Skip navigation

Tuesday March 30, 2010

Canadian news anchor was a 'natural broadcaster'

Whether he was working for CTV, CFTO, the CBC or CITY-TV, the camera loved him and so did the viewers

Special to The Globe and Mail

Ken Cavanagh was one of the earliest star reporters in Canadian television news and the first permanent host of CTV's W5 when it went on the air in 1966. A man with craggy good looks and a great voice, he never held one job for long, moving from one network to another.

He was of the old school of journalism: You started at the bottom and if you showed any talent you moved up. He did it in a hurry.

Ken Cavanagh was born in Scarborough back when it was a rural town to the east of Toronto. His father was a policeman. After high school he went to work as a copy boy for The Canadian Press in downtown Toronto. He was either 16 or 17. At CP he moved through a series of desk jobs and in 1952 became overnight editor at CP Broadcast news, the wire service's broadcast subsidiary.

Two years later he stared work at the CBC in Vancouver and was soon working for CBC News in Toronto, where he became the assignment editor for the National News. But he was meant to be in front of the camera.

"The typical news person of that era was more in the image of an announcer who fired his words at the audience. Ken was refreshingly different; he had a conversation with them," said Larry Stout who worked with Mr. Cavanagh at the CBC. "He was a natural broadcaster."

At one stage he worked for the famous producer Harry Boyle, who went on to run the CRTC. Mr. Cavanagh looked so much like the typical 1960s rake that in 1963 he was sent to produce a TV documentary on Hugh Hefner, complete with visits to a Playboy Club and Hefner's Chicago mansion. He joked about the "hardships" of the assignment in a magazine article.

"Whenever a backbencher in Parliament takes a moment or two to whack at the CBC, there is never any mention made of the individuals involved, and their personal dedication to the job," he wrote.

His '60s coolness landed him the hosting job at CTV's W5 in 1966 and he stayed there for three years. He covered everything from miniskirts to Pierre Trudeau to the Criminal Code.

When the local station CFTO launched a revised newscast, Mr. Cavanagh was the main anchor. But after a year on the job he ran into trouble. He told newspaper reporters at the time that he wanted to be more just than the front man, and that wasn't on.

"They fired me. It was politics," Mr. Cavanagh told The Globe and Mail on May 7, 1969. "I walked in Friday afternoon to do the rehearsal for the show and Ted Steubing (CFTO's news director) asked me to come into his office and told me I was through. It was as sudden as that."

At the time he was fired, the local newscast had just recorded its second highest ever Nielsen rating.

After his run at CTV and CFTO, Mr. Cavanagh was back at the CBC, first as a replacement host for Bruno Gerussi on his national morning radio broadcast. One critic called him "uncommonly competent."

He then graduated to a top on-air job at one of the CBC's most important current affairs programs, Telescope. The season opener in the fall of 1970 was a profile of actor Donald Sutherland - he starred in the movie MASH that year - and his then-wife Shirley Douglas, daughter of NDP leader Tommy Douglas. But Mr. Cavanagh soon re-learned that the man in front of the camera was not always the key part of the team.

"We like Cavanagh's past work and he has a certain down to earth appeal that strikes us," Telescope producer Sam Levene told the Toronto Telegram in September of 1970. "He's dependable, solid and attractive, particularly to women."

After those comments about the presenter's looks, he then did a subtle put-down of the host's role in an era when producers were king.

"Whether the producer likes it or not, the host is immensely important. Often the viewer thinks he does the whole show. It's just not true of course. ... Ken's a busy fellow, but he'll be in on the decisions as much as he's available."

After a year or so the producers of Telescope decided since it was mostly an interview and profile program they could save money and do without a host. Mr. Cavanagh went on to other hosting duties at the CBC, in particular as the anchor of the main nightly news, the same role he once had at rival CFTO.

He left the CBC in 1974 and worked for a while at CITY-TV fronting its evening program, The City Show. In 1975 he took a job as director of communications for the Ombudsman of Ontario.

Mr. Cavanagh spent a lot of time in Europe, working in London. He did an hour-long radio documentary on Lloyd's in 1963 and other television documentaries and interviews. He loved transatlantic ocean liners and at least twice managed to combine work with pleasure. In 1963 he produced a documentary on ocean-going liners, narrated by the British actor Jack Hawkins. Then in 1971 he did a television documentary on the maiden voyage of the QE II that ran on Telescope.

One of his lifelong frustrations was that everyone misspelled his name. People always insisted on adding a 'u' before the gh. It even appeared in newspaper headlines and television credits.

Like many journalists of his generation, Mr. Cavanagh was sometimes a heavy drinker, though his colleagues say he had it under control and that it never affected his work. His favourite drink was scotch and milk, which he thought helped with his ulcer. He had a complex relationship with his wife, Dianne Brown. They divorced, then got together again on and off. The great tragedy of his life was the death of his daughter Maureen in 1979; she died of an acute asthma attack.

After that he worked outside of network television, doing voice-overs and corporate videos, as well as coaching people in the art of television.

Kenneth Lysle Cavanagh was born on Oct. 28, 1932, in Scarborough, Ont. He died in Toronto on March 23, 2010, of complications from a genetic bleeding disorder. He was 77. He leaves his daughter Patricia Cavanagh. He was predeceased by his daughter Maureen and his ex-wife Dianne.

Back to top