Not only was I intimidated, I was suspicious about the motives of my superiors.
He was diplomatic, of course, solicitous, even charming. But even on a bad cell phone connection, 3,000 miles away, I could detect the tone of a man accustomed to convincing lesser men to undertake perilous assignments.
"There's a national crisis in obesity," the voice was saying. "And all these conflicting diet plans. We need someone to sort it out."
It was FRONTLINE's executive producer David Fanning. I've been working for him for 12 years, primarily as a documentary producer, more recently as the series editor for FRONTLINE/World. This was not a direct order, but I could tell it was the kind of offer I was expected to accept. Actually, Fanning explained, producer Jon Palfreman, who specializes in science and medical issues, would lead the investigation. I would merely be the on-camera correspondent.
"Palfreman makes sense," I persisted, "but why me?" I was finishing up work on our story about an oil tanker disaster in Spain. The diet controversy seemed rather remote.
A pause. Too long a pause, really. That was the giveaway.
"Sixty-five percent of all Americans are now overweight, Steve," Fanning finally said, a little too gingerly. "You'd be a kind of Everyman, no special expertise, just someone as confused as everyone else about all these diets."
I began to sense this assignment had more to do with my bulk than my intellectual curiosity.
"Low fat, low carb. Do any of these diets make sense?" He was trying to sound casual now, even jaunty. "Thought you might like to try one."
He offered one enticement: I would interview the Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson, at a Weight Watchers gathering. He knew my weakness. Fergie is my favorite Royal.
So, there it was. Fanning wanted me to go on a diet. On national television. The potential for personal humiliation struck me as limitless. I stalled. "Let me mull it over, David."
In a cold panic I consulted with friends. They asked me why on earth I would even consider doing it. "My boss wants me to," was the best I could muster. And there was Fergie. But even as I said that, I knew there was another reason I hadn't immediately refused. I have never thought of myself as fat. But over the last 10 years, I had slowly put on weight. I didn't want to admit it, but I own a bathroom scale and I'm not blind. I was overweight. My wife had begun to complain. I hadn't done anything about it, yet, but I thought I should, for appearance' sake, if nothing else.
Then there was the dinner party. I had gone to the home of some close friends who are spectacular cooks, trained professionals, now in the food import business. There were three couples that night, all in our 50s, enjoying the rare company of all seven of our grown children who were usually scattered across the globe. As I savored the roast lamb and gazed around the rough wood table, first at my slender wife and daughter, then at my tall and athletic son, and finally at all assembled, I realized I was the heaviest. Not "fat," I tried to reassure myself, but undoubtedly the most fleshy. It was an unsettling observation.
And honestly, there was deeper level of concern, more serious than vanity. Weight was a family health problem. My father, Lyle Talbot, was a matinee idol as a young actor under contract at Warner Bros. in the 1930s. On screen, tall and trim in a tuxedo, he "reeked of savoir-faire," as Russell Baker once described him in The New York Times. My father was always handsome, but in his 40s and 50s he put on a good deal of weight. He morphed from leading man to a TV sitcom sidekick on "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet," and along the way he developed some heart problems, luckily nothing too serious. Genetics saved him -- he never exercised, he never stopped smoking cigars, yet he slimmed down without effort in his 70s and 80s, kept working whenever possible, and lived until he was 94. My mother was not so fortunate. Never slim but a beautiful blonde who made people think of Marilyn Monroe, she grew alarmingly heavy in her 50s, developed high blood pressure, and died of a brain aneurysm and a series of strokes before she was 60.
Now, here I was, 55 years old, and tipping the scales at 210 lbs. And I wasn't getting any taller. I stand 5'11" (when fully erect) and in high school when I played football the coaches used to inflate my weight in the team stats because the reality of my 155 pounds did not exactly intimidate opposing linemen. On my college rugby club, I was a 165-lb. scrum half. Every ensuing decade, as I became physically less active, I gained weight. By 40, I was pushing 185. And in my late 40s and early 50s I shot up over 200. I would learn in the course of doing this documentary that I was following a typical baby boomer pattern. But that's not much consolation.
So, when Fanning called and offered me the "Diet Wars" assignment, I was filled with fear and loathing at any public display of my weight, but I also knew it might be for my own good.
Still, I wasn't prepared for the shock of my Body Mass Index rating. When I finally dragged myself in for a check-up, Dr. Tracy Robinson politely informed me that at 5'11" and 210 lbs., I registered a BMI of 29, which meant, to my dismay, I was overweight, hovering on the abyss of obesity. Now, one can quibble with the chart itself, and I confess to some reservations about a scale which defines a 136-lb. man of my height as still falling within the "healthy weight" range. But for me, the term "obesity" echoes the sound of what William Faulkner once described as "the last ding dong of doom." I definitely did not want to cross the line into obesity, even if it is a somewhat arbitrary medical definition.
As if I needed more prodding at that moment, Dr. Robinson listed a number of horrible diseases I might contract if I did not lose weight, including the threat of type 2 diabetes. That struck home for another personal reason. Surfing the Web one day, I discovered that my old friend, Jerry Mathers, who starred in "Leave it to Beaver," had become a diabetic, a condition provoked by obesity. When I played Gilbert, Beaver's pal on the series, we used to wolf down Bob's Big Boy cheeseburgers, greasy fries and thick chocolate milkshakes without a second thought. I was taken aback years later to see him turn up in TV diet commercials for Jenny Craig, and saddened to learn he later developed adult-onset diabetes. All this was striking rather close to home.
