LONDON (AP) – Alistair Cooke, the broadcaster who epitomized highbrow television as host of “Masterpiece Theatre” and whose “Letter from America” was a radio fixture in Britain for 58 years, has died, the British Broadcasting Corp. said Tuesday. He was 95.

Cooke died at his home in New York at midnight, a spokeswoman at the BBC’s press office said. No cause of death was given, but Cooke had retired earlier this month because of heart disease.

“I have had much enjoyment in doing these talks and hope that some of it has passed over to the listeners, to all of whom I now say thank you for your loyalty and goodbye,” Cooke said when he stepped down on the advice of his doctor.

Prime Minister Tony Blair expressed sadness at the broadcaster’s death.

“I was a big fan. I thought they were extraordinary essays and they brought an enormous amount of insight and understanding to the world,” Blair told the BBC, referring to Cooke’s broadcasts.

“He was really one of the greatest broadcasters of all time, and we shall feel his loss very, very keenly indeed,” Blair said.

“For many Americans he will always be associated with the best of Britain,” said William Farish, the U.S. ambassador in London. “He had movie star good looks, a poised and effortless manner, a first-class mind, and – most flatteringly – a sincere and abiding interest in all things American.”

Cooke’s family informed BBC reporter Nick Clarke of the death, the BBC spokeswoman said. Clarke has written a biography of Cooke.

“I think he thought retirement was a very bad idea and when he was forced to stop work three weeks ago, I thought, this won’t be long now, because here was a man living for this one task,” Clarke told Sky News TV.

“Letter from America,” which was carried on the BBC World Service and on Radio 4 in Britain, started in 1946, and was originally scheduled to run 13 weeks.

“Alistair is a national institution,” said Christopher Sarson, the original executive producer of “Masterpiece Theatre,” once said. “He has defined what public television was and is for so many people that it is difficult to imagine life without him.”

Born Alfred Cooke in Salford in northern England in 1908, he earned an honors degree in English from Cambridge University.

In 1932 he came to the United States to study at Yale University, and he journeyed across the country by car.

“That trip was an absolute eye-opener for me,” he recalled. “Even then, even in the Depression, there was a tremendous energy and vitality to America. The landscape and the people were far more gripping and dramatic than anything I had ever seen.

“It truly changed me. You see, from then on my interest in the theater began to wane, and I began to take up what I felt was the real drama going on – namely, America itself.”

Returning to England and, having changed his name to Alistair, Cooke joined the BBC in 1934 as a film critic. He has been the BBC commentator on American affairs since 1938.

Cooke published 12 books including “Alistair Cooke’s America” (1973) which sold more than 800,000 copies in hard cover.

In addition to his BBC work, Cooke was London correspondent for the NBC network in 1936-37, The Manchester Guardian’s United Nations correspondent from 1945 to 1948, and chief U.S. correspondent of The Guardian until 1972.

He was host of the “Omnibus” television program in the United States from 1952 to 1961, and presented “Masterpiece Theatre” on the PBS network from 1971 to 1992.

He received four Emmy awards, three George Foster Peabody awards for broadcasting, and he was made an honorary Knight Commander, Order of the British Empire. It was an honorary award because Cooke, the consummate Englishman, had become a U.S. citizen in 1941.

Cooke’s “insight, wisdom and unique ability to craft words enabled millions of listeners in the UK and around the world to understand the texture of the United States and its people,” said Mark Byford, acting director general of the BBC.

AP-ES-03-30-04 0851EST

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