Next of Kin
With their dad an iconic storyteller and a CBS crew camped out in the family kitchen, could Willie and Libby Geist seriously consider careers outside TV and film? Fortunately, they didn’t. The siblings are following with pride — and success — in the footsteps of their father, Bill.
The Geist clan is practically TV royalty.
Bill Geist, family patriarch, was a New York Times columnist in 1987 when Don Hewitt, creator and longtime executive producer of 60 Minutes, asked if he’d ever considered doing television. That led to nearly 30 years of stories for CBS Sunday Morning and many contributions to The CBS Evening News, 60 Minutes II and CBS Sports.
Bill’s son, Willie Geist, produced Tucker Carlson’s MSNBC show before landing a decade ago as cohost of the network’s early-a.m. political talk show, Morning Joe. That led, in turn, to cohosting duties on NBC’s Today, plus his own weekly show, Sunday Today. In June 2016, following the Orlando nightclub shooting, he was on the air for seven hours, anchoring an NBC special report.
Bill’s daughter, Libby Geist Wildes, is an ESPN vice-president and executive producer of ESPN Films and its acclaimed documentary series 30 for 30. She has played a key role in the production of such films as O.J.: Made in America, which won this year’s Oscar for best documentary feature.
Libby is nominated for two Emmys this year, as an executive producer of 30 for 30 in the category Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series, and as an executive producer of O.J.: Made in America, in Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking.
The brother and sister — who sometimes finish each other’s sentences — recently sat down at New York City’s Tavern on the Green with emmy contributor Bob Makela.
The sibs (each is married with two kids) discussed the family business and growing up with their beloved father, who has pared down his workload recently due to Parkinson’s disease. When a waiter shows up to take drink orders, both Willie and Libby ask for an Arnold Palmer.
[To Willie] Did you ever interview Arnold Palmer?
Willie: Good question. I don’t think I ever interviewed Arnold Palmer by himself. Maybe in a group setting. I used to cover sports, and I’d be at the Masters [Tournament] with 100 other reporters with a microphone in his face.
Libby: He was in Bristol [Connecticut] at ESPN headquarters serving Arnold Palmers, which was kind of awesome.
Willie: He was there for a commercial, right?
Libby: Yeah — but then he stayed all afternoon and was handing them out to people. It was great.
You got an Arnold Palmer from Arnold Palmer? Really?
Sounds like a career highlight.
Willie: That is. I got nothin’ to compare to that.
Libby: There are a few perks to being at ESPN.
So how many siblings are there?
Libby: Just us. He’s four-and-a-half years older than I am.
What kind of brother was Willie growing up?
Libby: He wasn’t beating me up, because I was too little. It was probably more emotional abuse. I was the pesky little sister. I would sit at the top of our stairs when he had high school parties and observe. [To Willie] I don’t know if you know that.
Willie: There was some of that big-brother torture. But the [age difference] was big enough and the genders were different, so we weren’t competing for the same things — for our parents, our friends, at school. We were never in the same school.
You grew up in New Jersey, right?
Willie: We both were born in Chicago — [actually] Evanston, Illinois. My dad was writing for the suburban edition of the Chicago Tribune. Then he got a job when I was five to write for The New York Times. So halfway through my kindergarten year, we moved from Evanston to Ridgewood, New Jersey.
Libby: I claim to be from Chicago. Our whole family is from the Midwest, so we have those roots. But we were raised in New Jersey, in the suburbs. My dad commuted. We had a great upbringing. We were really lucky.
In his TV pieces, your dad definitely comes off more like a Midwesterner than a New Yorker.
Willie: Totally. He’d been mired in the basement of the bureau at the suburban Trib — he didn’t get to go downtown and write for the big paper — and he was frustrated. So he sent clips around the country — to the Washington Post, The New York Times, anywhere he could get an address for.
He sort of had a cult following, because he was a funny writer. An editor for The New York Times was reading his stuff on the beach one weekend and thought, “This guy’s pretty funny; let’s give him a call.” So they flew him to New York. He was from Champaign, Illinois; had gone to the University of Illinois in Champaign — he’d never really left the city in his first 23 years.
Libby: Yeah, yeah.
