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Richard Heffner, 88; ‘Open Mind’ host led film-ratings board

Mr. Heffner had taught at Rutgers University since 1964. Above, on “The Open Mind” set with guest Floyd Abrams.

Sara Krulwich/New York Times/File 2003

Mr. Heffner had taught at Rutgers University since 1964. Above, on “The Open Mind” set with guest Floyd Abrams.

NEW YORK — Richard D. Heffner, a historian, educator, and broadcaster who was the longtime host of “The Open Mind,” the long-running current-affairs program on public television, and who also spent two decades as chairman of the motion picture industry’s film-ratings board, died Dec. 17 in Manhattan. He was 88.

The cause was a cerebral hemorrhage, said his wife, Elaine.

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Mr. Heffner was widely known for his book “A Documentary History of the United States.” First published in 1952 and now in its eighth edition, it presents many of the seminal documents of American history, including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Marshall Plan, with his commentary.

Mr. Heffner was on the faculty of Rutgers University, where he had taught continuously since 1964. At his death he was professor of communications and public policy there.

He was associated for more than half a century with “The Open Mind,” a half-hour program broadcast each Saturday on PBS stations around the country. Mr. Heffner conceived the program, was its producer, and hosted the vast majority of episodes from its inception in 1956 to the end of his life.

Recent taped segments will continue to be broadcast in the coming months, his wife said, but the fate of the program after that is not known.

Mr. Heffner also create what became WNET, New York City’s public broadcasting station.

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“The Open Mind” made its debut on WRCA-TV, then the NBC affiliate in New York. It stayed with the network after WRCA became WNBC-TV, moving to Channel 13 in 1966. From the beginning, the program was praised by critics for the level of its discourse, the quality of its guests, and the willingness of Heffner to take on freighted subjects.

“What distinguishes the talk is that it is talk that is seldom heard elsewhere on television,” John Corry, writing about “The Open Mind” in The New York Times, said in 1987. “For one thing, people speak in whole passages; [Mr.] Heffner would sooner dive under the tablecloth than needlessly interrupt. When he does interrupt, it’s because he has something to say.”

Among the topics the program tackled in its earliest days were homosexuality, alcoholism, McCarthyism, segregation, and anti-Semitism. Guests over the years included Elie Wiesel, Margaret Mead, William F. Buckley Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Gloria Steinem, Edward I. Koch, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X.

Richard Douglas Heffner was born in Manhattan and had a Runyonesque start. His father was a successful bookmaker — until the Depression.

“His very wealthy customers were big bettors,” Mr. Heffner told the magazine Columbia College Today last year. “They would bet $100,000 on a race. And when they were gone, my father went broke.”

He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history from Columbia, where he broadcast on the campus radio station. He embarked on his teaching career at Sarah Lawrence College, but broadcasting beckoned. In 1953 he made the rounds of New York radio stations, proposing an interview with Eleanor Roosevelt to commemorate the eighth anniversary of the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

WMCA assented, and Mr. Heffner recorded the former first lady at her home. Not long before the broadcast, when Mr. Heffner discovered to his horror that an engineer had accidentally erased the tape, Mrs. Roosevelt, ever gracious, agreed to a second interview.

The station was so pleased with the program that it gave Mr. Heffner a weekly half-hour show, “History in the News.”

He joined WRCA-TV in 1955, serving as host of a public affairs program, “Man of the Year.” The next year, in May, “The Open Mind” debuted.

In 1959 Heffner joined CBS, where he oversaw the editorials produced by its local television affiliates. In 1961, on leave from the network, he helped negotiate the acquisition of Channel 13 as New York City’s first public television station.

He was Channel 13’s general manager from 1961 to 1963; afterward, he established Richard Heffner Associates, a consulting concern.

In the 1960s, when the press of other work kept Mr. Heffner away from “The Open Mind,” Eric F. Goldman, a Princeton University historian, was its moderator. Mr. Heffner resumed the position in 1967.

In 1974, Jack Valenti, the Motion Picture Association of America president, asked Mr. Heffner to become the chairman of the association’s Classifications and Ratings Administration, which assigned ratings — then P, PG, R, and X — to hundreds of films each year.

Mr. Heffner demurred at first. “My mother didn’t raise me to count nipples,” he said.

But he relented, believing the ratings system could help parents make informed decisions on what children saw. He would hold the post until 1994.

During those years, Mr. Heffner commuted to Los Angeles to oversee the ratings board. The board included about a half-dozen to a dozen people, unaffiliated with the industry.

As its chairman, Mr. Heffner became, the The Los Angeles Times wrote in 1990, “the least-known most powerful person in Hollywood.” On his watch, the board was widely seen as being less worried about sex and more about violence. It awarded X’s for violence to a spate of films, including “The Street Fighter,” a 1974 Japanese martial-arts movie, and “Scarface,” Brian De Palma’s 1983 remake of Howard Hawks’ 1932 gangster film.

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