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The Mr. Know-It-All of Japan : Transplanted Chicagoan Dave Spector may have become a media megastar, but can he ever go home again?

December 31, 1989|By ALAN BROWN | Brown is a Tokyo-based free-lance writer. and

TOKYO — Dave Spector has a problem. Six years ago, he came to Japan from Los Angeles as a segment producer for ABC's "Ripley's Believe It or Not."

But instead of returning home after a few weeks as planned, the Chicago native stayed on and transformed himself, Cinderella-like, into a media superstar in Japan.

Tune in at any hour of the day or night, to any television channel, and there he is: cracking jokes--in fluent Japanese--on a variety show, competing on a popular quiz program, commenting with authority on international trade friction on the morning news, fearlessly confronting a politician on a debate show. He's even written (and this is a first for a \o7 gaijin\f7 , or non-Japanese) a comedy show for Japanese television.

"I'm what is known as a multitalent in Japan," says the 34-year-old former contributing editor to the National Lampoon. "I literally do everything--a tremendous variety of media. On a given day, it's often three shows and most of them live. I just dart from one network to another."

Slightly built and boyish-looking with dyed blond hair, he seems an unlikely celebrity. With his wife, Kyoko, pector has turned a suite in the Tokyo Hilton into his home, office, media center and personal gym.

And, as he says: "I'm famous all over Japan. Everyone knows me. Children. Old people. Taxi driv

ers. It's almost too exciting for a human being."

So the problem isn't his celebrity status. Could it be his competition? There are only three other Americans getting wide exposure on Japanese TV, and he discounts them with a wave of his hand.

"Look, the other two guys (Kent Gilbert and Kent Delacat) are Mormons. Talk about a warped look at life. I mean, these guys don't keep up with what's going on. And Chuck (Wilson) has been here since the Korean War. Come on. I'm the only one they can understand. People from Utah don't count. Not anymore. I set the television people straight on that. I told them: 'It's like inviting someone from Mars.' "

So what's the problem?

Well, Dave Spector would like to go home.

"I have an entertainment, show-business background. I should have gone back and continued my career," Spector says. "All of the people I worked with, all of my friends in L.A., are all very successful now. They're all writing sitcoms and movies. Everyone's doing fine.

"A lot of the Americans who come here really didn't do anything back home at all. Nothing. They worked at a Fava shoe store if they were lucky. But I was trailblazing away at the very moment I was sent over here. I had no intention of rooting myself here. I was totally set on making it in Los Angeles, in the television industry.

"That's why it's a dilemma for me. Here, I'm successful only because I happen to speak Japanese the way that I do (he began studying as a child), and because I have the aggressiveness of an American."

Spector readily acknowledges he doesn't have the expertise to represent the United States views on sensitive issues such as trade, whaling and crime. A graduate of Lane Tech High School in Chicago, he says he briefly attended Sophia University in central Tokyo, taking Far East studies. He also says he studied broadcasting in Chicago at "one of those places you find in the Yellow Pages."

His improbable career hinges on the somewhat perverse fascination the Japanese have with foreigners (read "Americans") who can speak their language and the Japanese TV system, which keeps a very small number of \o7 talento\f7 (talents) working seven days a week.

"If you're back home, you're on an equal plane with everybody else and that's where the real competition is. It's the big pond," Spector says. "So, if you want to have the ultimate satisfaction and pride in being successful, it has to be in your own country. I was successful in the States, so I have it in the back of my mind, 'Wait, I can be successful back home too.' '

So, why not just pack up and go? You see, there's this little thing about. . . .

"I'm making too much money here. I'm making so much money, it's not funny," Spector admits readily. "I don't even know how much because it increases every year. It's an obscene amount." (Earlier this year, he'd claimed "close to $500,000" for his work in Japan.)

Although unionless Japanese TV pays much less than American TV, the sheer quantity of Spector's appearances more

than makes up for the low fees. And that's just the beginning, said energetic superstar, who is capitalizing on his fame with a zeal that would make Vanna White's head spin.

"Television is really a way to promote yourself for the bigger pie. And that's lectures and personal appearances. I give three, four, five lectures a week at $5,000 each. That's a lot of money for an hour's work. And given my extremely limited education, I really have no business giving lectures. But who's going to complain?"

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