Terkel published his first book, Giants of Jazz, in 1956. He followed it with a number of other books, most focusing on the history of the United States people, relying substantially on oral history. He also serves as a Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence at the Chicago History Museum. He appeared in the movie based on the Black Sox Scandal, Eight Men Out. He played newspaper reporter Hugh Fullerton, who tries to uncover the White Sox players fixing to throw the 1919 World Series.
Terkel got his nickname when he was acting in a play with another person named Louis. In order to keep the two straight, the director gave Terkel the nickname Studs after the fictional character Studs Lonigan, of James T. Farrell's trilogy, which Terkel was reading at the time.
Terkel is perhaps best known for his oral histories, such as the 1970 book Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression, for which he assembled recollections of the Great Depression spanning the socioeconomic spectrum, from Okies, to prison inmates, to the wealthy. His 1974 book Working, in which (in the words of the subtitle) "People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do" was also highly acclaimed. (Working was made into a short-lived Broadway show in 1978 and telecast on PBS in 1982.) Terkel won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for "The Good War", which challenged the prevailing notion that, in contrast to the Vietnam War era, World War II was a time of unblemished national solidarity, goodwill, and unified purpose. In 1997 Terkel was elected a member of The American Academy of Arts and Letters and in 1999 he received the George Polk Career Award.
On May 22, 2006, Terkel, along with other plaintiffs, filed a suit in federal district court against AT&T to stop the telecommunications carrier from giving customer phone records to the National Security Agency without a court order.
Having been blacklisted from working in television during the McCarthy era, I know the harm of government using private corporations to intrude into the lives of innocent Americans. When government uses the telephone companies to create massive databases of all our phone calls it has gone too far.
In 2006, Terkel received the Dayton Literary Peace Prize's first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award.
Terkel has completed a new personal memoir entitled Touch and Go, published in the fall of 2007.
Terkel has never learned to drive and is an agnostic.
"I hope for peace and sanity—it's the same thing."
"I've always felt, in all my books, that there's a deep decency in the American people and a native intelligence—providing they have the facts, providing they have the information."
"With optimism, you look upon the sunny side of things. People say, 'Studs, you're an optimist.' I never said I was an optimist. I have hope because what's the alternative to hope? Despair? If you have despair, you might as well put your head in the oven."
"That's why I wrote this book: to show how these people can imbue us with hope. I read somewhere that when a person takes part in community action, his health improves. Something happens to him or to her biologically. It's like a tonic."
"The older you are, the freer you are, as long as you last." Studs Turkel at 95
"Take it easy, but take it." For years, the sign-off line on his WFMT radio show
On breaking his hip: "I was walking downstairs carrying a drink in one hand and a book in the other. Don't try that after 90."
Conversation with future Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing in 1969: Lessing: "You do still have gangsters [in Chicago], don't you?" Terkel: "Yes, but these days they're mostly in business, or politics."