Willie: Then he went to Vietnam [a combat photographer, he earned a Bronze Star], came back and started his career. And when he came to New York — it’s 1980, so it’s hard-core New York — he’s like, “What is this place?” But, you know, it was The New York Times, so…
Libby: What was the one story he always talks about? There was a car parked on the street with the keys left in it in the middle of Manhattan.
Willie: It’s the Bronx in 1980. And this car’s been sitting there for a couple of days — and no one’s stolen it! So my dad gets in the subway and goes up to the Bronx and writes this amazing column about the car that wasn’t stolen. That’s how he did it. He got tips or he’d just go out and walk around. He was really good at it. He’s a really good writer.
He’s lived here since 1980, but he’s way more comfortable at the Illinois State Fair than at an Upper East Side cocktail party. Still, after almost 40 years, he’s a little out of his element. Like, “Who are these people?”
Libby: Yeah. He’s not really buying it.
Your dad was not only on TV, but he was shooting segments in the house. What was that like for you?
Libby: He was coaching Little League and he was around a lot. He was traveling for stories, but I don’t really remember the cameras being in the kitchen as weird, for some reason. He had a producer, Amy Rosner, who became part of our family, too.
They did a story about my wedding. Before I went to the altar, Amy was the first person I saw and she was crying. Afterward I said to her, “You are not coming [to the hospital] when I have my babies.”
Growing up, was there any talk of either of you going into TV one day?
Willie: Not really.
Libby: Never. I don’t remember any professional conversation, for better or for worse. I think we just knew he loved what he did. He was good at what he did. I always loved writing and reading. I think it was in our blood. It was never pushed in any way.
Willie: I had done an internship at CBS in college during the 1996 presidential campaign and loved it. I got to go to the Republican Convention in San Diego and I was like, “This is cool. It’s different from what my dad did.” I think that’s when the switch turned on for me.
Did you learn anything from your dad that you use today?
Willie: Yeah, I think his curiosity is probably what I learned. It’s going out and finding stories, going to cool places and asking people questions.
Libby: I probably do stuff that’s more similar to what he did than you do [Willie], even though on the surface it probably seems the other way around. But I love stories. This morning I was on the subway thinking, “Everybody here’s got something going on.”
What kind of TV did you watch growing up?
Libby: Family Ties.
Willie: I was a big Punky Brewster guy.
Libby: I was a Punky Brewster guy, too.
Willie: Soleil Moon Frye was an early crush.
Ever interview her?
Willie: I have. She’s come on the Today show .
That’s a nice perk, getting to meet your schoolboy crush.
Willie: Yeah. I wanted to be up front about it. She was like, “That’s fine.” It wasn’t the first time she heard that.
What else did you watch?
Willie: I watched a lot of Yankees games with my dad. That was my big thing, the Yankees on WPIX Channel 11.
Libby: I went to Knicks games with Dad. I went to the U.S. Open every year with Dad. Now that I’m at ESPN, people think, “You must be a diehard sports fan.” And I’m like, “Well, I do like sports.” [To Willie] But I was sort of forced to, through you guys. It was always on TV.
What’s your mom, Jody, like? She was a social worker, right?
Libby: We always laugh, [saying] “Thank God for the grounded social worker in our family.”
Willie: My dad is Midwestern stoic in terms of emotion. He’s got a great heart, but he doesn’t wear it on his sleeve. My mom is definitely where we get empathy, a conscience — things she showed us by example, but also taught us. She was a social worker on the south side of Chicago, [dealing with] serious stuff.
And did you always want to work in TV, Libby?
Libby: I never knew what I wanted to do. I was a political science major [at the University of Wisconsin, Madison]. But I remember graduating and [thinking] “I’m definitely smart. But I know I don’t want to be a politician or a lawyer.”
I had fun internships, too. I interned for Conan [O’Brien] when he was at Late Night. Then I moved to Chicago after graduation and had an internship with the White Sox. I knew I wanted to be where fun, interesting things were happening. I was in the sales department, which was a total disaster. But I liked being in the building on game nights, walking around, thinking, “This is so cool.”
What were your beginnings in TV like, Willie?
