- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 30, 2004

LONDON (AP) — Alistair Cooke, the broadcaster who epitomized highbrow television as host of “Masterpiece Theatre” and whose “Letter from America” was a radio fixture in Britain for 58 years, has died, the British Broadcasting Corp. said yesterday. He was 95.

Mr. Cooke died at his home in New York at midnight, a spokeswoman at the BBC’s press office said. No cause of death was given, but Mr. Cooke retired earlier this month because of heart disease.

“Alistair is a national institution,” Christopher Sarson, the original executive producer of “Masterpiece Theatre,” once said. “He has defined what public television was and is for so many people that it is difficult to imagine life without him.”

Born Alfred Cooke in Salford in northern England in 1908, he earned an honors degree in English from Cambridge University. In 1932, he came to the United States to study at Yale University, and he journeyed across the country by car.

“That trip was an absolute eye-opener for me,” he recalled. “Even then, even in the Depression, there was a tremendous energy and vitality to America. The landscape and the people were far more gripping and dramatic than anything I had ever seen.

“It truly changed me. You see, from then on my interest in the theater began to wane, and I began to take up what I felt was the real drama going on — namely, America itself.”

Returning to England and, having changed his name to Alistair, Mr. Cooke joined the BBC in 1934 as a film critic.

In addition to his BBC work, Mr. Cooke was London correspondent for the NBC network in 1936-37, the Manchester Guardian’s U.N. correspondent from 1945 to 1948, and chief U.S. correspondent of the Guardian until 1972.

He was host of the “Omnibus” television program in the United States from 1952 to 1961, and presented “Masterpiece Theatre” on PBS from 1971 to 1992.

He received four Emmy awards, three George Foster Peabody awards for broadcasting, and he was made an honorary knight commander, Order of the British Empire. It was an honorary award because Mr. Cooke, the consummate Englishman, had become a U.S. citizen in 1941.

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