Obituary: ‘Watch it, buddy!’ Citytv’s consumer reporter legend Peter Silverman dead at 90

Peter Silverman in an undated photo in the Sinai desert. (Photo supplied)

Peter Silverman, a tough-as-nails consumer reporter whose fight-for-you ethos brought justice to many aggrieved people who’d gotten the shaft, died in Tweed, Ont. on Oct. 7. He was 90.

The protean Silverman was a journalist, advocate, soldier, and academic. His huge appetite for adventure led him to work as a foreman with a crew laying a railway line in Newfoundland and Labrador. While in England, he drove a bulldozer during construction of the M1, Britain’s first four-lane highway. He was one of the workers extending the London Underground, where he lost a finger saving a crewman’s life, recalled his death notice.

“He believed in tikkun olam, the Jewish philosophy that you were put on earth to repair the earth and help others,” his wife, Frances Burton, told Toronto’s CityNews.

“He was a triumph,” Burton told The CJN, “a good golem.”

To Toronto news watchers, Silverman was doubtless best known as host of “Silverman Helps,” a widely viewed CityPulse newscast segment in which he went to bat for consumers who’d been misled, lied to, gouged, or outright swindled by assorted scammers and had lost all hope. The popular segment ran from 1989 to 2008.

It received more than 20,000 complaints a year, and according to one unscientific estimate, 95 percent of them were resolved on behalf of consumers wronged by business and bureaucracy.

It wasn’t always easy. Over the years, he encountered many hostile characters, doors slammed in his face, shoving, threats, yelling—even a man who came at him with a bulldozer.

One segment emerged as legend. In 2007, Silverman responded to several complaints about an optician on King Street West who would sell fake designer frames at a premium; promise free eye exams, then say it was only with the purchase of frames, and engage in threatening and abusive behaviour, including calling police on customers.

When Silverman showed up for answers, the optician pushed the door open violently and began throwing punches, with the reporter’s fists raised in defensive posture and his body absorbing the few blows that landed.

The episode went viral on YouTube and was broadcast on CNN, with Silverman, then 75, winning plaudits for standing his ground.

But it was another segment that led to the catch-phrase with which he would become closely associated. Following an encounter with one especially combative business owner who pushed him out the door, Silverman turned and snapped: “Watch it, buddy!”

“If you say the name Peter Silverman, how many people would say to you, ‘watch it buddy!’” recalled longtime former Citytv legal affairs reporter Lorne Honickman, who went on to practice law in Toronto. “It could be one of the greatest clips of all time. That was Peter.”

As a young reporter at Citytv, Honickman encountered “a true original” in Silverman: A PhD, a published writer, and a business reporter for the station. “A character,” Honickman added. “He was also the toughest person.”

There are so many “iconic” memories of Silverman, Honickman said he could go on for “hours and hours.”

But in the end, “we all wish that when we die, if people talk about us, they would say ‘he or she left a legacy.’ Not all of us will get that. But Peter can and should be spoken of that way. He does leave a legacy.”

Twitter was alight with condolences. Silverman was “an incredible person, broadcaster and former CityNews ombudsman who in his off-hours, worked to help people whose stories he knew couldn’t get to air,” tweeted CP24 reporter and anchor Cristina Tenaglia.

Silverman was Tenaglia’s first boss at Citytv, she said. When she visited him in August, she found his memory waned at times, but then he told her, “you’re a wonderful woman but you drive us **** [sic] crazy sometimes.”

Peter Guy Silverman was born in Montreal on July 5, 1931, to English-born Aubrey Silverman and Blanche Wiener, who was born in France.

He was too young to serve in the Second World War and was rejected by the Royal Canadian Air Force for lacking 20/20 vision, so he went through the Canadian Officers’ Training Corps in Alberta over several post-war summers.

He graduated from Montreal’s Sir George Williams University in 1953 and spent several years in England, where he worked for the Institute of Race Relations and served with the British Army Emergency Reserve, reported his alma mater in its condolence.

From 1957 to 1963, Silverman was a captain in the British Army’s Para Engineers.

“He was then trained by the SAS (Special Air Service) and sent to fight in Cyprus,” relates a colourful family death notice. “He survived being wounded in battle, only to become a paratrooper with the Royal Engineers Airborne. He couldn’t fly planes, so he jumped out of them.”

Back in Canada, he earned a master’s degree in history from the University of British Columbia and a PhD from the University of Toronto on British naval policy in the Far East from 1919 to 1942. For a time, he taught history at UofT’s Scarborough campus.

In 1967, he was among thousands of young foreign volunteers who poured into Israel during the Six-Day War, a time he detailed in a 7,700-word memoir. From 1968 to 1972, he served with the Governor General’s Horse Guard.

Silverman kicked off a career in broadcast journalism in 1974, when he joined Global Television, where his reporting exposed Ontario puppy mills, which led to changes in legislation. He wrote and hosted Code 10-78, a crime re-creation series. He moved to CityPulse in 1981 as a business specialist, using his expertise gained from his time spent in the worlds of advertising and marketing in Canada and England in the 1960s.

Among the “Silverman Helps” stories that meant the most to him, his family noted, were exposing a fraud in which money meant for the installation of an elevator for disabled children at the Driftwood School was diverted. After his story, the elevator was installed free of charge.

Following his involuntary departure from Citytv, he hosted a short-lived phone-in show on Toronto radio station Newstalk 1010.

Silverman lent his personal support to a variety of charitable causes, including the Aphasia Centre, Canadian Human Rights Voice, Habitat for Humanity, Save a Child’s Heart Foundation, Ve’ahavta, and the Peres Center for Peace & Innovation in Israel.

In 1993, he aided in the construction of a bridge in Ethiopia to help farmers sell their crops and allow trucks to cross town.

“I do this because I have an obligation to do it,” Silverman told the Toronto Star at the time. “I have certain skills, so why not utilize them?”

He also did humanitarian work in Nicaragua, Honduras, South Africa, and Rwanda after the genocide there.

He authored two books on child welfare: Who Speaks for the Children? and Voices of a Lost Generation.

Among several prizes for his reporting, he was nominated for a second Gemini in the Best Reportage category for the optician story. The Toronto chapter of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners presented Silverman with an award in recognition of his fraud-fighting in 2006.

He was inducted into the Order of Ontario in 2009.

Silverman is survived by his wife, Frances Burton; twin daughters, Alexis and Leah; and three grandchildren.