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February 1994: The late-night talk show war pitting David Letterman against Jay Leno is already being conceded, a mere six months after Letterman's defection to CBS. Dave is hot. Jay is freezing. Dave is hip. Jay is square. Dave gets the ratings on high-flying CBS. Jay gets the table scraps on bottom-fishing NBC. Dave is a broadcaster cavorting in his element. Jay is a comedian struggling to find his voice and dodge the ever-looming shadow of Johnny Carson.
Two years later: A far different tale is being spun. Letterman and his once high-flying Late Show have gone into a nose-dive -- shot down, it seems, by all the flak that CBS' disastrous primetime schedule has taken from critics and ratings counters alike. Leno, meanwhile, rules the airwaves. He's the guy who is pushing all of the right buttons on a rejuvenated NBC, presiding over a Tonight Show that's very much his own, one that consistently outguns that cranky guy's show on CBS.
It is therefore with more than a little bit of irony that HBO premieres on February 24th much-anticipated docudrama, The Late Shift, based on the 1994 book of the same name by New York Times television reporter Bill Carter. The Late Shift is Carter's fascinating insider account of how the King of Late Night, Johnny Carson, was given a subtle nudge out the door, how Letterman was passed over for a job he coveted and how Leno was nearly dumped by a group of jittery NBC executives hogtied by indecision.
Carter's book is a telling look at the inner workings of network TV. And it is also old news. Which is why a lot of folks were surprised when HBO decided to turn this story of power plays and follow-the-dollar corporate culture into a film. Considering that all of the key players in the drama area very much alike and schticking, the pitfalls appeared, if not insurmountable, at least plentiful. And just who really cares why one guy went to one network and another guy ultimately stayed put, anyway?
"You'd be surprised," says Betty Thomas, the Hill Street Blues actress alum who directed The Late Shift. "I had the script for this movie lying around the house when I still wasn't sure about doing it, and my mom came to visit. She picked it up to look at it. I figured she'd get bored. She's just this old lady from Middle America. But she couldn't put this script down. That told me a lot."
For a while, it looked iffy that there would be a workable film script for The Late Shift at all. The first commissioned screenplay was deemed unusable, and word got around Hollywood that the film was in trouble. Then the book's author himself came to the rescue. Over one weekend, Carter wrote a 40-page sample that won him a job penning his own adaptation. "I wrote it like a snapshot in time," Carter says. "This was a tremendous drama, an amazing series of events. That wasn't difficult to capture."
Casting the film was the next hurdle. The question of just who would get pegged to play Letterman and Leno consumed the TV industry. The selection job fell to Thomas and Late Shift executive producer Ivan Reitman, who as a producer and director has been involved with such hit theatrical films as Ghostbusters, Twins and Dave. "Betty and I set out to get not exact lookalikes but really good actors who could at least allow the viewing audience to suspend disbelief long enough to believe the representation," Reitman says.
The winners were Daniel Roebuck (a regular on Matlock) as Leno and John Michael Higgins as Letterman. Reitman claims
that Higgins is such a dead ringer for Letterman that he was stopped on the street during shooting and asked for his autograph -- the fans thinking he was the real guy.
The uncanny resemblance is "a horrible, daunting burden," Higgins admits with only a touch of overstatement. "People can flip their remotes back and forth and say, 'Oh, he hasn't got the same laugh.' The thing is, I don't want this to work as an impersonation. There's no way I can withstand that type of scrutiny."
Letterman has seen clips of Higgins' performance in the film. He told the Los Angeles Daily News that he thought the actor made him "look like a mental patient." Letterman went on, "I'm thinking, maybe that's how I look to these people. Maybe others who have seen me do this would say, 'Yeah, you act like a jerk, what do you expect?' But to me, this all just looked ridiculous."
Dave's reaction doesn't faze Carter, who says, "No one in his right mind would expect (Letterman) to like the movie because most nights he doesn't even like his own show." In the book and reportedly in the movie, Letterman is depicted as a self-loathing, driven paranoiac who put his future in the hands of superagent Michael Ovitz and wound up with a $14 million annual salary at CBS. Leno is the gentleman who proved to be a survivor and, when the going got tough, a street fighter to be reckoned with.
Carter wrote about how Leno, when his fate was being decided in a secret NBC staff meeting, hid in a janitorial closet to monitor the conversation. He also detailed Leno's rancorous split with his longtime manager and Tonight producer Helen Kushnick (played in the film by Oscar-winner Kathy Bates).
The Kushnick episode is a major part of the book, and so it is in the film. After taking over tonight, Kushnick became dictatorial and abusive, spewing her hostility at the world and nearly dragging Leno down with her. To survive, the host had
to become uncharacteristically disloyal and heartless, casting Kushnick adrift.
So what is the point in filming a story that's still ongoing but ends on screen in 1992, at the moment when Letterman decides to sign with CBS? The late Shift essentially tells 100 percent of about 25 percent of the story, giving viewers an update just before the end credits roll. "My hope is that the movie will result in some understanding of what these two guys went through," Reitman says. "I mean, we're not talking the war in Bosnia here, but for them it was a very serious and trying time. It's also a way to show how television and the entertainment industry really work."
Carter describes the story as "two guys who are worthy who share the same dream, but only one can get it." Carter got to know both men while researching his book and confirmed the popularly held belief that Leno is "a good guy in every sense."
Nevertheless, he found Jay to be a lot more complex than advertised. "The real Jay is pretty hard to know," Carter says. "You never really see what makes him tick underneath. He's chatty and loves to talk, but he doesn't let you see his insides."
Letterman, by contrast, is difficult to reach, says Carter, "but when you finally do get him, he's much more open. He pours his emotions out. He's not as sociable, but he isn't afraid to expose his soul once you finally get him to talk." All in all, Carter has great respect for the two men. "They're grotesquely overpaid guys who get to sit there and have guys write jokes for them. But it's an incredibly tough job. The scrutiny is unbelievable. It's no wonder that NBC wished they could have kept both of them. Not many can do this job well."
For their part, Higgins and Roebuck are likewise impressed by the men they played. "I know that Letterman probably doesn't feel the same way about me, but I just think he's the bees' knees," Higgins says. "He handled all of that adversity really well."
"I was a fan of Leno's before getting this role, I was a fan while playing him, and I remain a fan," claims Roebuck. "I was always conscious of not making the guy look bad." With all of this love and affection flowing from the cast and writer to the real guys, is this a movie that might come off as too nice?
Thomas isn't sure what "too nice" even means. She simply guesses that people will be so curious they'll have to tune in. "You're going to check out the movie because you watch these guys all the time and because they make so much damn money," she says. "It's the money that really makes all of us nuts, isn't it?"
|"Battle of Wits"
"A new HBO movie offers a blow-by-blow account of the Letterman-Leno war to take command of the airwaves"
By RAY RICHMOND
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