FICTION: “Behind the Candelabra” featured a retro news set seemingly influenced by WPIX’s “Action News” design. The anchorman has more than an air of WPIX’s Pat Harper.
“Behind the Candelabra,” the hit HBO movie about Liberace and his former lover Scott Thorson, offered a delightful surprise find for the editor of The Retrologist.
When I’m not photographing vintage signs and other old-school gems for this site, I’m working at WPIX-TV Channel 11, where I am the station’s digital content manager. I grew up watching this station, and am familiar with its news sets going back to the 1970s, which is why it was such a thrill to see a news set in the Liberace movie that appears inspired by WPIX’s 1977-84 “Action News” set.
I’ve also spent considerable time combing through WPIX’s tape and film archives, which date to 1948. In fact, I’ve seen a few of these classic “Action News” programs just in the past few weeks.
THE REAL DEAL: Pat Harper anchors the “Action News” on Aug. 14, 1977. Compare to her fictional counterpart, top. Note the look and placement of the “11” on the wall and the “Action News” TV screen.
Which brings me to the matter at hand. Look at the screen grab at the top of this post. It’s from “Behind the Candelabra” and shows a fictional anchorwoman reporting Liberace’s death in February 1987.
The set is very much in the spirit of WPIX’s old “Action News” studio. And the anchorwoman could easily be mistaken for longtime WPIX anchor Pat Harper, above.
THE REAL DEAL: Steve Bosh anchors the WPIX Action News in 1977. Again, note the similarities to his fictional counterpart, even the angle of the wall above his left shoulder. Note the same on the fictional Liberace set.
Carefully compare the fictional set with the real “Action News” set photos. Notice the “11” logo, which is the same font and design. (The fictional “11” is a little thinner.)
That “11” was part of the 11 Alive station branding WPIX used back during these years.
Notice the TV set behind the anchor. Both the fictional and original say “Action News,” and both the logo and the TV set are in the same location.
THE REAL DEAL: Bill Jorgensen anchors the WPIX Action News in July 1981. The similarity with the Liberace set is breathtaking.
Also, notice another similarity in the set design. In the fictional photo, note the slashing beige background behind the anchorwoman, and how it slopes down against a blue background. That design feature was also part of the WPIX “Action News” set, as seen above in the photo with Steve Bosh.
When I shared the Liberace movie screen grab with long-time WPIX employees, they were amazed and not a little flattered. One station veteran even exclaimed, “That’s Pat Harper” before doing a double-take.
For me, this little gem was the highlight of a very memorable film.
My only quibble? This was no longer WPIX’s news set in February 1987, when Liberace died. At this point, WPIX’s news department had rebranded as INN (Independent Network News) and the “Action News” set was a memory, existing only on 3/4-inch videotape.
So … was HBO inspired by the WPIX “Action News” set? I put the question to a spokeswoman, and here’s what I heard back:
“I spoke with our production designer, Howard Cummings, and he explained that he and his team did tons of research for this film, and saw lots and lots of ’70’s-era newsroom sets. We think they were able to accurately capture the look and feel of the era, but the scene was not intended to depict an actual newsroom or real people.”
Fair enough. But to the discerning eye, the DNA of the old WPIX set is hard to miss — indeed, it was a pleasure and surprise to see.
— Rolando Pujol