Viewpoint: Neil Armstrong, unscripted TV star

In the spirit of revisiting the Apollo moon landing 50 years later, here’s a personal reminiscence. In the books, articles and documentaries, we’re told that Neil Armstrong was a reclusive figure ...
July 18, 2019

In the spirit of revisiting the Apollo moon landing 50 years later, here’s a personal reminiscence.

In the books, articles and documentaries, we’re told that Neil Armstrong was a reclusive figure — a reluctant hero who shunned the media, refusing to succumb to celebrity status. The first man on the moon didn’t seem to cash in on his singular accomplishment, one of the greatest in history. But I’m here to tell you that Neil Armstrong was one of the first unscripted TV stars, even after what was perhaps one of the biggest television events in history. In the early 1990s, in what was his only regular TV gig, he took a giant leap and hosted a series that I supervised at A&E called First Flights.

Instead of the taciturn “one small step” astronaut, here was a daredevil pilot, testing out historic airplanes fearlessly, like a Wallenda testing out a wire thousands of feet in the air. His love of airplanes clearly exceeded his desire to remain off-stage.

He started each program with a genial air and gleam in his eye for the camera close up: “Hi, I’m Neil Armstrong. Join me for an adventure through time!” He was as smooth as Tom Bergeron on Dancing with the Stars, and it was no act. His enthusiasm was real. Armstrong had a background as a test pilot with the “right stuff” to take on challenges that killed lesser pilots. He flew treacherous combat missions in the Korean War, once bailing out after facing anti-aircraft fire on a bombing run. He also had a harrowing close call with an X-15, struggling to steer it safely after overshooting the landing base. Even with the danger, he loved the thrill of flying.

As for his TV gig, it wasn’t quite as difficult, though the business end of it was something of a tortured path. Producer Mark Tuttle had sold a similar series to A&E, to be hosted by actor and avid pilot Cliff Robertson. When Robertson backed out, Tuttle had to come up with other options, and fast. He naively wrote a letter to Armstrong asking if the astronaut would be interested. The fact that Tuttle ran his company out of a small Pennsylvania town and not New York or L.A. may have appealed to the wary Armstrong. “He could sense I wouldn’t play the Hollywood game with him,” recalls Tuttle. At their first lunch, they didn’t talk about the moon landing or even much about airplanes. “We mainly talked farming,” Tuttle remembers. He was amused when Armstrong pulled out a bottle of Tabasco to spice up his meal. The deal was done.

The show was an immersive experience with Armstrong looking at — and ultimately trying out — historic aircraft that were risky to fly, with an enthusiast’s appreciation of their pioneering pilots. It had the same appeal, in a milder form, as later docureality shows such as Dangerous Jobs or adventurous stunts such as Free Solo. Armstrong’s series helped establish and embellish a programming template that populated Discovery, History and National Geographic in the years to come.

Producing the series, we learned quickly that Armstrong was a lot savvier and interesting than he had been portrayed in the past. He embraced the production process, scouring each script to make sure the shows were not only accurate but felt natural to him. He also had a goofy side. When it came to his on-camera stand-ups, Armstrong amused Tuttle and the production team by imitating a variety of delivery styles, from a sportscaster to a Midwestern twang.

His media aversion masked a nuanced approach to fame. Though he was serious about protecting his personal life, Armstrong did a number of private appearances for companies such as Chrysler, which we assumed gave him a tidy extra income (First Flights didn’t pay much!). But he never wanted an entourage and shunned any excess attention. As Tuttle recalls, “He enjoyed flying airplanes and being one of the guys.”

At A&E, we eagerly looked forward to promoting a series with a genuine star on the fledgling network. Without paying heed to Armstrong’s professed preference for privacy, A&E’s PR team wanted him to appear on popular outlets such as the Tonight Show. Not a chance. But, probably out of courtesy, he did consent to hobnobbing with advertisers at the network’s Upfront party at New York’s Rainbow Room. I was there, helping the nervous network staff make sure that no one tried to monopolize Armstrong’s time or insult a true hero and family man who probably wouldn’t have done the show if he knew what an Upfront event was — a nightclub full of gawking sponsors and agency staffers all trying to get autographs while munching on cocktail shrimp. And Armstrong hated giving autographs. A&E’s then-CEO managed to maneuver Armstrong through the throng, and we all sat for dinner.

There was, however, a complicating factor. The entertainment that night was a group of up-and-coming comedians who, naturally, enjoyed making fun of anything and everything. To avoid any kind of cultural collision, the A&E staff warned the comedians backstage to not make any references to Armstrong, for fear he may get insulted, walk out or change his mind about a series he didn’t need and attention he didn’t want. We were relieved when the comedians complied — at first — with Larry Miller and Brett Butler bringing down the house without mentioning the giant figure in the room.

But that left the “bad boy” role to Colin Quinn, who began his set with a monologue that had us cringing: “I see Neil Armstrong is in the audience.” We gulped in horror. Quinn continued: “Yeah, he’s walked on the Moon, and you think that’s dangerous? Let me ask you this, Neil: Have you ever taken the D-train?! Now that’s danger!”

The A&E staff froze in horror. Our careers flashed before our eyes, as Quinn had compared the then crime-ridden subway to the first man on the moon’s heroic effort. As the laughter subsided, I looked over at Armstrong.

He was grinning.

I should have known. A comedian’s taunt was nothing compared to stepping on the Moon and risking his life for a world-changing event. Neil Armstrong was indeed a human being who had a sense of humor, and, to my surprise and relief, a professional’s knowledge of the media and how it worked.

Michael Cascio is president and CEO of M&C Media LLC, where he advises selected media and production partners, and produces documentaries. He is also a guest speaker and writer, whose recent article for the Sunday New York Times revealed how his experience as a backstage janitor prepared him for a career in television. At National Geographic, A&E, Animal Planet, and MSNBC, Cascio has won four Emmys, two Oscar nominations and a “Producer of the Year” award.

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