NEPTUNE, N.J. — Ladies and gentlemen, Fidel Castro?
He’s known for presenting Elvis Presley and the Beatles to America on his long-running CBS variety show, The Ed Sullivan Show, but in 1959 Ed Sullivan presented a high-profile personality of a different stripe: Fidel Castro.
How he got the interview is a story of intrigue and danger as the embers of revolution were still hot. In 1958, much of America had no idea who Castro was nor did the nation know his political leanings. Sullivan asked a writer for the Chicago Tribune, which was owned by the same company as Sullivan’s New York Daily News, to set up the interview, according to the Sullivan bio Impresario by James Maguire.
After an airplane ride and traveling six hours through back roads to the town of Matanzas, Cuba, Sullivan and his film crew were in a small room with Castro and his supporters, armed with machine guns.
Sullivan and Castro sat on a desk.
“The two were surrounded by soldiers, one of whom kept a Tommy gun trained over Ed’s head through part of the interview,” Maguire writes. “Sullivan’s demeanor was not that of the stiff and stilted Sunday night host. Rather, he was closer to the feisty bantamweight that he was often offstage.”
Sullivan, a staunch anti-Communist, asked Castro whether he was a Communist. The question prompted a violent reaction.
“(Castro) almost jumped off the desk,” said cameraman Andrew Laszlo, according to Impresario. “He ripped over his shirt and pulled out this very beautiful crucifix and bellowed, ‘I’m a Roman Catholic, how could I be a Communist?’ ”
Sullivan then asked Castro whether he was the George Washington of Cuba, which eased tensions in the room.
Sullivan closed the interview by asking how there will be no more future dictators such as Fulgencio Batista, the Cuban leader Castro overthrew.
“(It will) be easy,” said Castro in broken English. “By not permitting any dictatorships to come to rule our country. You can be sure that Batista is, or will be, the last dictator of Cuba.”
Unbeknownst to Sullivan, Castro then went to an interview with CBS’ Face the Nation, which preceded Sullivan’s interview on the air by a few hours, but Sullivan conducted the first. Castro became something of a media star and counter-culture hero in the U.S. before relations between the two countries soured. He also was featured on Jack Paar’s Tonight Show and Edward R. Murrow’s Person to Person later in ‘59, and Bob Dylan, Ernest Hemingway, Jean-Paul Sartre and Gabriel García Márquez voiced their support for the revolutionary.
By the Bay of Pigs in ‘61, Castro, who died Friday at the age of 90, had become an enemy of the state and he was rarely on U.S. television. An exception was in 1976 when sportscaster Howard Cosell interviewed Castro while covering amateur boxing matches in Havana for ABC. Castro spoke of his early baseball playing days.
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Sullivan, who presented Presley on his show in 1956, would cause even greater cultural shockwaves when he brought the Beatles to America in 1964.
The Presley, Beatles and Castro appearances have one thing in common. At the conclusion of the appearances, Sullivan stands at center stage and declares them all to be upstanding citizens of their countries.
“This is a fine young man,” Sullivan said of Castro on the Jan. 11, 1959, broadcast, “and a very smart young man.”
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