Shales, Thomas William 1948-

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SHALES, Thomas William 1948-

(Tom Shales)

PERSONAL: Born November 3, 1948, in Elgin, IL; son of Clyde LeRoy and Hulda Louise (Reko) Shales. Education: Attended Elgin Community College, 1968-70; American University, B.A., 1973.

ADDRESSES: Home—4200 North 39th St., Arlington, VA 22207. Offıce—Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071.

CAREER: Journalist, film and television critic, and entertainment industry historian. WRMN Radio, Elgin, IL, disc jockey, beginning 1966. Washington Examiner, Washington, DC, entertainment editor, 1968-71; Washington Post, Washington, DC, arts reporter, 1971-77, television editor and chief television critic, 1977—; National Public Radio, modular arts service, 1970-79, film critic on "Morning Edition," 1979. Coeditor and movie critic of high school newspaper; movie critic of college newspaper. Adjunct professor of film, American University, 1978. Appeared on television specials, including The 45th Alfred I. Dupont-Columbia University Awards (Public Broadcasting Service [PBS], 1987), Our Neighbor, Fred Rogers (PBS, 1990), This Is MST3K (Comedy Central, 1992), and Public Television—Public Debate with Charlie Rose (PBS, 1992). Appeared as guest cohost on Siskel and Ebert and the Movies, February 20, 1999, and March 6, 1999. Also appeared as himself in the movie Shandling Talks . . . No Flipping! (USA, 2002), and in The Larry Sanders Show episode "Where Is the Love?" (November 27, 1996). Interviewee on television shows including Biography's "Larry King" (Arts and Entertainment, 1995), and Frontline's "Who's Afraid of Rupert Murdoch?" (PBS, 1995).

AWARDS, HONORS: American University, Distinguishing Alumnus award, 1978; Washington Journalism Review, "Best Critic Writing for a Newspaper," 1986; Pulitzer Prize, 1988, for Washington Post reviews and articles on the public's perception of news events, 1988; American Society of Newspaper Editors, Distinguished Writing Award, 1988; selected as Washington's best newspaper reporter by readers of Washingtonian magazine, 1990.



(With Kevin Brownlow and others) The American Film Heritage: Impressions from the American Film Institute Archives, foreword by Gregory Peck, Acropolis Books (Washington, DC), 1972.

On the Air (columns), Summit Books (New York, NY), 1982.

Legends: Remembering America's Greatest Stars, Random House (New York, NY), 1989.

(With James Andrew Miller) Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 2002.

Author of "On the Air," a column syndicated by Washington Post Writers Group, 1978—. Live from New York was also released as a sound recording (HighBridge, 2002).

SIDELIGHTS: Thomas William Shales, better known as Tom Shales, is one of contemporary journalism's most acerbic and incisive critics of television. Since 1977, his thrice-weekly column "On the Air" has treated readers of the Washington Post to candid and illuminating commentary on video productions and networks. "The Shales style is a fast-paced blend of insight, humor, and an almost possessive affection for the medium," reported one Time contributor, who added that Shales is television's most admired critic in newsprint. Jeff Greenfield, in a review of Shales' collected columns, On the Air, expressed a similar opinion in the Washington Post Book World: "As a critic of TV entertainment, Shales is head and shoulders above anyone else." And John Powers, who reviewed On the Air for Harper's, hailed Shales' criticism as "loud and rough and funny."

In addition to his printed criticisms, Shales has also been a film critic for National Public Radio's "Morning Edition." He also coauthored, with many other writers, The American Film Heritage: Impressions from the American Film Institute Archives. The book contains historical profiles and essays on several old films and features numerous stills from the works. A critic in Best Sellers called it "a delicious sampler that will delight all who are interested in the history and art of film."

In 2002, Shales and coauthor James Andrew Miller, journalist and former executive producer in television, compiled information from a large number of interviews with cast members from the enormously popular sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live for the publication of Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live. The two authors interviewed cast, crew, writers, guest hosts, producers, musical guests, and others affiliated with the show from its beginning through its twenty-seven years, including memorable earlier cast members Dan Akroyd, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Laraine Newman, Billy Crystal, Bill Murray, and Martin Short, to more contemporary cast members such as Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, Mike Meyers, Dana Carvey, David Spade, Cheri Oteri, Will Ferrell, and Molly Shannon. The book also pays tribute to the cast members who contributed an abundance of comedy to the show before meeting untimely deaths: Jim Belushi and Chris Farley, who each died from a drug overdose, Gilda Radner, who passed away after a battle with ovarian cancer, and Phil Hartman, whose life was taken by homicide. "His ambition was just overwhelming," Curtin discloses about Belushi, "as was his desire to self-medicate."

