"Online since 1999"
By Marianne Costantinou
Published in the Chicago Tribune News
March 8, 1996
MANDEVILLE, La.— Maybe you remember him.
Blow-dried hair, baby blues, solid chin, and The Look--earnest, serious, quizzical. The classic TV news anchor.
Chances are you wouldn't recognize him today from his mug shot--the one police took after they arrested him for allegedly breaking into a neighbor's house to steal a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese, a container of Hungry Jack biscuits and a pound of ground meat. Total value: $3.24.
He was charged with theft and trespassing. A trial date is yet to be set.
"I can't go any further down," said Hunter, 57, during a recent interview at his home in this prefabricated city near New Orleans.
Years ago, Ron Hunter was something of a celebrity, an anchorman some viewers and many colleagues loved to hate.
He reached his pinnacle in Chicago during the mid-'70s, but his success story was not to last. In 1978, Hunter went to smaller TV markets, in Philadelphia and in New Orleans. His salary dropped. And his reputation--as an egomaniac who was tough to work with--worsened. In a business where friendships mean jobs, Hunter's TV news career was over in 1985.
These days, Hunter is not reading the news, but making it--again.
He made headlines in June 1990 when his wife, Marilou "Bunny" Hunter, was found shot in the heart hours after she had called his radio talk show to bemoan their troubled marriage. Hunter told police that Bunny had killed herself while he slept beside her.
The coroner took weeks to rule her death a suicide.
As police lingered over the evidence--including court reports that Hunter had beaten his wife in the past--many in New Orleans wondered if Hunter, with his hair-trigger temper, had pulled the trigger on Bunny.
"He was a suspect to a lot of his colleagues," said Detective Norman Pierce, who investigated her death. "They all thought he was capable of doing this.
"But lab tests showed that only Bunny had fired a gun, he said.
Since the notoriety of Bunny's death, Hunter has found it even tougher to get a job, even at tiny radio stations.
Most months, Hunter and his two children--13-year-old Allison Anne and 8-year-old Jonathan "Colt"--live on $230 in food stamps, $600 in Social Security and the kindness of strangers. Only his children, his career memories and his insatiable ego seem to keep him going.
"I hope, maybe against hope, that I will rise to the top," he said. "I want to be a player again.
"But some who seem to care about him the most fret that it's time for Hunter to face reality.
In many ways, the Ron Hunter story is the stuff of movies, the tale of a celebrity whose star has taken a meteoric plunge.
In the fickle TV business, said Maury Povich, the talk-show host who worked with Hunter in Philadelphia and Chicago, few survive.
"I think he's a victim of how this business can consume you," Povich said. "He was consumed by the business and it ate him up.
"When his arrest made headlines here, strangers sent him money and offers of help, from a job driving a cab to paying for his kids' braces. Even the police department sent his landlord $500 to cover a month's rent.
But the people who best knew Hunter said they don't really want to help, even though they feel sorry for him.
"If he was still riding high, you'd find a lot of people who would say he was a jerk," said a New Orleans newswoman. "People thought he was a creep.
"The lessons learned from Ron Hunter, they said, are the trite universal truths you're supposed to learn early in life, before it's too late.
Don't burn your bridges.
And what goes around, comes around.
When Hunter arrived at KYW-TV in Philadelphia in 1978, he was trumpeted by the station as the savior who would resurrect its sagging ratings. So Hunter lived the life of the anointed. He reportedly was the highest-paid anchor in Philadelphia. He had Bunny, an adoring blond beauty 20 years younger, as his wife. He owned a rambling ranch house with a swimming pool in South Jersey, a collection of expensive French wines, a red 1957 Ford Thunderbird, and a 5-by-7-foot projection screen on which he would admire videotapes of himself reading the news.
But already Hunter's career was on the decline. Philadelphia was a smaller TV market. And he had to take a big pay cut, from the $250,000 in Chicago to $95,000 (according to Philadelphia magazine at the time) or $135,000 (according to Hunter today).
Hunter joined Beverly Williams as co-anchor. By his own admission, "I was a disaster." The ratings agreed.
