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Bernard Birnbaum, CBS Award-Winning Producer, Dead at 89

Bernard Birnbaum, an award-winning CBS News producer for legends like Walter Cronkite and Charles Kuralt and who was the senior producer for Kuralt’s landmark 1964 documentary on poverty “Christmas in Appalachia,” died Thursday (26) at the age of 89. He suffered a heart attack while visiting family on Long Island and died at Stony Brook University Medical Center. Mr. Birnbaum had lived in Larchmont, N.Y. since 1956.

Bernard Birnbaum

Bernard Birnbaum

Mr. Birnbaum’s half a century at CBS News was marked by his prolific documentary work on subjects ranging from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy to Watergate, and included a rich body of work on the Vietnam War, for which he traveled to the war zone seven times between 1962 and 1973. His earliest days as a WWII combat cameraman and stints in the European film industry augmented a gift for storytelling which earned him seven Emmys. His last position at CBS News was as producer for the inventive, ground-breaking SUNDAY MORNING news broadcast, a perfect fit for Mr. Birnbaum, who also had a degree in motion pictures and served as assistant director for filmmakers such as Roberto Rossellini and Federico Fellini.

Much of that talent went into his long and fruitful relationship with Charles Kuralt, for whose acclaimed “On the Road with Charles Kuralt” series he was the senior producer for many years. The two came togetherin 1964 on one of the first documentaries to put a face on poverty in America. Viewers of “Christmas in Appalachia,” a half-hour special on the plight of unemployed miners in eastern Kentucky, sent $70,000 to CBS for the families featured. The broadcast won journalism’s coveted Sigma Delta Chi award and came out at the same time President Lyndon Johnson began his much vaunted “War on Poverty.” Some observers have suggested this program and the response to it may have helped shape President Johnson’s actions.

In 1963, Mr. Birnbaum was named an associate producer for the first 30-minute network newscast, “The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite,” just in time to produce coverage of the Kennedy assassination in Dallas.

He would return to the topic several times in his role as a producer for Special Reports, the core unit for CBS News documentaries and “instant specials” on breaking news. It was for this unit he visited Vietnam war zones to produce much of the war documentaries CBS became known for, culminating in his integral work on the special “Vietnam: A War that is Finished.” (April 1975).

Mr. Birnbaum’s most notable work includes: the Emmy-winning “The Senate and the Watergate Affair,” (May 1973); CBS REPORTS: “The American Assassins,” (Nov. 1975); “CBS News Inquiry: The Warren Report,” (June 1967); and another Emmy-winner, “The Italians,” a 1966 look at the nation and its people based on the book by Luigi Barzini.

Bernie Birnbaum behind the camera in Dallas, after the assassination of President Kennedy. CBS News Inquiry: The Warren Report," (June 1967)

Bernie Birnbaum, behind the camera at the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas. CBS News Inquiry: The Warren Report," (June 1967)

Bernard Birnbaum was born on Oct. 18, 1920 in Brooklyn, N.Y. to Russian immigrants. He served in the U.S. Army Air Corps 1st Motion Picture Unit — an outfit commanded by Capt. Ronald Reagan -and was a combat cameraman stationed in Italy. He returned to New York after the war, where he was graduated from New York University with a Bachelor of Arts in motion pictures in 1949. He was then awarded a Fulbright Scholarship, the first year such scholarships were available, to study cinema in Rome. That led to his work as an assistant director for European film producers and as a still photographer working for the MGM Studio film “Quo Vadis.”

He took this film experience to CBS in 1951, becoming a lighting director at first, but taking on the gamut of roles in early television, serving variously as film editor, associate producer and director on such 1950s series as “Adventure” and “Odyssey,” both hosted by Charles Collingwood. He also was an associate producer on the Cronkite-anchored historical program “Eyewitness to History” from 1960 to ’62.

Mr. Birnbaum joined SUNDAY MORNING in 1990, producing short documentaries for the weekly broadcast and mentoring young people all over CBS News on the art of filmmaking and storytelling. He was known to virtually everyone at CBS News in his later years, coming in to the office regularly into his eighties until his wife, Ronnie, became ill and needed him at home. She died in 2005.

He is survived by two daughters: Amy Birnbaum, a producer at CBS News, and Deborah Birnbaum-Kocay, an opera voice coach; sons-in-law Bernard Furnival and John Kocay; and four grandchildren. The funeral will be held Tuesday, December 1 at 1:00 P.M. at Larchmont Temple, 75 Larchmont Avenue, Larchmont, NY

From CBS News

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1 comment to Bernard Birnbaum, CBS Award-Winning Producer, Dead at 89

  • Julia, Felipe Garcia

    Dear Debbie, We heard the sad news as we watched Sunday Morning. We are very sorry. We are thinking of you and John and the children specially now that the holidays are here. Much love, your friends from Mexico. Julia, Felipe and Leticia