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'The Open Mind': Like grandfather, like grandson

Alexander Heffner hosts the WNET public-affairs show,

Alexander Heffner hosts the WNET public-affairs show, "The Open Mind" Photo Credit: WNET

'The Open Mind," a quiet and insistently courteous enclave on WNET/13's Saturday lineup, arrived on TV in 1956, the year Marilyn Monroe married Arthur Miller and the Soviet Union invaded Hungary. McCarthyism and the Red Scare were ebbing. The Cold War was deepening.

Year after year, nearly 60 of them, "Mind" was hosted by its founder, Richard Heffner, who interviewed hundreds of diverse newsmakers -- from Malcolm X to Margaret Mead -- with a dogged civility. His idea was to make "Mind" a redoubt from the sound and fury elsewhere on TV -- yes, there was sound and fury even back then -- and if a show's success can be measured in longevity, this redoubt had succeeded well.

Then, a year ago this past December, Heffner -- a history professor at Rutgers and the first general manager of Ch. 13 -- died at the age of 88. Under normal circumstances, "Mind," along with its founder's exact vision, might have ended, except Heffner had first done something probably unprecedented in New York TV history: He had already appointed his own grandson, Alexander, his successor upon his death.

An instance of picking the ideal replacement? Or a singular act of nepotism? The grandson makes a compelling case for the former.

Alexander Heffner grew up in Jericho before he went off to Andover and Harvard, where he got a degree in history in 2013. These days, his grandfather's legacy is maintained from a small office in a huge tower on Park Avenue -- Mutual of America's, which has sponsored the show for decades (it's taped at CUNY TV studios).

Solicitous, passionate and intense, Heffner, now 25, exudes "callow youth" far more than "habituated professional adult." He speaks in full, eloquent paragraphs, while self-editing himself if some idea or word doesn't quite sound right. He's clearly passionate about both.

But mostly he conveys the happy impression of someone who still has a close relationship with a person he once deeply loved and admired -- and still does. It's that emotional bond, which is obvious on the air, that has made this transition unique.

"My grandfather instilled values in me that were critical for the perpetuation of his show," says Heffner. "Those values are non-adversarial and centered around civility and ideas. It was something he was valiantly pressing for."

Alexander Heffner's "Open Mind," a valiant near-replica of his grandfather's, can be seen Saturdays at noon on Ch. 13.

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