Montreal native Arthur Smith begins his engrossing, just-released bio Reach with these self-deprecating albeit rather truthful words: “Chances are you never heard of me before picking up this book. I’m not exactly a name-above-the-title kind of guy. However, I am a name-below-the-title kind of guy.”
That, Smith is. After he left Montreal, he headed CBC Sports in Toronto and worked with Dick Clark in Hollywood, and became best known as executive producer of the smash TV series Hell’s Kitchen and American Ninja Warrior, among 200 other show credits.
Montrealers were about to hear a lot more about Smith and his rather circuitous ascent to the top of the TV heap, but his speaking engagement Thursday night at the Shaar Hashomayim synagogue has been cancelled.
“The cancellation is not because of any security concerns, but we just didn’t feel it was the right time to be gathering in this way, given the situation in Israel,” said Shaar Hashomayim spokesperson Julie Wiener. “People’s minds are elsewhere. We’re hoping to have him back at a more appropriate time.”
Smith, who flew in from Los Angeles to do a book event in Toronto this week before coming to Montreal, understands. “I totally get it. And I’m sure I’ll be back here within a year to do this talk.”
A Vanier College grad who was raised in the St-Laurent borough, Smith has plenty to talk about.
“Once I found my calling, which was in the entertainment business, I just dove in,” he says in his downtown hotel lobby. “I grew up as the shyest kid in Montreal. Television kept me company. My parents were actually worried about me.
“When I trace my movements … most of my success really came from moments when I really put myself out there and reached.”
No accident that Smith’s opus is titled Reach. It serves as his mantra. “When you reach, you realize the difference between a pipe dream and what you haven’t dared to try just yet.”
Although the shows he has shepherded fall into the reality-TV genre for most people, Smith bristles at the term, preferring non-fiction TV.
“When people think of reality TV, they think of the lowest form of it, over-manipulated docu-soaps. American Idol is not a reality show. It’s a variety show. Deal or No Deal is a game show. America Ninja Warrior is a sports entertainment show. It’s not accurate to lump them all into one genre.
“Non-fiction TV encompasses everything from talk to game to music to hidden camera. It’s a great sandbox to play in.”
It has certainly been for him. Hell’s Kitchen is now in its 22nd season. American Ninja Warrior is 15 years old. He has scored with other eclectic series like Kitchen Nightmares, The Titan Games with Dwayne Johnson and Trading Spaces. As a result, Variety honoured Smith as one of the Titans of Unscripted TV in 2022. He was inducted into the Realscreen Awards Hall of Fame in 2021 and was named Broadcasting & Cable’s Producer of the Year in 2020.
Still, Hell’s Kitchen star Gordon Ramsay wasn’t much impressed when Smith first pitched him the series.
Perhaps it was just the pizza Smith served him, which prompted this remark from the irascible chef: “You really don’t know much about food, do you?”
To which the flummoxed Smith shot back: “No, but I do know a lot about making television.”
Let’s just say Ramsay has few complaints about Smith’s food knowledge now: Hell’s Kitchen is Fox’s longest-running reality … er … non-fiction show, while Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares has done seven seasons.
“I would just like to say he never spit out that pizza I served him,” Smith cracks.
“At the time, there had never been a successful food show on network TV. And me not being a real foodie, my goal was to broaden the concept out. When I explained it, he laughed and high-fived me and we were on our way.”
And Ramsay is now the most famous chef on the planet.
“I love all elements of television. But what I’m most proud of is the longevity,” notes Smith, whose 23-year-old production entity is simply called A. Smith & Co.
Prior to Hollywood, Smith made his mark at 22 in Toronto as CBC Sports producer, and as head of sports at the network at 28.
During his CBC tenure, he covered several Olympic Games, including the Seoul Summer Games where Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson won the 100-metre event and was later stripped of his gold medal for doping. Smith was also there for another of the great Canadian sport stories, the trade of Wayne Gretzky from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings.
But one of Smith’s wildest recollections of CBC’s sports coverage entails … Marlon Brando. Smith got a call from an alleged Brando PR flak, who said the actor wanted to watch the fight between Mike Tyson and Carl (The Truth) Williams in 1989. It was a pay-per-view bout, which Smith got on a one-day delay at CBC.
“Brando, a huge fight fan, was in Toronto shooting a film and heard about this and wanted to watch it with me at our offices before it was broadcast. He said he was coming at 9. He didn’t show. I thought it was a joke, that I was punked.
“But Brando finally shows at 11 with Matthew Broderick and others. He then tells us we need to bet on which round the fight would end. We all put in 20 bucks and sure enough Brando picks Round 1.”
Bottom line: the fight lasted 93 seconds.
“We spent all of 20 minutes together, and he took my 20 bucks,” Smith says. “That’s life.”
No, that’s Smith’s life.
AT A GLANCE
Arthur Smith’s Reach: Hard Lessons and Learned Truths From a Lifetime in Television (Blackstone Publishing) is available at bookstores and Amazon.
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