During one newscast announcing President Carter's admission of the Vietnamese boat people, Hunter complained: "Where will it all end?" The switchboard lit up with outraged viewers.
Fast track to the door
Weeks later, and only nine months after his arrival, Hunter was demoted to the noon news. By the time he quit in 1982, he had been relegated to weekend anchor and the host of a newsmagazine show.
Hunter then returned to Louisiana, where he had had his first jobs on his family's newspaper and radio station in Bogalusa. He got a job in New Orleans as the "Live at Five" anchor at WVUE-TV. It meant another pay cut, to about $85,000, said Hunter.
By the time he was replaced as news director in 1985, the station had tumbled from the No. 2 spot to No. 4. He ended up at a string of 5,000-watt radio stations making little more than minimum wage.
Hunter decided the only way to get a TV job was to start his own station. He then spent about $180,000 of his family's savings and much of the next two years trying to get a TV station for New Orleans' north shore. But just when it seemed a go, the Federal Communications Commission put a freeze on all new stations.
With their finances shot and the dream a bust, the Hunters' delicate marriage began to crumble. Bunny was filled with despair, said Hunter.
In June 1988, Bunny filed a petition for separation on the grounds of cruelty, according to the New Orleans newspaper, the Times-Picayune. Seven months later she sued again, claiming that Hunter had beaten her. Hunter says now that Bunny had threatened him with a gun.
In 1989, the bank foreclosed on their big house in one of New Orleans' better neighborhoods, and the family moved to an apartment a few blocks from the city's worst housing project.
Hunter blames Bunny's death for the demise of his career. When asked if he felt any guilt for her death, he paused for several moments, then tightened his jaw.
"I refuse to accept any liability," he said firmly. "I'm not going to live my life sitting here and blaming myself or the children.
"We're the victims."
About a week after her death, Hunter's radio station fired him, claiming that he had shown poor judgment when he failed to cut Bunny off the air once he recognized her voice.
Recently, the strange tale of Ron Hunter got even stranger. His next-door neighbor was arrested for taking his daughter, Allison, on an all-night trip to Airline Highway in New Orleans, a road of cheap motels and bars frequented by prostitutes and drug users. Allison was not hurt.
The neighbor, Patricia Pruitt, denies any wrongdoing, but police charged her with contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
A week or two later, on Dec. 28, Hunter was arrested for breaking into Pruitt's house to steal food.
Hunter denies what he calls "the food fable," and has pleaded not guilty to the two misdemeanor charges, trespassing and theft under $100. If convicted, he faces up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine.
Despite his setbacks, Hunter still hopes for a bright future. But even his plans are pinned in the past.
He hopes somebody will make a movie about his life.
He wants to publish his 20-year investigation into the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
His key project is his autobiography, "Talk to Me." The book is about Bunny and 18 other women he has slept with.
He can't wait till April 15, when his lawsuit against WSMB-AM, the radio station that fired him after Bunny's death, comes to trial. He is suing for wrongful termination and slander. He hopes to get a multimillion-dollar verdict. After that, he plans to move, maybe to California.
Mementos of his promise
As Hunter speaks, his eyes canvass his living room. It is a shrine to the Ron Hunter of yesteryear. His photographs and awards cover the walls, the shelves and even some of the floor. A business card on the bookcase introduces "Ron Hunter, Investigative Reporter. Honored by the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences with the Emmy."
Center stage atop the fireplace mantel is the Emmy, won in 1977 for helping defuse a hostage situation in Chicago."
This is Ron Hunter. Here's what's happening," he says in his crisp, anchorman's voice, as the interview comes to an end. Then his voice trails off.
"I don't want this story to be a downer," he says.
Moments later, he spots the February issue of Esquire magazine on his kitchen table. Al Pacino's photograph is on the cover.
Substituting his name for the celebrities on the magazine's cover, he continues his broadcast:
"Hunter's Way: On the Run From Fame, Fortune and Suicide."
"Ron Hunter Is in a Bad Mood."
He pauses for dramatic effect.
"Ron Hunter's Final Tour."
Then he leans his head back and lets out a rare laugh.
Copyright © 2013 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC
Thanks to Aaron Handy for contributing this article.