When Robinette returned from the war in 1969, he moved in with his mother and got a job as a janitor on the overnight shift at a local chemical plant. That led to another janitorial job at a small radio station, where he changed the urinal cakes and occasionally filled in reading the weather report (he had been trained as a radio man in the Navy). He was twenty-six, scarred, and going nowhere fast. Soon, though, things began to change. Robinette bluffed his way into a job as a part-time reporter at a radio station in the small town of Houma. The station’s owner also had an unused vhf television license and wanted someone from his radio network to organize a news department for his start-up television station. Robinette lied about his experience and got the job (“I told him I had been a ‘news director’ in college,” recalls Robinette). At KHMA, Robinette was basically a one-man operation, shooting stories, editing film, and appearing on the air. His most memorable moment came when a set collapsed during one broadcast, pinning him to his desk while his camera guy was out getting coffee. “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe,” people on the street would whisper at him for months afterward, mimicking his distress on the air.
In less than a year, Robinette was recruited to wwl-tv in New Orleans as a reporter. There, while filling in as a temporary anchor (the regular anchor went on the air drunk and was fired), Robinette caught the eye of Sherlee Barish, a prominent television agent who happened to be in New Orleans. She arranged for Robinette to audition for jobs in major markets, and he got plum offers, including chances to anchor at flagship stations in Los Angeles and New York.
Less than three years earlier, he’d been cleaning urinals. Now, still shy of thirty, he was on the verge of TV-news stardom. But he turned them all down. “Barish was furious,” Robinette recalls with a laugh. “Swore she’d ruin me.”
The truth was, Robinette didn’t feel ready for the big time. Though his career was taking off, his emotional state was becoming more fragile. Before the war, he says, he’d never fired a gun or gotten into a fight. Now he was often confrontational at work and getting into brawls after-hours. “He had a big temper back then,” recalls Jim Henderson. “Things got to Garland that might roll off someone else’s back. He has more of the temperament of an artist.” Things got so out of control, Robinette says, that when he went up to wcbs in New York to meet Walter Cronkite, both of his hands were in casts from a fistfight. He cut one cast off himself the night before the meeting so he could shake hands with the broadcasting legend. Robinette says he went through years of counseling and tried several medications to deal with the psychological trauma from the war, but with limited success. He didn’t drink or use drugs (aside from his prescription medication), but he smoked heavily and he eventually packed 230 pounds on his five-foot, ten-inch frame. He was a star in New Orleans, but he was bored and restless. He worked seven days a week. He went through three marriages, all of which ended, he says, entirely due to his problems. “I wasn’t always a lot of fun to be around,” he says.
Eventually, two things helped him keep his demons at bay: exercise (he started running up to seven miles a day) and painting. Though he always liked to sketch, Robinette didn’t start to paint seriously until he was past forty. Now he has his own gallery and exhibits regularly around New Orleans. In a studio behind his house, designed by Nancy Rhett, a fellow artist to whom he has been married since 1994, Robinette has several canvases in different stages of completion and much of the nervous tension that surrounds him at the radio station is noticeably absent. His home is decorated with his work, including several portraits of Charley, his twelve-year-old daughter with Rhett and his only child.