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The David Viscott You Didn't Know

Talk Radio's Shrink Was Tough on People Who Came to Him for Help. But Many Swore by His Advice. Too Bad He Didn't Call Himself for the Same Counseling.

January 26, 1997|Nora Zamichow | Times staff writer Nora Zamichow's last article for the magazine was on the post-earthquake reconstruction of the Santa Monica Freeway

During a nationwide tour conducting seminars, Viscott stopped in Chicago, where a reporter attended his one-day program and interviewed the psychiatrist. It was a crucial promotional opportunity, but Viscott could not resist the opportunity to touch upon his favorite topic: himself. How his haircuts cost $75. How he massaged his thick copper-brown hair, of which he was always inordinately proud, with baby oil. As he talked to the reporter, he devoured a bowl of mixed nuts. When he finished, he wiped his fingers on her notebook, calling the greasy blotch 'Viscy oil.' Of his therapy, he said: "I have a lot to give, and I think it would be criminal not to give it. The best thing I have is my capacity to love people and find something in them to love. I help them understand what they feel. . . . I don't worry about being wrong, because I'm never wrong, because I'm always me."

The next day, the Chicago Tribune ran its story with the headline: "Instant Analysis: The Shrink to the Masses Looks at Himself and Just Loves What He Sees."

Where the Tribune reporter saw a self-absorbed, narcissistic man, Viscott viewed himself as a spontaneous and exuberant free thinker. When the waiters at a Greek restaurant asked him to join them in a dance, he didn't hesitate in locking arms and gamboling about the eatery. When he went into a store in search of the antique toys that he and his daughter Liz collected, he walked through the aisles, adorning himself with boas and ladies' hats. "Does this color do anything for me?" he'd ask a fellow shopper as everyone roared with laughter. He would moon people on the street, start a food fight at a restaurant or put a cookie beneath the nose of his sleeping dog. On a golf course, he once disappeared briefly in pursuit of a ball he'd hit into the woods and reemerged stark naked, screaming: "Lions! Lions!"

When Viscott's daughter Melanie was 15, Viscott didn't like her then-boyfriend, a graffiti artist.

He's anti-social, he told his daughter.

He's deep, Melanie responded.

You can do better, Viscott answered.

Dad, I want to make my own mistakes, Melanie said.

The relationship lasted eight months.

"He was always right--well, not always," sighs Melanie, now 26 and a book designer for a New York publishing house. She would listen to tapes of her father as she worked out at the gym and would feel proud when her friends asked if they could "borrow" her dad to discuss a problem. She'd watch as he cut to a person's raw nerve--issuing sweeping pronouncements, telling them they were insecure or controlling--and then walk out of the room.

"He couldn't lie," says Melanie, whom Viscott adopted after he married Katharine. "He couldn't chitchat."

Explained Viscott: "I see the truth, I speak the truth."

Fourteen-year-old James tells Viscott that he believed his new stepmother married his father only because she wanted his money.

Why do you feel she is a gold digger? Viscott asks. She never stays over, she has her own apartment, the boy says.

Do they have sex? The boy assumes so.

How long have they been together? Six months, the boy says. They got married a month ago.

Is your dad well off? Yeah, the boy says, he's really wealthy.

Have you spoken to him? No, not yet, the boy says.

If you love your father and you have this fear, you need to express your fear, Viscott says. Do you know what a friend is? Without waiting for an answer he continues: It's someone who tells the truth.

One friend suggested Viscott tell his audience the complex truths about his own life. It would have made him more human, more like his fans. But Viscott did not want to be more like his audience; he wanted to be the hero of his own story, a cultural superhero, someone who'd made a difference in the world. Like Beethoven.

By 1992, he was poised to achieve his greatest success. He was offered a late-night television program that was being considered for nationwide syndication. A first chance at TV, a 30-minute show on KNBC-TV, had been canceled in 1987 after less than six months; he was not about to see that happen again.

For a while, he juggled both his TV show and his radio program, making it clear to everyone that he thought his future was in television. Meanwhile, his radio station, KABC-AM--once No. 1--found itself in a fierce ratings war with KFI-AM, which had introduced Rush Limbaugh against Michael Jackson in the 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. slot in 1988.

It was no contest.

"Rush came on and he beat Michael Jackson soundly, and so David was part of the decline," says George Green, then general manager of KABC. "We lost a lot of shares. David was one of the victims."

Green, at the suggestion of his program manager, who believed that shrink radio had peaked, dismissed KABC's longtime therapist.

Viscott took it in stride. After all, he had what he really wanted--his television program, and there was talk of not only national but international syndication.

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