I knew I had to start exercising immediately, and not just the occasional touch football game, where I lumbered around the field, trying to avoid pulling a hamstring and taking small comfort in my residual ability to throw a tight spiral. No, this time, I had to accept the advice of my wife and my doctor: regular exercise, half an hour a day, every day if possible. Walking, swimming, jogging, lifting weights, whatever I could manage.
In Denver, Dr. James Hill at the University of Colorado gave me one of his pedometers as part of his campaign to get America moving. His original goal was 10,000 steps a day. That's roughly five miles, and it proved overly ambitious for our computer- and car-bound citizenry. But I've found that keeping track of my steps is a useful gimmick. Whereas I once walked only 3,000 or so steps a day, I now average well over 6,000, at least three miles. Once in Boston, on a Sunday to myself, I trekked 30,000 steps around town with only one stop at an Irish pub. It helps that back home my wife is an indefatigable walker and that we live in a city, San Francisco, where there are plenty of places to roam. Getting two new puppies on New Year's Day -- a mix of collie and shepherd -- also forces me to get out of the house.
And it's true what they say about exercise. If you start slowly and build at a reasonable pace, the more you exercise, the better you feel, especially when you are losing weight at the same time on a diet. You just feel lighter. "More hep in your step, more glide in your stride," as the old DJs used to say.
One of my great regrets is that I could not convince my mother to start walking when I realized her weight was beginning to jeopardize her health. I have learned that one of the hardest parts of dieting is simply getting started. For some people I met at the Pritikin Institute in Miami, it was a heart attack that literally jolted them into losing weight. Hard-drinking, overweight CEOs were suddenly willing to become low-fat converts, grazing at the salad bar.
In the two months we spent filming "Diet Wars," I managed to lose 15 lbs. Since then, I've shed another three, so I'm currently down to 192. That still means I'm overweight, but I've successfully veered away from the precipice of obesity. My goal now is to reach 180 lbs., close to what doctors consider a normal, healthy weight.
So, how did I do it? I am reluctant to divulge specifics for fear of seeming to endorse any particular diet plan. One of the things I've learned from this experience is that all diets are essentially gimmicks -- you lose weight because you give up something. And at least in the short run, if you cut down calories by forsaking something -- whether it's fats or carbohydrates or limiting the size of the portions you consume - you are going to lose weight. In that sense, most diets work. They can deliver that quick hit of weight loss, which can be very exhilarating.
I lost 10 pounds the first two weeks -- what I think of as the "shock and awe" phase -- by following my own modified version of the currently popular South Beach Diet. I gave up bread, rice, pasta, potatoes and cereal -- not to mention chips, soft drinks, desserts and alcohol. I even shunned fruit, though that seemed odd. I ate eggs, lean bacon, fish, meat, nuts, non-fat yogurt and lots of salads and vegetables. Chef salads became a staple. I guzzled water and ice tea. I refused to sacrifice strong coffee.
Surprisingly, I did not feel hungry, though I did feel just a little odd those first two days. Vaguely light-headed. Low-fat string cheese and celery sustained me between meals. As promised, my belly fat vanished first. It was startling to cinch my belt a notch tighter, and then another. Whenever I felt the urge to devour some ice cream -- and the urge did arise -- I realized a FRONTLINE camera crew was lurking nearby, eager to record my every failing. Which is why, in all honesty, I'd have to christen my regimen, the FRONTLINE Diet. I was not about to be the guy who failed my PBS version of a "reality show."
The trick, of course, is to keep the weight off, now that I have lost it. Easier said than done. This is where most of us mere mortals fall from grace. I sense that my reedy producer, Jon Palfreman, who was wonderfully supportive throughout my dieting test (except when he ordered cocktails on nights I couldn't drink!) is secretly convinced I will puff up like a Macy's balloon soon after this documentary airs. I realize that reaching and maintaining a healthy weight requires a discipline I have not shown in recent years, as well as constant vigilance in an American food environment that seems to conspire to make us all obese.
So far -- and I realize it's only been three months -- I am enticed by the rewards. My wife and friends tell me I look better. I even get a kick out of slithering into old jeans I had discarded in the back of my closet.
I have resumed drinking red wine with dinner, I eat the occasional slice of whole grain bread, I even nibble bittersweet chocolate when I have a craving. I'm mixing "good fats" with "good carbs." I may never drink another Coke. When in doubt about conflicting diet advice, I just follow common sense, or what my wife, Pippa, has been patiently telling me for years: eat moderate portions of healthy food and exercise regularly.
I suggested she appear in that last scene of "Diet Wars," where we could walk off toward the Golden Gate Bridge -- she a leggy brunette hand in hand with her silver-haired, slimmed-down husband. She turned me down flat. "I thought you said this was a diet show. You want it to look like a Viagra ad?"
My goal now is to lose another 10 pounds and keep pace with Health and Human Services director Tommy Thompson, the only member of the Bush cabinet who seems to take this national obesity epidemic seriously. Turns out we're both the same height, we both started dieting when we hit 210, and we both lost 15 pounds. Of course, I did it in two months and he took nine. But who's counting? Plus, I hear he does 50 pushups a day, which is not bad for a guy who's 63.
You go, Tommy! But watch out, man, I'm heading for 180. If you want, I'll meet you on the Mall for a weigh-in. You call it. Any day, any time.
Who knows, David Fanning might want to film it.