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The 'Late' Show

February 18, 1996|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Finding the right actors to play Jay Leno and David Letterman in HBO's "The Late Shift" was a delicate challenge for executive producer Ivan Reitman.

The director of "Ghostbusters" wanted to avoid using recognizable stars as the two comedians in the dramatization premiering Saturday night. The cable movie is based on New York Times reporter Bill Carter's behind-the-scenes account of the battle over who would succeed Johnny Carson as host of NBC's "The Tonight Show."

"I thought it was going to be tough enough to try to make people believe that [the actors] could be these very famous people," says Reitman. "I thought if we were going to cast with actors or performers who had very strong personas of their own, it would sort of make the issue more complex and difficult."

The result: Daniel Roebuck, who was a regular on "Matlock" and appeared in the feature film version of "The Fugitive," won the coveted role of Leno. John Michael Higgins, who starred in the off-Broadway and Los Angeles productions of the gay romantic comedy "Jeffrey," was tapped to play Letterman.

It's the supporting cast members in the cable movie who possess high-profile resumes. Oscar-winning Kathy Bates plays Leno's controversial manager Helen Kushnick, impressionist Rich Little impersonates Johnny Carson and Treat Williams portrays then-Creative Artists Agency chairman Mike Ovitz, who negotiated Letterman's $14-million deal at CBS. Betty Thomas ("The Brady Bunch Movie") directs.

The stars of the film found their assignments more than a little daunting. "I had played famous people before, but they have always been dead for 300 years, or I played them as a young man," Higgins says. "I remember I did a play where I was Nelson Rockefeller, but at the age of 23. Nobody really knows how Nelson Rockefeller moved and looked at age 23 as opposed to everyone knows exactly how my guy [Letterman] moves and looks. It's sort of unnerving. I never had to do anything like that."

Says Roebuck: "It's easy [to play a real person] if you do the child-adoption, horror-story of-the-week TV movie. You really don't need to look like the person, but when 20 or 30 million people watch him every night, it's a mountain that's really scary to climb."

Roebuck endured 4 1/2 hours each day in the makeup chair for his transformation into Leno. "There was a lot of work," he says. "They had to put on a chin, nose, eyes, teeth, hair and padding on me. Actually, I don't know how well I did, but the rubber chin has a four-picture deal at HBO!"

Higgins had it much easier. "I would come in and snap my teeth in, mess up my hair and say, 'Let's shoot this thing.' Dan would be in there from quarter to zero in the morning getting this big rubber tire put on his face. That chin was the star of the movie. No question. We spent more time talking about that chin and getting it right. I really have to admire Dan. It's really hard to act through all of that makeup, so much of your face is unavailable. [With Letterman], putting on the teeth, the cigar and just sort of moving like him, it came pretty easily, I think."

Neither actor talked with their real-life counterparts. "It's not a difficult role to research," Higgins says. "You don't have to go the Library of Congress, you just have to turn the television set on at 11:30 and there he is. I discovered the more I tried to imitate him with mannerisms and ticks, the more I pointed up the differences between us. They hired me as an actor, they didn't hire an impersonator. I don't do circus tricks. If I approach it as an actor, then I can get the motor right. If you can get the motor of the guy right, the rest will follow."

Playing Leno, Roebuck acknowledges, "really made me work for my paycheck. What I would do is go to work listening to him on tape, and then during the day if I had any seconds in my room, I would just pop on the tape."

After filming was completed, Roebuck did call Leno. The "Tonight Show" host, he says, "couldn't have been more gracious."

Roebuck also had a close encounter of sorts with Leno one morning before production began as he was was scurrying around town to meet with the various makeup artists. By chance, Leno drove past him on Franklin Avenue in Hollywood. "I was like, 'Jay Leno!' I screamed it out loud. It was unbelievable. It was fate."

After living in their character's skins for 36 shooting days, both actors have definite opinions about the men they play on screen. Higgins says viewers will see a Letterman who is "agile and talented, but unerringly self-critical, really, on himself all the time. That's what drives him to those heady heights. Sometimes, if you are too self-critical, you end up hiding your head in the sand. But in this case, it pushes him forward. He also is a man who works for what he gets. I wouldn't call him a lucky man, even though he appears to have a ton of luck. He works very hard."

As for Leno, Roebuck decided to portray him "like everyone said he is. He's a nice person caught up in a situation that's so absurd. I play him like someone who is definitely confounded by it. "

Roebuck describes "The Late Shift" as a "gangster picture without guns." Reitman, though, doesn't see it quite that way.

"It's interesting that you have these two very talented performers, Leno and Letterman, who each have in their own respective ways their own dream," Reitman says. "And that is to replace Johnny Carson as the king of late night. They are friends with each other and fate sort of put them in a position of having to compete for that job. They both had a real legitimate title to the position. It's interesting to see what maneuvering went on and how it affected each other personally."

"The Late Shift" airs Saturday at 8 p.m. on HBO.

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