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Leta Powell Drake, known as 'greatest interviewer of all time,' dies at 83

The TV broadcaster and actor went viral last year after vintage clips of her celebrity interviews recirculated online.
Leta Powell Drake (right) interviewed many celebrities, including Mary Tyler Moore (left).
Leta Powell Drake (right) interviewed many celebrities, including Mary Tyler Moore (left).Aaron Drake
/ Source: TODAY

A unique and prolific voice of local TV news and a champion for women in newscasting has died. TV broadcaster Leta Powell Drake from Lincoln, Nebraska was 83 when she died on Sept. 15, her son Aaron Drake confirmed to TODAY.

Last November, Drake's vintage celebrity interviews, which included clips with Telly Savalas and Tim Curry, had a resurgence when they went viral on Twitter.

Aaron Drake spoke to TODAY on the phone about his mother who, from the late '70s to the early '90s, interviewed dozens of celebrities for local TV station KOLN of Lincoln. He said she did everything from stage acting and newscasting to playing a popular character on a children's television show, and paved the way for many women in entertainment with her standout style and knack for speaking to people on their own level.

"Mom had been retired for a while but was still active in the community," he said. When old clips of her celebrity interviews suddenly gained traction on the internet in 2020, he said it was nice to see her back in the limelight.

"She had all these 3/4 inch video tapes in the garage that she had donated to the Nebraska History Museum," he explained. "They digitized all of the old CBS junkets she did. Some of them were really obscure, but it was fun to see her get back into her old groove."

Leta Powell Drake poses for a photo with Johnny Carson.Aaron Drake

Drake said his mother, who played the character "Kalamity Kate" on "Cartoon Corral," a local children's TV program, loved to act as well.

"She was in a number of acclaimed shows, namely a production of 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf' at the University of Nebraska in the 1960's." Drake said that his mother's performance preceded Elizabeth Taylor's portrayal in the film version and that it's known as one of the best renditions of the famous Edward Albee play.

"She used a broad spectrum of mediums to get her work across," he said. She even wrote a book about playing "Kalamity Kate," a character who would wish kids happy birthday on the television show.

"There were about 80,000 to 90,000 kids that appeared on that program over the years and they all have vivid memories of the questions she asked them," Drake said.

Leta Powell Drake in her role as "Kalamity Kate" on "Cartoon Corral."Aaron Drake

He attributes his mom's ability to talk to different people from all walks of life to what made her a special voice in television.

In 1984, around the release of the movie "Splash," actor Tom Hanks even said that he could "listen to (Drake) all day long."

"She had to get to the level of each person, whether it was a movie star or a local barbershop quartet," Aaron Drake said of her interviews. "She was skilled in the art of entertainment."

Leta Powell Drake with her son, Aaron, daughter-in-law, Cyndee, and grandchildren, Sierra and Danielle.Aaron Drake

Drake also called his mother a champion for women during a time when women in broadcasting were few and far between.

"It was the 1960's, it was a male-dominated environment," he said. "She was a single mom, raising me, an only child, while doing all of this. She was a pioneer for women."