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He?s usually the man who asks the questions. But Bay Area TV host and interviewer Ross McGowan remembers one time when the tables were turned and he was speechless.

?I had this woman come up to me once just out of the clear blue sky,? he said. ?I was walking down the street in San Francisco. She stopped me and said, ?Ross McGowan? Have you ever had to work hard for anything??

The truth is, the imperturbable broadcaster worked hard for decades to make it all look so easy. Even when confronted with a question that might have ignited hotter heads, he politely held his tongue.

Now, after 40 years cajoling confessions from celebrities and candor from politicians, McGowan has stepped away from the microphone, retreating to his Healdsburg home to play tennis and golf, learn photography and sleep in. October 2 was his last day.

Since 1993 he?s been getting out of bed at 2:00 in the morning to be on set and prepared to host KTVU?s ?Mornings on Two.? That means that during the week he has to be in bed by 7:30 or 8 p.m.

And yet McGowan is slow to complain or sound ungrateful for a career that has kept him employed in his native Bay Area since the 1970s, first for 14 years as the affable and boyish straight man to the ebullient Ann Fraser on KPIX?s old ?People Are Talking? and later stepping into the role of elder statesman on ?Mornings on Two.?

?I?ll dabble with broadcasting a bit. I just don?t want to work full-time anymore...although I?m sure lucky to have a job,? he said on a recent afternoon, stretching out his long legs on the porch of his home on Fitch Mountain, two dogs at his feet.

?Of all the people who wish they had a job, and I just don?t want to get up too early,? he adds apologetically. ?But after 17 years I?m tired of it.?

At 66, no one would begrudge a man his retirement, but McGowan insisted that when station management put out the press release about his pending departure, there would be no mention of the ?R? word.

?There were three things I didn?t want on there. I don?t want, ?I?m retiring.? I don?t want ?I?m pursuing other business interests? and I don?t want ?I want to spend more time with my family?...particularly if you met my family,? he adds with typical downplayed humor.

McGowan lives in a casual house overlooking Healdsburg, with sweeping views of Alexander and Dry Creek valleys. He bought the place in 2002, following his close friend and TV foil Ann Fraser, who also has a home in Healdsburg as well as a summer place further down the Russian River.

During their years on ?People are Talking,? viewers had fun guessing whether Ann and Ross, with their simmering on-screen chemistry, were really an item; they did little to dispel the rumors, although it was all in fun. Fraser said she and her husband Ron Lorentzen and Ross are like ?The Three Musketeers.? In fact, McGowan unwittingly had a hand in bringing them together. Lorentzen was a producer for one of McGowan?s shows in Seattle back in the day and after Ann picked Ross out of a bevy of wannabes to be her co-host on ?People Are Talking,? McGowan recruited his old associate for a job at KPIX.

As soon as Lorentzen and Fraser eyed each other in an elevator, one thing quickly led to another.

?We do a lot of stuff together,? Fraser said of their enduring friendship. ?We owned a condo in Arizona together and we invested and ran a yogurt store for a year and a half together... We?ve spent the last 10 Thanksgivings and Labor Days together.?

McGowan?s laid-back personality and blond, Ken-doll cuteness proved the perfect counterweight for the bubbly, ex-cheerleader Ann Fraser. They were Regis and Kelly long before Regis and Kelly.

A few years back the old co-hosts teamed up again to do A.J. Gurney?s ?Love Letters? at The Raven theater in Healdsburg.

?What you see is not necessarily what you get,? Fraser said of McGowan?s hang-loose persona. ?He?s a serious person. He plays things close. He?s very sensitive. He doesn?t want you to see that side. He?s very thoughtful but suffers no fools.?

She remembers a time in the early days of ?People are Talking? when the producers tried to recruit the show?s co-hosts to clean the dishes after on-air cooking segments. ?He grabbed me by the arm and said, ?Ann we?re the hosts. We don?t do dishes, because they?ll push you to the limits. He was very good at drawing limits.?

While unfailingly amiable, McGowan was not necessarily an easy interviewer either. One of his most ?fun times? was an interchange with former O.J. Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark. She was on a satellite hook-up promoting her new biography. But McGowan opened with some tough queries on breaking news in the O.J. Simpson civil case. Clark cut him off: ?Don?t bother...You?re going to waste your time.? McGowan kept pressing. And when the spot was over she said, on mike, ?Who did we just go live with?...That guy is an a...hole.?

McGowan?s producer played the clip on air and the injudicious comment lives on on YouTube.

And for every fluffy segment he did, like the on-location shoot at a nudist colony in the Santa Cruz mountains, there was a serious topic like the first live TV talk show from San Quentin or segments on AIDS and the homeless.

Of the more than 10,000 interviews, from Jimmy Carter and John McCain to Carol Burnett and Barack Obama, not all are memorable. And some make him cringe. He recalls an early radio interview in Seattle he did with the legendary 1950s TV comic Sid Caesar, who responded to questions with a nod of the head.

The celebrity he disliked the most was Raquel Welch, who he politely dismisses as ?not a very nice person.?

?She drove up in front of Channel 5 and arrived with two cars. One limousine for her and one for her luggage. And the guy driving her luggage said he was the lucky one.?

McGowan, who has two grown sons, splits his weeks between Healdsburg and Mill Valley, where he lived for 20 years and where his girlfriend Ann Simon has a home.

The pair like to stroll downtown and hit favorite eating spots like Bistro Ralph, Ravenous and Zin. McGowan claims to be no oenophile. With wine, he says he knows what he likes when he?s drinking it, but can?t deconstruct it in the glass.

With his newly downsized life he plans to busy himself with a little traveling ? Belize in November and perhaps Europe next spring. He?s also invested in a fledgling Healdsburg-based business, a probiotic health drink with beneficial bacteria. On this day he?s wearing paint-splattered shoes, having contributed not only capital but sweat-equity painting the office near the Hotel Healdsburg.

?I?ll probably get more involved in Healdsburg. I?m not sure what that means either,? he says. ?I?ll just pick and choose.?

He plans to do some fill-in work on radio. But as for the next big thing, the easy-going McGowan figures he?ll just wait for the next opportunity.

?Everything that has happened in my career has almost evolved,? he says. ?It?s never been anything really planned. So whatever happens now is just going to evolve. I?m not too worried about it.?

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 521-5204 or meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com.