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A Film Version of a Real TV Drama : Television: HBO's 'The Late Shift' is about the behind-the-scenes deal-making and back-stabbing that ended with Jay Leno in the 'Tonight Show' seat and David Letterman at CBS.

August 28, 1995|STEVE WEINSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

David Letterman strolls into a hotel suite improvising wisecracks about scurvy and shoving grapes down his lawyer's pants, while his host and deal-maker extraordinaire, Michael Ovitz, quietly waits for him to settle down to business. Except that Ovitz looks too much like actor Treat Williams, and though Letterman looks, acts and talks quite a bit like Letterman, it's not really him.

Meanwhile, in another hotel the following day, Jay Leno--or at least some actor who has been made up to resemble Jay Leno (no simple trick)--screeches into a press conference on his Harley. There, NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield--or at least some actor who looks remarkably like Littlefield--tells the hungry media that Leno has been named as Johnny Carson's permanent replacement on "The Tonight Show."

"Cut," yells the director, a woman who is the spitting image of Sgt. Lucy Bates of "Hill Street Blues."

Boy, this Hollywood make-believe stuff can get a little confusing.

Actually, this is pretty much all make-believe, although Betty Thomas, who once portrayed a cop on "Hill Street Blues," does get paid real money these days to be a director--here, at the helm of HBO's "The Late Shift," a movie based on a New York Times reporter's book about the behind-the-scenes deal-making and back-stabbing precipitated by Carson's announcement in 1991 that he would be leaving "The Tonight Show" in May, 1992.

The movie about how Leno landed in Carson's chair and Letterman wound up at CBS is a case of art imitating life. It's also a case of Hollywood finding itself so terribly fascinating that it just had to put the book on film.

"Maybe people in our business will be more interested in this particular story than some garage mechanic in the Midwest," said Don Carmody, producer of the film, which will air early next year. "But, more and more, the public is fascinated by the dirt of this business, and this story shows that. It shows how completely cockamamie this whole thing is and how decisions that affect hundreds and hundreds of lives and jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars are made on caprice and ego and fear and trying to top somebody else just for the sake of that. It's pretty amazing."

"This movie is not just a show business movie," said Bob Cooper, president of HBO Pictures. "It's a behind-the-scenes, very personal account of what went into the merchandising of these two people we allow into our bedrooms every night. It's about people with tremendous power and how they operate and use it. And it deals with something as basic and simple as dreams and what it's like to have dreams go awry. . . . And I don't think Hollywood should be immune to examination the way we have taken behind-the-scenes looks at Wall Street or our justice system. Why should we be blind to it just because we work in the same business?"

The actors playing Leno and Letterman both concede the possibility that the whole idea of making a movie about TV personalities whom millions watch each night is a bit of Hollywood self-importance. Does the average Joe, who turns to these two famous and famously rich celebrities at the end of the day for some comic relief, really care about their troubles, their slights, their suffering over which channel they were going to end up on?

From that point of view, probably not, said Daniel Roebuck, who plays Leno, and "if Letterman is truly as tormented as some people seem to say, that would be really sad. The man is truly blessed. As my mom would say, 'Get over it!'

"But this is much more than that," continued Roebuck, who previously had a supporting role on "Matlock." "Jay and David are not the central characters, even though people will probably be most interested in us simply to see how much we don't look like them. But the main characters are the business people, the NBC brass and Helen Kushnick [Leno's controversial former manager, portrayed in the film by Oscar winner Kathy Bates]. Who knows how someone in Poughkeepsie is going to feel about this, but I think that the weird story that these decisions are not really about an actor or a person but about money and how best to sell a loaf of bread will be interesting to people."

John Michael Higgins, who starred in New York and Los Angeles in the play "Jeffrey" and had to dye his hair and eyebrows and wear a mouthpiece with a gap between the front teeth to portray Letterman, agrees that there is a general curiosity about such well-known figures.

"Also, it happens to be a rollicking good yarn about business chicanery and backstage machinations and back-stabbing and high-stakes poker," he adds. "Those are always attractive subjects, and hopefully in this case we have sort of a double whammy, which is all of that plus titillating, celebrity back-room chatter."

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