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H-e-e-e-e-r-e's Rosie

We know what you're thinking: Does the world really need another talk show? O'Donnell definitely thinks so--and she is convinced the way to go is by taking (gasp) the high road.

June 09, 1996|Robert Strauss | Robert Strauss is a regular contributor to Calendar

Here little Rosie is bounding home from school, loudly singing a Broadway show tune.

"It was 3 or 4 in the afternoon, right before when my mother would cook dinner, when we watched it. Watched Merv Griffin," said O'Donnell, sitting in an easy chair near Parker's blue-green portable crib in her office. "I remember watching the comedians and the singers with my grandmother and mother after school. I also remember the feeling that no one was nervous. A lot of late-night talk shows, everybody seems so nervous. You never saw anybody on Merv Griffin appearing nervous. It appeared everyone was his friend and nobody felt in dangerous territory."

Warner and Paratore bought O'Donnell as the Merv Griffin of the '90s. No "Transsexual Chippendales" or "Vegetarian Prostitutes." Just a fast monologue, three guests and a quick little surprise or two. Within weeks, Paratore had most of the major markets signed up, sight-unseen, just on O'Donnell's name and a format.

At the same time, Warner decided to start the show in June, rather than the more traditional September premiere. The company was producing "Carnie," a trash-talker hosted by singer Carnie Wilson, that had become a dog in the ratings. Rather than keep the unwatched "Carnie" going all summer, Warner decided to give "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" an early start.

"No. 1, the history of talk-variety is that it is a slower build," said Paratore, meaning that audiences take longer to warm to this softer-edged format. "No. 2, some things are going to work and some things aren't going to work, so it gives us a television version of an off-Broadway run. We hit Broadway in the fall. Thirdly, we will get a bigger bang from our marketing dollar in June, when we're not competing against the flood of the network and syndicated [fall] season."

Yet that presented a whole new set of problems. A production crew had to be hired, offices found and a show mounted in a desperately short time. Unfortunately, this is never as easy as in the Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland-let's-put-on-a-show-kids scenario. The hardest hire would be the new executive producer. After all, there hadn't been a successful one of these desk-and-couch daytime variety shows for nearly a generation.

Daniel Kellison remembers watching "The Mike Douglas Show," which aired out of the Philadelphia studios of KYW-TV in the 1970s and early 1980s. Well, vaguely, anyway.

"I think I was 9 years old when Mike Douglas was on," said Kellison, whose office, no playpen included, always has the door open, which means he has a grand look down the newly carpeted, block-long hallway leading down to Studio 8G, where "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" originates. "I saw it through the vantage point of a third-grader with cinnamon toast and chocolate milk."

Kellison was a 31-year-old segment producer on "Late Show With David Letterman" when Paratore asked him to come out to his Los Angeles home. O'Donnell, who had worked with Kellison when she came on Letterman--he had induced her to sing "Oklahoma" to Dave--had recommended him to Warner Bros. for the top job on her proposed show. He jetted out over a weekend, hoping to avoid having Letterman, who is a stickler for loyalty, find out about the pitch. On the way back to New York, he was seated next to actress Teri Garr, a Letterman fave.

"I said I was out there visiting a friend. I'm in first-class, out for the weekend, visiting a friend," said Kellison. "She looked very suspicious and I told her what was going on. She kept it under her hat."

Kellison knew he didn't have time to waste, so he scampered over to the Museum of Television & Radio in Manhattan to look at some old "Mike Douglas" tapes, just to see what he might be getting into.

"It was unbelievable. It was so much fun to watch," he said, recounting one show in which Milton Berle came on to promote his autobiography while Richard Pryor was guest-hosting with Douglas. "[Berle] is talking about getting this starlet pregnant in the 1930s and not knowing what to do. Pryor breaks out laughing. Berle gets frustrated and they have this screaming match on this show. It was great."

Kellison was the unseen face behind several of "Late Show's" more inventive stunts. He got writer-in-hiding Salman Rushdie to deliver a Top 10 list to Letterman when the show was in London. Peter O'Toole rode on stage on a camel that he later fed a Heineken at Kellison's request. Most outrageous of all, he persuaded Drew Barrymore to dance on Letterman's desk and pull up her shirt, "flashing" Dave her bare breasts.

Kellison knew upon arrival at "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" that he would have to simmer down a little bit. After all, daytime talk is a 25- to 54-year-old woman's thing, while Letterman appeals to younger men. As testament, a month before the first show, booker Culbreth confirmed "Grace Under Fire" star Brett Butler as a guest for the premiere show and Kellison proclaimed her perfect.

"She speaks to real America. She speaks to a female audience," he said.

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