There’s usually a little frisson of excitement if you hang around long enough in the neighborhood of ABC-TV’s headquarters near Lincoln Center.
You never know. Maybe you’ll catch how brilliantly blond Diane Sawyer becomes in raw daylight. Maybe, on the espresso line at the Starbucks at 67th Street and Columbus Avenue, you’ll overhear one of the hunks from All My Children complaining loudly about the paucity of good lines in daytime television for men who are cast to work without shirts.
On June 15, in the late afternoon, a woman wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt that read, “I’ve Been Enlightened,” approached and informed me proudly, “I’ve met Susan Lucci, Whoopi Goldberg and,” judging by the width of her grin, her favorite hero: “Sam Champion.”
Freaky? I suppose, but this really happened as I stood outside ABC-TV’s 7 Lincoln Square office on Columbus Avenue, killing time before I visited Mr. Champion, the popular weatherman for WABC-TV’s 5, 6 and 11 P.M. news broadcasts. After a brief conversation with the lady, it was apparent Mr. Champion wasn’t just the messenger of her weather, he was its creator, or at least its finest collaborator.
In other words, a daily deity. A recent, unscientific study indicates that Mr. Champion is right about the weather way more often than he is wrong. Fans find it very potent in today’s world that when a man says “sunshine” you get sunshine.
When he lowers his voice, and confides, “Rain,” it does. Buckets of it. Puddles in every yard. People used to expect this caliber of integrity from Presidents.
Of course, if it rains on someone’s parade, Mr. Champion becomes the messenger some people want to kill. When a weekend such as the Fourth of July approaches, expectant with promises for sunny outdoor picnics and sparkling clear evening fireworks, Mr. Champion prays his forecast, which he gleans throughout his broadcast day from a combined dispatch of computers and satellite weather services, can flatter and fulfill his fans’ plans. It happens all the time: Someone comes up to him on the street and yells because they don’t like his weather. “Sometimes, if I’m feeling, say, self-righteous,” he smiled, “I’ll take a stand. Most of the time, I just try to walk away.” Or, in winter, Mr. Champion constantly is asked what the weather will be like on a certain Saturday in June when either the woman or her daughter or sister is planning her wedding. “‘It’s gotta be beautiful. It’s gotta be beautiful,’ they tell me. I’ve given up explaining that I don’t know six months in advance what the weather will be like on June 19. So I say, ‘It’s going to be beautiful.’ If I say it with a sense of humor, they get it with a sense of humor. Sometimes, it goes right over them.”
The worst was the summer season a few years ago when it seemed to rain every weekend. Mr. Champion was nearly lynched. “Every Thursday or Friday, I’d do my job and tell the viewers it was going to rain,” he remembered. After a few weekends of this, I began to get letters and phone calls from business people up and down the Jersey shore and in the Hamptons.” Some asked, others threatened. “They said I was ruining their businesses. People would hear the forecast and stay home. I was accused of everything from ruining fishing excursions to not selling burgers.” He shook his head. “Well, I’m not doing it on purpose. I’m not making it rain.”
If he’s not, then it must be the Russian Weather Machine. “Ten years ago, people didn’t know as much about weather as they do today. People are really into weather now for some reason,” Mr. Champion said. There’s the Weather Channel now. We’ve become a culture of insomniacs who stay awake at night watching it instead of the moon and stars. “They used to say such goofy things to me, like, ‘I think it’s the Russian Weather Machine that’s causing the foul weather.’ Now strangers come up to me and say, ‘ Jeez , that jet stream just won’t allow any system to move, will it?’”
The forecast was stormy for success in 1988 when, at the tender age of 26, Mr. Champion came to WABC from his last TV gig in sunny Florida. “Lots of people told me I wouldn’t make it. That I was too naïve for this town,” he recalled. “That this town would chew me up and spit me right out. I’m still surprised I’m here. I’m very grateful. I come into work every day to prove myself and to make my forecast right.” It’s not a good morning if he wakes up and sees he was wrong. “But my friends have learned to put up with me when I go to the window and shout, ‘Shit, it’s a sunny day! I said it was going to be cloudy!”’
People who watch a lot of television tend to feel quite intimate with this endearing guy, who’s beamed right into their bedrooms.
“They’re lying there naked in bed watching you before they go to sleep, and I’m right there on the TV, so they feel close to [me],” explained Mr. Champion. He regularly receives proposals ranging from innocent kids who would like him to marry their mothers to bolder expressions from adults who would like to open up some new channels for Mr. Champion. As affable as he is, he can’t marry every stranger, so Mr. Champion responds with basic notes and “thanks the viewer for watching.”
Fans expect good hair and bone structure from their celebrity godheads, and Sam Champion qualifies. The jaunty 37-year-old Kentucky native does his own makeup. “Start out with the five o’clock news not wearing much, just some powder. But by the end of the show” at 11:30, “after layers and layers of powder to take the shine off, you look kabuki,” Mr. Champion said casually. He doesn’t contour, he doesn’t know how, he said. For television people, makeup is about as racy a topic as plain yogurt.
Sam Champion lives on the Upper West Side and spends weekends, weather permitting, on a 50-foot Sea Ray water vessel he bought last year. He tries to work out daily at a gym to compensate for “some strange food likes,” he confided. “I keep a bowl of chocolate chip cookie dough in the refrigerator with a big wooden spoon. I walk around the house eating it.” He wears dungarees and a T-shirt to work and then changes into one of several Canali suits he keeps in his office for his on-air forecasts as well as the numerous charity events he supports with public appearances between broadcasts. Introduced several years ago to Canali’s director, Martin Bradshaw, by a mutual friend at GQ magazine, Mr. Champion buys new suits throughout the year, and is careful to rotate them so he doesn’t wear the same one two days in a row. According to Mr. Bradshaw, Mr. Champion wore the first three-button suit ever seen on New York or national network news. “We’re news. I buy them,” he said about his collection of Canali suits.
Besides the 5, 6, and 11 P.M. news, Mr. Champion sometimes does the weather on Good Morning America .
Mr. Champion has a fondness for neckties, which he buys at Bergdorf’s and Barneys. Raincoats are O.K., but he doesn’t like umbrellas, although many are sent his way. “I like getting wet,” he said.
Billy’s List: Quiz time!
1. According to Women’s Wear Daily , who recently explained the sale of her house by saying, “I’m downsizing for the millennium–just one gardener”?
a. Nan Kempner.
b. Lynn Wyatt.
c. Julia Koch.
2. Although the reputable Italian newspaper later corrected its report, whom did the Corriere della Sera say had gone to Italy to work for bespoke shoemaker Stefano Bemer?
a. Daniel Day-Lewis.
b. John Malkovich.
c. Matthew Modine.
3. What is The Woman Who Cut Off Her Leg at the Maidstone Club ?
a. Julia Slavin’s debut short-story collection from Holt.
b. Judy Licht Della Femina’s impassioned essay about anti-Semitism in the Hamptons published in Redbook ‘s July issue.
c. The title of one of Marsden Hartley’s paintings on view through July 25 at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, L.I.
Answers: (1) b; (2) a; (3) a.