One of Chicago’s most popular and respected broadcasters for decades, Roy Leonard brought the world of entertainment in all its forms to generations of loyal listeners with warmth, class and style.
Leonard died Thursday at Evanston Hospital after a brief illness. He was 83.
“Our Dad passed away at 10:15 p.m. surrounded by all his sons, their wives and grand kids,” Kelly Leonard, executive vice president of Second City, wrote on Facebook. “He waited until the priest came. Literally. We said the Our Father and then he went. Thanks for your love and prayers. We will be in touch as soon as we figure out our plans.”
From 1967, when he first joined WGN AM 720 after more than 10 years on the air in Boston, until he chose to sign off in 1998, Leonard was one of Chicago’s most trusted and influential critics of the arts. For actors, authors, musicians and celebrities of any prominence, an interview on his show was a highlight of their media rounds. Best known for his long run as midday personality on the news/talk station, Leonard held various weekday shifts until 1995, when he cut back to weekends. Even then, his ratings remained as solid as ever.
“After 31 years at WGN I felt I’d interviewed everybody in the world that was interesting to me,” he told me after he stepped down. “You know, I’d been there, done that. So there wasn’t much else I wanted to do.” Besides, he added, “I wanted to quit while I knew I was ahead. I never wanted to overhear someone saying, ‘Why is he still hanging around here?’ ”
Leonard also hosted “Family Classics” on WGN-Channel 9, succeeding the late Frazier Thomas on the venerable Sunday afternoon movie series in 1985. “It was the most flattering thing that ever happened to me,” he said at the time. “It’s such a classic show and to be asked to take over to me was an honor.” With the avuncular Leonard in the familiar wing chair, the show thrived for another 16 years.
Over a long lunch in 2012, Leonard talked about ambitious plans to expand his website as both an archive for his treasure trove of interviews, photographs and memories, and as a blog to share his thoughts on everything from the latest movies and plays to the challenges of growing old.
“Why do I want to have a way to express my feelings?” he said. “I am so sick of the declining civility in our society and the greed that seems to pervade our populace. The lack of respect for proven practices and the disappearance of any value system in society is appalling. Maybe one word from someone who's been around the block or a story with a message, sublime or out in front, might get someone to think for a moment of the direction in which they are heading, and change course to make them a better person.”
Leonard made his last public appearance June 27 when he was among the inaugural inductees in the WGN Radio Walk of Fame. Although he appeared frail, he was as sharp and funny as ever, recalling highlights of his illustrious career. He posted his last piece on his Chicago Now blog — a review of “The Hundred-Foot Journey” — on August 14.
Leonard and his wife, Sheila, who died in 2012, raised six sons, Kip, Kery, Kolin, Kent, Kyle and Kelly. They are among his survivors along with eight grandchildren.