When I first joined CBS News in 1982, typing and answering phones in the Washington bureau, one of the first calls I picked up was from New York, from a producer who said his name was “Elaine Benardos.” Well, it was my first day on the job, and that was my first big blunder. It was actually someone named Lane Venardos, a senior producer for the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather. That was my first encounter with Lane. It wouldn’t be my last. Over the next two decades, his buoyant presence was a constant at CBS, and in my own life. He hired me for my first TV writing job, to scribble copy for Charles Kuralt on a short-lived late night show called “America Tonight.” That was when I first heard him utter his immortal words of inspiration to his staff: “Let’s get out there and scratch that surface!” Years later, I worked as a writer on the live reunion specials for the first several editions of “Survivor,” and he was there, too, a jolly fixture in the control room who had retired from CBS but who had found a surprising new vocation, producing blockbuster finales for reality TV shows.
Over the years, I got to know and appreciate some of the things Lane loved: trains, the circus, “Jeopardy,” Shakey’s Pizza and Steak-and-Shake.
Well, last night, I got word that Lane was gone: he’d suffered a heart attack at his home in Maui. He was 67.
What a life he led. To call him a legend is an understatement. The work this man did was historic, and involved helping to tell some of the greatest stories of our time. Really. We like to say that journalism gives people who work in it a front row seat to history. Well, Lane had a front row seat on the aisle. Just read his CBS biography:
Venardos played an integral, behind-the-scenes role in CBS News coverage of major events and breaking news beginning in 1986, when he was named executive producer of Special Events, eventually becoming the unit’s deputy director, director, and ultimately, vice president, Hard News and Special Events. The job took him across the globe and once into the living rooms of millions of Americans. During special coverage of the events in China’s Tiananmen Square in May 1989 – broadcast live during an interruption of the CBS hit “Dallas” – millions watched the large, bespectacled Venardos arguing with Chinese officials who were trying to shut down his satellite news operation.
He produced most of CBS News’ live coverage of the Persian Gulf War, including “America Tonight,” a weeknight news program he created to maximize coverage of the war broadcast at 11:30 p.m., and anchored by Charles Kuralt and Lesley Stahl. Venardos also supervised coverage of world summits in Moscow, Malta, Iceland, London, Bonn, Rome, Paris, Tokyo and Beijing, in addition to Hirohito’s funeral in Japan in 1989, and the historic meeting between the leaders of China and the Soviet Union that same year in Beijing. He was the executive producer of CBS News coverage of the political campaigns of 1986, ’88, ’90, ’92 and ’98.
Venardos’ documentary work included two highly-acclaimed programs: The CBS News special celebrating the life of Lucille Ball, “Lucy,” produced and broadcast on April 26, 1989, the day of the star’s death; and the seminal documentary “48 Hours on Crack Street,” the two-hour look at the life of crack cocaine addicts during the drug epidemic of the mid-Eighties, for which he won an Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University award.
A little-known fact: Lane was also a Catholic convert. I still cherish an e-mail he sent me in 2008, when he learned I was leaving CBS to work full time for the Church. “If you ever miss the gastrointestinal stress of CBS,” he wrote, “I’m sure the church will provide its own.”
God love you, Lane.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.
RELATED: An appreciation by another former CBS colleague, Joe Peyronnin.