Jack Perkins, a longtime NBC newscaster who later served as the urbane, deep-voiced host of “Biography” on the A&E cable network, died Monday at his home on Casey Key, Florida. He was 85.
He had Parkinson’s disease, said a son, Eric Perkins.
Early in his career at NBC, Perkins was a foreign correspondent in Asia and helped cover many notable stories of the 1960s, including the Cuban missile crisis, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the Vietnam War.
In 1968, as a California correspondent for NBC, Perkins covered the killing of the president’s brother, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, at a Los Angeles hotel. He went without sleep for almost 36 hours, describing the chaotic events of June 1968, while Kennedy was campaigning for the presidency. Perkins later obtained a two-hour jailhouse interview with Kennedy’s assailant, Sirhan Sirhan.
During his 21 years as a network correspondent, Perkins appeared on “NBC Nightly News,” the “Today” show and other programs. With a penchant for whimsical, well-crafted feature stories, he was sometimes described as NBC’s counterpart to Charles Kuralt at CBS News.
“Putting the mug on camera gets you recognized by strangers, and that’s not unpleasant,” Perkins said in 1986, “but the abiding gratification derives from the writing.”
He became a local news anchor at the Los Angeles NBC affiliate in 1982, then stepped away in 1986, moving with his wife to an island off the coast of Maine. He returned to broadcasting in 1991, drawn by A&E’s early mission to provide serious arts-and-entertainment programming on cable.
At first, Perkins was host of “Time Machine,” a documentary series examining major historical events. After three years, he joined A&E’s “Biography,” sharing hosting duties with actor Peter Graves as the show expanded from one episode a week to five and eventually six.
In his white beard and wire-frame aviator glasses, Perkins was a genial presence on A&E’s flagship series, speaking in a deep, cultivated voice once described as a combination of James Earl Jones and Laurence Olivier. From week to week, he introduced hour-long segments on such diverse historical figures as George Washington, William Shakespeare, Geronimo, Lucrezia Borgia, Eva “Evita” Peron and Baby Face Nelson.
“This was before A&E morphed into a home for reality TV,” Perkins said in 2012, “before it became the channel for ‘Dog the Bounty Hunter’ and Gene Simmons’ family saga.”
“Biography” won numerous Emmy Awards and, for several years, was A&E’s top-rated show, drawing as many as 1.5 million viewers an episode.
“The ratings on that show were interesting,” Perkins told the Venice (Florida) Gondolier in 2015. “As many people watched the show about F. Scott Fitzgerald as watched the one on (serial killer) Jeffrey Dahmer. Marilyn Monroe was popular, too.”
Perkins officially left “Biography” in 1999, but he continued as an intermittent host until 2005. He was such a familiar figure to cable viewers that he was parodied on “Saturday Night Live.”
Jack Morton Perkins was born Dec. 28, 1933, in Cleveland and grew up in Wooster, Ohio. His father was an electrical engineer, his mother a homemaker. As a student at what is now Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Perkins studied political science and religion and worked for the college radio station. In 1954, he began covering the case of Sam Sheppard, an Ohio doctor convicted (and later acquitted) of killing his wife.
Perkins’ work on the Sheppard story put him a year behind in his studies. After graduating from college in 1956, he joined an ABC-TV affiliate in Cleveland. He went to NBC in 1961, becoming a writer for and protege of David Brinkley, the Washington-based anchor of the network’s evening news show, “The Huntley-Brinkley Report.”
“What Brinkley taught me was a master class in how TV news should be written,” Perkins told the Longboat (Florida) Observer in 2012. “Say less, mean more. If a story is dramatic, you don’t have to tell it dramatically. Be simple. Direct. None of this, ‘The nation suffered a great tragedy’ nonsense.”
He settled on Casey Key, a barrier island near Sarasota, Florida, with his wife of 59 years, Casey Key native Mary Jo Keplinger. Other survivors include three children and five grandchildren.
From 2004 to 2012, Perkins was the host of “A Gulf Coast Journal,” a public television show featuring interesting regional characters, which won local Emmys in Florida.
“Of all the opportunities I had in TV,” Perkins said in 2013, “ ‘A Gulf Coast Journal’ was one of my favorites. In a lot of ways, it was the best thing I ever did.”