For 20-plus years, Gus Weill explored the lives of some of the state’s most well-known personalities as host of Louisiana Public Broadcasting’s “Louisiana Legends.”
In a new program, he and LPB President Beth Courtney will reminisce about his interviews with the likes of Gov. John McKeithen, who Weill served as executive secretary for four years; famed trumpeter Al Hirt; world-renowned surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey; and flamboyant Gov. Edwin Edwards.
“Beyond the Legends: Gus Weill Remembers” airs at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 18, on LPB and again at 5 p.m. Oct. 24 on LPB2.
A prominent figure on the Louisiana political scene for some 50 years, this Lafayette native has lots of stories to share. Widely regarded by his peers as the father of modern political public relations, Weill joined McKeithen’s gubernatorial campaign after a stint in the U.S. Army, serving as a counter-intelligence special agent in Germany.
“McKeithen wasn’t supposed to win,” recalls the 82-year-old Weill, who also managed campaigns for Edwards and Govs. Jimmie Davis and Dave Treen. He ran the state campaign for President John F. Kennedy’s campaign.
“No one even knew how to pronounce his (McKeithen’s) name. There was no money, and he wasn’t known outside his PSC (Public Service Commission) district. He did have one thing that I think served him well,” Weill says. “Back then TV wasn’t a factor in politics; it was all about stumping. I discovered that McKeithen had a solid gold tongue. Our crowds went from nothing to thousands.”
In the days to come, McKeithen would lean on Weill’s speechwriting to help get him into the Governor’s Mansion. At a post-primary luncheon in New Orleans with a roomful of power players, McKeithen learned he was supposed to talk about the Battle of New Orleans. He turned to Weill with a look of panic.
“I could write inspiring remarks if there were no facts and figures,” says Weill, who quickly went to work penning words for McKeithen. “I could create.
“He got a standing ovation and, afterward, he told me he never wanted me more than 3 feet away,” continues Weill, who graduated from LSU with a degree in journalism in 1955. “That began our relationship.”
After working for McKeithen, Weill did a stint in New York City working with famed director Otto Preminger. He later returned to Baton Rouge and opened his own public relations and advertising agency in the Taylor Building on Third Street.
Quickly realizing political campaigns were his bread and butter, he jumped in with both feet, managing over 300 campaigns at various levels throughout his career. His protégés include James Carville, Raymond Strother and Roy Fletcher, each of whom have headed up presidential campaigns.
So, what’s his take on today’s gubernatorial campaign?
“What’s really important is that whoever wins be willing to allocate their talent and time to tackle the problems that face this state … that they don’t run for president,” says Weill. “Our state has suffered from neglect.”
But Weill isn’t just about politics. In fact, he doesn’t really like politics.
“I was a big fake,” he says, laughing. What he loves is writing.
While still working in the McKeithen governor’s office, Weill wrote his first novel, “Paradiddle.”
“I’d wake up at three in the morning, get a cigar, put on the coffee and write three pages every day. Once I got those three pages done, I stopped. I never missed a day,” he says of the process he followed throughout his career.
He went to City Newsstand downtown and bought a writers guide, chose a publisher at random — Citadel — and sent them the novel.
“A few days later, I got a check for $1,000,” he says.
Since then, Weill has published several novels, including “The Cajuns” and his biography of Gov. Davis.
“A man of great character and one of the tightest men I ever met,” he adds with a chuckle.
Weill quickly got bored with writing novels, so he wrote a play, and got it on local television.
The play caught the attention of Preminger, who was in Baton Rouge filming “Hurry Sundown.” He invited Weill to the Bellemont Hotel, where he was staying, to talk about Weill’s play.
“He told me, ‘I will teach you how to write for the film,’” recalls Weill, who was hesitant to pull up stakes and move to New York City. “He said, ‘You can’t not come!’ He knew me way better than I knew me.”
It was an experience he would never trade, but he also found out writing screenplays wasn’t for him.
“I discovered I had to write, but I never excelled in any particular medium,” says Weill, who during his career penned seven novels, one biography, two books of poetry and six plays, all produced either on or off-Broadway. “I was, I hate to say, the proverbial jack-of-all-trades. Perfection eluded me. I saw it, I tried to grab it, but I never did.”