scott bristled at the side effects, which, with one medication, included significant weight gain.
Kurtis indulged several of his son’s whims in hopes that the young man could find some purpose and relief. At one point, for example, Scott wanted to become a long-haul truck driver in the Pacific Northwest. Kurtis paid for his training, and Scott even earned a certificate. But that pursuit fizzled, as did most of his notions, and both the family and doctors agreed that the best thing would be to allow Scott to live on the family cattle ranch in Kansas. Police and friends from the nearby town could keep an eye on him, and Scott could avoid institutionalization.
Then, early one morning in 2009, Mary Kristin drove out to the ranch, concerned that she hadn’t heard from her brother. Indeed, she discovered his body inside the house. He was 38. Contrary to much speculation, the cause of death was not suicide, Kurtis says, but complications — including kidney failure, hypertension, and diabetes — from Scott’s medication-related weight gain.
Kurtis remains dry-eyed, for the most part, as he relates the story. But he pauses near the end, the Voice rendered silent for a long moment. “You know, I’m an optimist, and I’ve had a great life,” he finally says. “But my great secret is, there is no closure.”
It’s early on a Thursday evening and a throng of fans, some wearing Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me! caps and T-shirts, file noisily into the 455-seat auditorium on the lower level of Chase Tower in the Loop. As the show is about to begin taping, several people stop by a life-size cardboard cutout of Kurtis and Sagal for a selfie.
Until his retirement in 2014, Carl Kasell, who died in April, played the part of the official judge and scorekeeper on the WBEZ-produced show. Kurtis would fill in for him at times and seemed a natural to take over. The only question was whether he would. “Given his accomplishments, the world in which he worked and everything he had done, I thought the last thing he would want to do is spend his Thursdays with our dumb radio show,” says Sagal. “God knows — to put it mildly — public radio can’t pay his rate, right? So I was like, ‘You can ask him, but he’s never gonna do it.’ They asked him, and he said, ‘When do I show up?’ He was so excited to do it. He remains excited to do it. I was telling this story, I think onstage, and he said, ‘You’re going to have to drag me outta here by my feet.’ He’s having the time of his life.”
Kurtis gets some of the biggest reactions of the night. “I’m just a legendary anchormannnn,” he says, reading from the scripted show introduction, “looking for his anchor BA-BYYYYYYY.”
Later, when I ask Sagal why the audience goes nuts for Kurtis, he explains the phenomenon thusly: “Our crowd, they’re week-to-week fans, and they’re always excited to see certain members of our panel. But there’s always a contingent, and they’re people 40 or maybe even a little older than that, who grew up in Chicago during Bill’s reign as the voice of local news, and they are staring at him like it’s amazing because there he is in the flesh.”
After the taping, the cast sticks around for a Q&A session with the audience. Sagal and regular panelist Paula Poundstone get their fair share of attention, but invariably the crowd wants to hear from Kurtis. “We actually had a woman who raised her hand and said she was living in Topeka during the famous twister,” recalls Sagal. “And she actually looked at him and said, ‘You saved my life.’ ”
On another occasion, an audience member asked Kurtis what one word he never gets to say on the air but would like to. His answer, delivered in his inimitable rumble, brought down the house: “Fuuuck.”
Still, I couldn’t help wondering what Kurtis got out of this — why someone of his stature and, more to the point, with his breakneck schedule would lend his voice — the Voice — to an endeavor that, while wildly popular, seems a bit off-brand. I saw the answer later, when the audience lined up 30, 40 deep for autographs and photos with the cast. Three hours after the show’s start, as the clock passed 10, Kurtis had a smile and a handshake and occasionally a booming “HA-HA-HAAAA!” for all. “Why, THANK you,” he purred to one fan after another, their delight registering at hearing the Voice up close and Kurtis’s delight registering at their delight. “You’re veeerrrry kiiiind.”
The tours at Mettawa, inside and out, are over. Kurtis has promised me one more cup of coffee (with one more RumChata), but the gentle rhythms of the manor — and that of the hosts — are deceptive. There is much to do today, as every day. On this morning, Kurtis’s son-in-law is about to arrive with a moving truck to haul away an old Wurlitzer organ that’s been taking up storage space for far too long. So when I offer to take a rain check on the coffee, Kurtis graciously accepts.
Lest he appear too much a man of leisure at Mettawa, Kurtis makes clear that he has no intention of retiring anytime soon. And why should he? “Some people get wrinkles in their face and some in their voice and some very lucky people don’t wrinkle anywhere,” La Pietra says. “Bill’s voice hasn’t wrinkled. And he has energy. Besides, what would you be retiring from? There’s nobody to write a letter to and say, ‘Thank you very much for letting me do this all these years, do I get a gold watch or something?’ Everything we do is elective and has been elective. How lucky is that?”
In addition to the production company, there’s another business Kurtis has run since 2005: Tallgrass Beef, which distributes grass-fed, hormone-free organic beef from cows raised on the Kansas ranch to Harry Caray’s and locally owned chain America’s Dog & Burger. But Kurtis has lost money on it through the years, and in 2012 he was fined $400,000 by the Department of Agriculture for falling behind on payments to livestock suppliers. Things were looking up recently, when a huge order from China dropped in his lap. The beef was all ready to ship when President Trump raised tariffs on China, forcing the buyer to cancel. Kurtis shakes his head and throws up his hands when talking about it.
Such moments of frustration are rare for him, however. These days it’s much more common to see on his face a placidity spiced with a hint of merriness. It’s a good match for what La Pietra calls the “best laugh in the entire world.” And Kurtis, as you come to realize if you spend any time with him, loves to laugh. Not chuckle. Not chortle. There is nothing sophisticated about it. And he doesn’t need an audience. “He can have just read something funny,” La Pietra says, “or seen something that tickled him on TV.”
Sometimes the laugh rises like steam from a boiling kettle and erupts at a volume that can be heard throughout the Kurtis Production offices. Other times it’s an atom bomb, detonated without warning. “He will laugh so hard that tears come out of his eyes and he can’t catch his breath,” says La Pietra. “It’s one of those ‘Ha-ha-ha-ha,’ catch his breath, and then he’ll start all over again. It’s infectious. You’ll start laughing just to laugh.”
I heard it often during my visits with him, the Voice high-pitched and free, allowed off the leash in a way that makes its return all the more delicious.