From his first days on TV in Texas, long before becoming a premier anchorman in Boston, Tom Ellis knew he had to develop a personal relationship with the camera and all those eyes watching him. His work, he said, was more than just delivering news.
“Basically, my job as an anchorman is to grab people’s attention and hold it, and to do that I have to appeal to them in some way,” he said at an Emerson College forum in 1973. “People look at television as an entertainment medium first of all, and in a news category we have a dual responsibility of also telling them something. My job is basically to entertain them and let my reporters tell them something.”
Mr. Ellis, who had anchored top-rated evening newscasts at Boston’s ABC, CBS, and NBC affiliates, died in his East Sandwich home Monday of cancer. He was 86.
In a half-century career that began in Texas and ended in late 2008 after a run of about 14 years at NECN, Mr. Ellis worked in radio and TV, acted in commercials and landed small roles in movies such as 1976’s “Marathon Man,” and for more than two years was a co-anchor at WABC-TV in New York City.
In statements on their websites, the presidents of WBZ-TV (Channel 4) and WCVB-TV (Channel 5) praised an anchorman who had helped guide each station’s newscasts to the top of the ratings.
“Tom was a legendary anchor who started his Boston career at WBZ-TV. He had a great impact on the station and our community,” said Mark Lund.
“We lost one of Boston’s most renowned broadcast journalists today with the passing of Tom Ellis,” Bill Fine of WCVB said Monday.
It was at WCVB in the late 1970s and early-’80s that Mr. Ellis enjoyed some of his greatest success, co-anchoring with Natalie Jacobson and Chet Curtis. Buoyed by his popularity on WCVB, Mr. Ellis jumped to what was then WNEV-TV (Channel 7) in 1982 for a reported $600,000 salary.
At a news conference Channel 7 held that July to introduce Mr. Ellis and Robin Young as the station’s new anchor team, he spoke of the distance he had traveled from where he began.
In the 1950s, Mr. Ellis was a radio announcer at a San Antonio company that also had a TV station. Then the TV anchorman quit. “The owner asked me to sit in as a substitute and I never left,” Mr. Ellis told New York magazine in 1975.
Hedging his bets, he kept the radio job and worked double-shifts — on radio by day and TV by night. For $15 a day, Mr. Ellis recalled, he shot, processed, and edited most of the film, covered stories, wrote 60 percent of the news copy, and then finally sat down in the anchor’s chair for the 10 p.m. newscast.
It was there, too, that he developed a congenial approach to delivering the news.
“I’m going to sound conceited when I say this, but in those days I was probably one of the only relaxed anchormen in the country,” he said at the 1973 forum. “The trend in those days was toward a more dignified approach to the news, and not many of my colleagues agreed with me that commercial television was primarily an entertainment medium, and in order to get and retain the viewers’ attention on commercial television, you have to entertain them.”
Over the years, he also shrugged off occasional criticism that he smiled too much on air, even during serious stories.
“Yes, I smile a lot,” he said during a 1986 Globe interview, adding that “I don’t smile just for the silliness of smiling. My smile isn’t a premeditated thing. A smile comes on my face when it feels like smiling.”
Thomas Caswell Ellis was born Sept. 22, 1932, and grew up in East Texas. His parents were Herbert Caswell Ellis and Mary Eunice Henley Ellis.
In the New York magazine interview, Mr. Ellis said that his father had been a vocational agriculture teacher in Carthage, Texas, and that he was 5 when his mother, also a teacher, had died. His family was strictly religious. “Sundays were for going to church four times a day, prayer, and Bible-reading,” Mr. Ellis said. “No ball-playing, no fun.”
At 13, he started working in construction, and also spent a summer as carnival barker, where a coworker’s advice stayed with him into his broadcasting career. In the 1986 interview, he recalled that the carney told him: “ ‘You can’t sell them nuthin’ till you get ’em into the tent.’ That’s how he saw his task, to get ’em into the tent.”
According to his family, Mr. Ellis was a cryptographer for the Navy’s security service in Washington, D.C., during the Korean War.
He told the Globe he graduated with honors in radio production from what was then Arlington State College and also received a degree from the University of Texas.
With a voice made for broadcasting, he landed a job at a Fort Worth radio station and moved to the San Antonio station before being hired by WBZ-TV in 1968. At 6-foot-2 and handsome, he had camera-ready looks. A Globe reporter wrote in 1978 that he always looked “as though he rode in off the trail without collecting any dust.”
“He was big, bold, and brassy. He had a young macho look, a commanding presence on camera that grabbed you and made you look at him. He jumped right out of the tube at you,” Mel Bernstein, a then-WBZ executive who helped bring Mr. Ellis to Boston, told the Globe in 1986. “Six months after Tom arrived, WBZ was in first place with shares of 52 percent, which is phenomenal. He gave Boston personality.”
Mr. Ellis decamped to WABC in New York in 1975, and returned to Boston to be a Channel 5 co-anchor from 1978 to 1982. He was an anchorman at Channel 7 until the end of 1986, and returned to Boston’s TV market in 1992 to cohost “Inside Edition Extra.” NECN hired him as a newscaster in 1994.
He had four children in his first two marriages, both of which ended in divorce: two daughters, Terri of Freedom, Calif., and Kathy Cornett of Hamilton, Ohio; a son, Thomas of Cincinnati; and a child from whom he was estranged.
A service will be announced for Mr. Ellis, who also leaves five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
In 1973, Mr. Ellis married Arlene Rubin, and they lived for many years in an East Sandwich, while keeping residences elsewhere, too. He lavished care on his home and on items such as his leather cowboy boots. Mr. Ellis also wrote poems for his wife.
“He respects so many things,” she told the Globe in 1981. “He doesn’t take anything for granted. Not his shoes, not his hats, not me.”
And though his work brought him to stations in Boston and New York, he considered the Hub his home after first arriving.
“It was a beautiful day with a spotless sky as the cab driver took me down Storrow Drive. The Charles River was full of sailboats,” he recalled in 1992, when he returned as an “Inside Edition Extra” host, and he added: “I’m thrilled to be back in town.”Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.