For Live from New York, cast members of various seasons provided Shales and Miller with decades of dirt, revealing rivalries, affairs, addictions, and betrayals, as well as friendships, love, and "good times." The authors relate the story of Akroyd's affair with producer Lorne Michaels' wife, Rosie Schuster, a writer for the show. Readers also learn of Akroyd's often exceedingly friendly relationship with Radner, who suffered from an eating disorder, and with original cast member Laraine Newman, who battled a heroin addiction. The authors compile several actors' accounts of Chase's behavior and crew members' animosity and disgust toward him and his larger-than-life persona. Chase's actions hurt both cast members and guest hosts, and once provoked Murray into a fistfight with the star moments before the show's opening. "Even those who think they have heard all the stories will be impressed by the work Shales and Miller have done," reported Booklist's Ilene Cooper in a review of Live from New York. Stories such as these are what make the book "the juiciest treasure trove of backstage gossip, sex, and drugs since The Andy Warhol Diaries," expressed one Publishers Weekly reviewer. Cast members also reveal some of the show's worst guest hosts, including Jerry Lewis and Chase, and reminisce on various long-running sketches, the Coneheads, the Blues Brothers, Wayne and Garth, and Mary Katherine Gallagher. Past guest hosts such as Christopher Walken, Tom Hanks, and Alec Baldwin also contribute engaging stories of their short stints as members of the show. "The secret of being the host of the show is to concern yourself only with the monologue," Hanks told Shales and Miller. "Because if you have a good monologue, everybody thinks the entire show was great." The book's final chapter is dedicated entirely to Michaels and various perceptions of him, from father figure to egocentric to friend, according to those who have worked most closely with the renowned executive producer.

Time contributor Lev Grossman designated the book "a guilty pleasure of the highest order," asserting, "At its trashy worst, this is good gossip. At its best, Live from New York is a frank, perceptive group biography of smart, ultra-verbal people loving and hating one another under intense pressure." Grossman also pointed out that the result of the book's many stories is "something funnier, sadder, seedier, more moving, and more alive than Saturday Night Live ever was."

"The strengths and weaknesses of an oral history are the stories," wrote Jeff Baker in a Houston Chronicle Online review of the book. "Shales and Miller provide only the briefest of introductions and explanations, and when they do step in, they sometimes overstate." Baker remarked that the book was "too long" and "too much about the profitable, uncomfortable relationship between NBC and Saturday Night Live." Baker concluded, however, that "there are also dozens of great stories." Correspondingly, contributor Eric Boehlert noted, "oral histories are all about recollections, and Live from New York captures page after page of witty and wonderful ones." Boehlert thought that the book's "only real fault is that it takes SNL so seriously, which shows in the book's length, coming in at roughly 100 pages too long. . . . Shales and Miller could have done a better job stamping out redundancies." However, like Baker, Boehlert remarked that "Shales and Miller uncover all sorts of untold or overlooked nuggets."

"I guess we're kind of boring. No romances, no drugs," Oteri, who left the show in 2000, admitted to the authors. She attributed this statement to the fact that those affiliated with the show are instead busy "thinking up characters," as did their predecessors, who, at the show's beginning, struggled to create the freshest and funniest show on television and succeeded beyond their most optimistic dreams.

For a previously published interview, see entry in Contemporary Authors, Volume 112, 1985, pp. 439-442.



Almanac of Famous People, 8th edition, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2003.

Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television, Volume 15, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1996.

Shales, Tom, and James Andrew Miller, Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 2002.


Best Sellers, December 1, 1972.

Booklist, October 1, 2002, Ilene Cooper, review of Live from New York, p. 274.

Broadcasting & Cable, September 26, 1994, Don West and John Eggerton, interview with Tom Shales, pp. 34-38.

Entertainment Weekly, September 27, 2002, Ken Tucker, "Joker's Wild: It's Revealing, It's Funny, It's Mesmerizing, It's Live from New York, A Behind-the-Laughs History of Saturday Night Live," review of Live from New York, p. 78.

Harper's, December, 1982.

Interview, January, 1983.

Library Journal, November 15, 2002, David M. Lisa, review of Live from New York, p. 75.

New Yorker, December 2, 2002, Malcolm Gladwell, "Group Think," review of Live from New York, p. 102.

Publishers Weekly, September 9, 2002, review of Live from New York, p. 54; December 2, 2002, audio book review of Live from New York, p. 22.

Reason, February, 2003, Steve Kurtz, "Liberating Late Night: Saturday Night Live vs. the Censors," review of Live from New York, pp. 53-56.

Saturday Review, December 16, 1972.

Time, June 8, 1981; October 14, 2002, Lev Grossman, "And They All Hate Chevy: A History of Saturday Night Live Offers a Frank and Fascinating Look at Life inside a Comedy Sweatshop," review of Live from New York, p. 80.

Washington Post Book World, November 12, 1982.


Houston Chronicle, (November 15, 2002), Jeff Baker, "'Saturday Night' Special: Juicy Stories Make 'SNL' History an Amusing Read," review of Live from New York.

Internet Movie Database, (May 7, 2004), "Tom Shales."

Museum of Broadcast Communications, (May 10, 2004), "Saturday Night Live: U.S. Comedy Variety Program."

Rotten Tomatoes, (May 7, 2004), "Tom Shales.", (January 19, 2003), Eric Boehlert, review of Live from New York.

Saturday Night Live Unoffıcial Web site, (May 10, 2004), "Casts by Season."

Time Warner Bookmark, (January 16, 2003), "The Authors: Tom Shales," "Press Release: Live from New York," and description of Live from New York.

Washington Post Online, (May 7, 2004), "Tom Shales: Style Columnist."

Washington Post Writers Group, (May 7, 2004), "Tom Shales."*