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Looking for Mr. Letterman : Who Will Portray the Players in HBO's 'The Late Shift'?


When the announcement was made last week that HBO wants to make a movie out of "The Late Shift," the book chronicling the behind-the-scenes power struggles over the replacement of Johnny Carson as host of "The Tonight Show," the water-cooler question with which Hollywood seemed to be having the most fun was who will portray the key players.

The impish Tom Hanks was suggested by several talent agents as a good choice for David Letterman.

Jay Leno nominated Lorenzo Lamas, the stud star of "Renegade," to play him. He also suggested Alec Baldwin and Tom Cruise. Others thought Randy Quaid would make a decent Leno.

As for Leno's former manager, Helen Kushnick, whose strong-arm tactics with "Tonight Show" guests forced NBC to fire her as executive producer of the show, one talent agent suggested Faye Dunaway in a reprise of her "Mommie Dearest" role. Some thought Tyne Daly looks a lot like Kushnick.

Howard Stringer, president of the CBS Broadcast Group, who successfully lured Letterman away from NBC after the "Tonight" job went to Leno, volunteered Anthony Hopkins to play him. And virtually everyone pointed to former "thirtysomething" star Timothy Busfield, with his red hair and beard, as a ringer for NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield, who successfully fought to retain Leno.

Hollywood frequently scurries to turn scandalous news events into sensational TV docudramas. But, in this case, the news event in question involves major players in the entertainment industry, and, if the project comes to fruition, HBO will be swinging the cameras onto Hollywood itself.

And the picture, as chronicled in "The Late Shift," by New York Times writer Bill Carter, isn't always pretty. In one incident, Leno, with no manager or agent to look out for him, hid in an adjoining room during a phone conference among NBC executives to hear what they were saying about him. Later, he called Littlefield in a hotel room, when Littlefield happened to be sitting on the toilet, and revealed what he heard in the meeting.

"What's challenging about portraying these people is you don't want to insult them, because you have to work with them again," said a TV casting director at one of the studios. "I'm sure Littlefield wouldn't be too happy if you brought in Ed Begley Jr. to play him. I'm just really grateful I don't have that job."

The topic of greatest conversation appeared to be who would portray Michael Ovitz, the super-agent who heads Creative Artists Agency and can make or break a career. Although few people outside the entertainment industry may be able to pick him out of a crowd, Ovitz has a ubiquitous presence in Hollywood. He was a prominent player in engineering Letterman's departure from NBC to accept a $14-million-a-year deal at CBS.

"It would be a tossup between Richard Widmark and Tom Arnold for Michael Ovitz," said a William Morris agent. Steve Guttenberg was mentioned as another possibility, based on resemblance.

"Michael Keaton," offered another agent at William Morris. "Think of his alter-ego role as Bruce Wayne in 'Batman'--clean-cut, looks good in the two-piece suit, menacing."

The same agent went on to explain, though, that whoever plays Ovitz really has nothing to lose. "It was almost like Michael Ovitz could have written that book ('The Late Shift') himself," he explained. "He was painted in such a wonderful light, as the one who solved the problem and made David Letterman an extremely wealthy man."

And how do the players themselves feel about being portrayed on screen?

Ovitz did not care to comment. Neither did Leno, although he reportedly is not happy about the HBO deal. Letterman could not be reached. One of the players who figured into the book and asked not to be identified explained dryly: "I don't think anyone involved is really interested in making this into a movie."

One agent put it this way: "Everybody's nightmare who works in the business is to be caught in an unflattering way. If you read any of (screenwriter) William Goldman's books, you know. One fart and they call you stinky the rest of your life."

HBO has had experience in this area, having turned the corporate takeover of RJR Nabisco into the Emmy-winning "Barbarians at the Gate," a stinging farce starring James Garner. Robert Cooper, senior vice president of HBO Pictures, has heard naysayers before.

"When I was doing 'Barbarians,' everyone was saying, 'How are you going to do a comedy about leverage-management buyouts? How are you going to make people laugh about that?' So I'm beyond all that," Cooper said.


An agent at CAA believes casting is not what will make "The Late Shift" a successful movie, anyway.

"I thought what HBO did with 'Barbarians' was fantastic," he said. "The key is going to be--and it's the key with every movie--what kind of script are they going to get? The script is more of an issue than casting. Without that Larry Gelbart script, 'Barbarians' would have laid a total egg. Instead, it was magical."

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