Willie: I was driving a delivery truck for a liquor store after I graduated from Vanderbilt. Then I moved to Atlanta because a bunch of my friends from school had moved down there. CNN had just started a 24-hour sports channel with Sports Illustrated, so they were hiring production assistants.
Did you have any aspirations to be in front of the camera at that point?
Willie: I didn’t. I worked with a bunch of 20-somethings who loved sports. It was a start-up. And I was a big sports fan. I had to take a sports quiz to get in.
Libby: Really? That’s awesome.
Willie: I was a production assistant. Then I was an associate producer. Then I learned how to produce shows. It was like my journalism school. I was thrilled. But after they pulled the plug on CNN/SI a few years later, I started thinking about doing on-air stuff.
Did your dad give you any advice about going in front of the camera?
Willie: It wasn’t like, “You should speak like this, and you should look like this.” Because he still didn’t feel like he was a TV guy. He’s like, “I’m a writer. I don’t know what to tell you. Be yourself.” But “Be yourself” turns out to be the only piece of advice that matters.
Your dad has had Parkinson’s for 25 years, but he didn’t tell you about it for the first 10 years. Did you have any idea something was up?
Willie: In hindsight, I don’t know how we...
Libby: ...didn’t know what it was.
Willie: We were naive. Or we didn’t believe that it was a possibility. I remember thinking he was slowing down a little bit. I was like, “Oh, Dad’s getting older.” But he wasn’t old enough to be going through that stuff. For a while our mom would say, “He’s got a neurological thing. It’s okay.”
Libby: It was no big deal. What’s his joke? “Denial’s always been good for me.”
How’s he doing now?
Willie: He’s good. [To Libby] What are we calling him, semi-retired?
Willie: CBS Sunday Morning has been awesome to him. They said, “If you want to come back and do pieces for us, the door is open.” So he may go back and do some. He’s working on a book right now, so it’s not fair to say he’s retired. He’s still got his hand in a few things. I don’t think we give him enough credit for how tough he is.
Is there an extra significance for you to have your own show in the same time slot your dad was in for so many years?
Willie: I started Sunday Today just as he was stepping away from Sunday Morning, so we were head-to-head for only a couple months. We aspire to their level of consistently great TV. They’ve proven — and now we are [proving] too, I hope — that good, smart, deep TV news can be a winner.
Someone sent me a screen grab of my dad and me on the air at precisely the same moment last year. Pretty wild for a guy who, as a kid, used to go in to CBS early on Sunday mornings with my dad when he was introducing one of his pieces live and watch the great Charles Kuralt, now to be doing it myself on Sunday mornings 30 years later.
You mentioned he was Midwest stoic. But has he been expressive when talking about how proud he is of you?
Libby: Oh, he is. Especially lately. He’s gotten very sentimental. He’s very sweet about that. I think the excitement I had last year and that [to Willie] you’ve had the last few years — he’s totally into it. He watches Willie, like it or not, at high volume when I’m there, for three or four hours a day.
Willie: It is a long show.
Willie: The night [O.J.: Made in America] won the Oscar, we were home at our apartment. And we were in black tie because we wanted to pretend we were at the Oscars. Google it. We’ve got video. It’s me, my mom and dad, my wife and my mom’s friend. We had champagne.
Libby: I think Mom [brought] guacamole.
Willie: My dad was like... he doesn’t always say it. But it’s all over his face. Especially that night.
Was he bawling?
Willie: Yeah, he was emotional. I was emotional. That’s my sister. For him it’s like, “That’s my little girl. In that room with, like, Brad Pitt and George Clooney. What is happening?! ” And she’s texting us — “Guess who we saw at the bar?”
Libby: [ Cracking up ] I was thinking, “We’re gonna get kicked out of here any moment. Somebody made a mistake.”
So what are your Emmy plans? Are you going?
Willie: No plans yet, but I’ll definitely be watching.
Libby: I’ll be at the Emmys! I’m really excited to be there to support 30 for 30 and celebrate the team from O.J.: Made in America. O.J. was nominated in several craft categories, so we’ll be hooting and hollering for the film’s director, editors, composer, cinematographer, sound mixers and producers.
I won’t have plans for a dress or babysitters until last minute. I “rented the runway” for the Oscars and was teased to death [about renting a gown online], so I may go another route this time.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 7, 2017
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