N E W Y O R K, May 17, 2002 -- Bryant Gumbel left 27 years of network television this morning. "In this instance, it's just the right thing to do," he says. "You just feel it in your gut."
"Because I think it's time," the 54-year-old tells ABCNEWS' Barbara Walters in an interview to air tonight on 20/20. "There's a saying in baseball that general managers are always willing to, or anxious to cut a guy two years too early, rather than one year too late. And I think it's the same… It just feels right."
Asked whether CBS wanted him to go, Gumbel says, "I told CBS early on that this was it. This was done…
"Before they began looking for other people?" asks Walters.
"You'd have to ask them," answers Gumbel. "I'm not privy to their negotiations."
Building His Career
Not long after graduating from college, Gumbel started with KNBC in Los Angeles as sportscaster. He made it to the network, and eventually so impressed executives that he was chosen to succeed Tom Brokaw as co-anchor of the Today show in 1981. He was the first African-American to host a network morning show.
During his 15-year run on Today, first alongside co-host Jane Pauley and later with Katie Couric, he gained a reputation as being one of the best in the business. He interviewed presidents and world leaders, and rubbed shoulders with everyone from pop stars to the Pope. Then, in 1997, Gumbel left Today — while it was still the No. 1 morning show.
"It seems funny in retrospect now," he says. "I actually imagined that I would disappear and be the crazy old guy who lives on the hill. I really did. I thought I would just go away."
But only two months after leaving Today, Gumbel signed a five-year $25-million contract with CBS to host his own primetime newsmagazine called Public Eye with Bryant Gumbel. The program was canceled after one season.
In 1999, Gumbel returned to morning TV. After CBS built a $30 million studio for Gumbel and co-host Jane Clayson, The Early Show was born. The show — in third place after Today and ABCNEWS' Good Morning America — has not lived up to expectations.
Would he really be walking away if it had been a success?
"Nobody wants to believe the answer. But the answer is, 'Yes,'" he says. "It is probably harder to walk away from failure, and I guess some people would argue this was!"
He has "terrible Catholic guilt" about everything, he says, including the fact that The Early Show has not lived up to expectations.
"I feel responsibility for a lot of things that I manage to touch," he says. "Realistically, could I have made it a success? Probably not. There are just too many elements involved. There are too many things that you can't control. To try to come in and set up a burger chain between McDonald's and Burger King and make it a successful franchise in 2½ years, I think, is somewhat unrealistic."
His Future: Work and Love
So now what?
"I think there's a number of opportunities out there," he said. "I'm still going to do television. I'm just not going to do morning television. I would like to do some things that satisfy interests, private interests."
For example, he's a history buff, and would be thrilled to do some work for the History Channel. He's also an amateur cook and said he would even consider a cooking show.
Besides, he's already got a job as the host of the Emmy-award-winning Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel on HBO, which pays him an annual salary of $1 million. Working on a monthly show, he said, suits him fine.
"You'll never see me working five days a week again," he says.
Perhaps more of his time will be spent with his fiancée, 42-year-old Hilary Quinlan, who has never been married. The two met in Chicago, where she was working for an investment banking firm, and their relationship started as friends.
"Probably the best part of it was that it took a long time," she says in her first TV interview. "It was very slow process."
Gumbel — who had a very public and bitter divorce from his wife of 27 years — said Hilary had nothing to do with their separation, calling it the "farthest thing from the truth."
"Hilary and I didn't really start going out until after I had left home," he says. "It would really be a tragedy and an insult if anybody ever looked at her and thought that."
Still, he acknowledges that the divorce may have worked against him professionally.
"I'm sure for some women it was a very big deal," he says. "I'm sure for others it was, it was just a passing thing. But there was no way I could change that. We live a public life and we live a private life. And if they collide, they collide… There's a point at which you just want to have your life and move on; and I've moved on."
Their different races, they agree, is not an issue.
"That could have something to do with his income bracket and his level of celebrity," says Quinlan. "If he were an accountant in Timbuktu, it might be a bigger issue. He is immune to that, I think."
Gumbel, whose former wife was black, added: "Love is so difficult to find and happiness is so difficult to find, when you find it, you find it. Period."
The couple, who plan to be married in a small ceremony this fall, do not plan to have children.
The Real Gumbel
Though Gumbel, who once described himself as "a cocky SOB," has been criticized for being brusque and abrasive, Quinlan says that's not the reality.
"My first impression was definitely that he's someone to sort of, you know, keep at arm's length… But that isn't who he is," she says. "He's much softer. He's a man of great humility that people would be very surprised by."
Gumbel's best friend, former Today colleague and successor Matt Lauer, agrees.
"If I hear someone use the word 'cocky' and 'arrogant' about Bryant, I'll guarantee you one thing: They never met Bryant," he says. "I think a lot of people, unfortunately, confuse smart and arrogant," said Lauer, clarifying that Gumbel's confidence is also mistaken for arrogance. "I'm amazed that a guy who could go on the air for 20 years on national television, speaking his mind, could be as misunderstood as he is."
But Lauer also pointed out his friend's flaws. When Gumbel left Today, Lauer remembers making a toast: "I said, 'If Bryant likes you, you have one of the best friends you'll ever have. Forever. If Bryant doesn't like you, you should go off and join the Witness Protection Program.'"
He adds, "There's not a lot of gray area with Bryant… He has very strong opinions and he voices them, but that, in my opinion, is what makes him interesting."
While Gumbel remains close with both Lauer and his first Today co-anchor Jane Pauley, he was "never really close" with Today co-anchor Katie Couric. Responding to rumors about a tense relationship between them, he says, "We were two different kinds of people. … We saw things in different ways. What sometimes she thought was funny, I would think was not; what I thought was funny, she thought was juvenile. We got along for television purposes, and off the air we got along, but we weren't particularly close."
Gumbel may be leaving morning TV, but Lauer doesn't think he'll be content away from center-stage for too long.
"I don't think Bryant's going to disappear," says Lauer. "I think Bryant will find a way to make a mark and be visible, but he'll do it now on slightly different terms."
Regardless, Gumbel's at peace and, according to Quinlan, he's "mellowing out" as he gets older.
"I'm very proud of the fact that I could walk out of there knowing that I worked very hard and gave my best effort," says Gumbel. "I am not one of these guys who ever got into this to be either the richest or the most famous or the most powerful… I got into this to satisfy myself and to try to do as thorough and professional a job that my Dad would be proud of, that I could ever think of. And that's enough for me."