Remembering Nick Salerno, the Late Phoenix Film Critic, Literary Scholar, and TV Host

The late Nick Salerno pictured on television.
The late Nick Salerno pictured on television.
Robrt Pela

Nick Salerno liked to tell people he grew up in the dark. When he was a boy, Nick and his mother, a Sicilian immigrant, walked twice a week to the Cine Capri movie house together. She was there to improve her English by listening to American actors speak. Nick was there, as it turned out, to fall in love with the movies.

Nick’s romance with cinema affected so many of us. His reviews in the Scottsdale Progress pointed us toward indie films we might have missed, and commercial blockbusters we might have dismissed as unworthy. (He was a great fan of the Star Wars pictures, and his vast collection of Jedi memorabilia is now ensconced in the ASU archives.) His film history classes taught that movies were about more than telling stories with pictures. His television show, Cinema Classics, re-imagined the late show as an educational tool, reminding us that commercial Hollywood films of the '30s and '40s were art.

For a gay kid trapped in the suburban Phoenix of the mid-1970s, Cinema Classics was a lifeline. I, a junior high student who watched the late show with a notepad and pencil, didn’t know a single other person who cared about Katharine Hepburn’s performance in The Little Minister, nor anyone who aspired to see everything William Wyler had ever filmed. And then one day, there was this middle-aged guy on TV, talking directly into the camera about why we should pay special attention to Warren William’s performance in the Warner Bros. programmer we were about to watch. In 1977, Nick Salerno was proof that I was not alone.

Born in Chicago in 1936, Nick had moved to Phoenix as a boy. His family owned a grocery here; Nick attended Arizona State University (then known as Arizona State College), where he received a Master of Arts degree in 1959. His Doctor of Philosophy degree in Victorian Literature came three years later, from Stanford. He returned to the Valley and taught at ASU, which appointed him chair of its English department in 1983. He taught what he loved — 19th-century literature, composition, Latin, and film history — for nearly 30 years, before retiring in 1991.

By then, he’d become a local icon. Those who didn’t know or care that Nick was a recognized scholar on 19th-century poet Aubrey Beardsley, who didn’t benefit from his courses on Victorian literature and film history, knew him as the host of a public television program that aired for 10 years, three of them in syndication. Every Saturday at 10 p.m., a bit of Max Steiner’s “Tara’s Theme” from Gone with the Wind would trumpet, and there he’d be — more often than not in his trademark denim sport coat — discussing the significance of the Ginger Rogers musical or the Billy Wilder comedy we were about to see. Afterward, Nick would sometimes interview an Old Hollywood star who might be passing through town.

One such star was the legendary Bette Davis, one of Nick’s favorites. In May of 1978, she brought her one-woman show to Grady Gammage Auditorium. I was 16 and seated just behind Nick, who was wearing that denim sport coat, and his mother in the fourth row. I was more excited about sitting so close to my idol than I was about the pending performance of Miss Davis. After an hour of clips from her best-known films, Davis took questions from the audience. When Nick attempted to ask her a question, the audience went wild at the sight of him. Davis marched to the lip of the stage, flashed her giant eyes in Nick’s direction, and bellowed, “Who the hell are YOU?”

Nick was partial to the 1954 film Three Coins in the Fountain, directed by Jean Negulesco. But his favorite movie was George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift, and Shelley Winters. I told him once that I didn’t approve of the film’s tidy, high-minded ending. “You don’t have to like the way things end to enjoy the story that came before,” he reminded me.

Taylor was Nick’s favorite actress, and he campaigned for years to convince the board of the Kennedy Center Honors to acknowledge Taylor with their award. After receiving the prize in 2002, Taylor sent a note to Nick. “I understand you’re the reason this has happened to me,” she wrote.

Other Hollywood film legends were fans of Nick’s. Charlton Heston was so enamored of Nick’s notes on Heston’s various interpretations of Antony in Julius Caesar, he invited Nick to LA to watch him in Macbeth. Later, he asked for Nick’s notes on the performance.

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I was also a fan of Nick’s. Later, we became friends. He told people I bowed and kissed his ring when we met in the early 1990s. In my memory, I shook his hand and asked, “Should I genuflect?” Nick’s version of the story is inarguably more entertaining.

Nick was ill these past several months. Yesterday, he died, a few months shy of his 80th birthday. We kept putting off plans to get together; he wanted to wait until he felt better. I needed to tell him my thoughts on Geraldine Page’s performance in Dear Heart; I hadn’t yet heard his opinion of the latest Liz Taylor biography. I hadn’t quite had enough of Nick in my life.

You don’t have to like the way things end to love the story that came before.


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