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For Letterman, Is It Friends or Barbarians at the Gate?

Television * As the host recovers from heart surgery, celebrities express interest in filling in as guest hosts.

January 26, 2000|PAUL BROWNFIELD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The image is pure show business, a scene ripped from the archives of HBO's "The Larry Sanders Show": As David Letterman lies in a New York City hospital bed, recovering from quintuple bypass surgery, agents and managers are calling up CBS' "The Late Show" to pitch clients as guest hosts. Oh yes, and to ask how Letterman is doing.

"My friend has had his chest ripped open, and within hours I'm getting calls from people who'd never given us the time of day who [now] wanted to guest host," "Late Show" executive producer Rob Burnett was saying last week. "The celebrity behavior about wanting to fill in is a mixed bag. Some are friends, others are opportunists."

Letterman is now recovering at "an undisclosed location," and "The Late Show" is on a scheduled vacation this week. Depending on Letterman's recovery period, CBS is looking at the possibility of a month of reruns during February sweeps, a crucial advertising sales month. Many in the TV industry say pressure is likely to build for "The Late Show" to put on fresh shows.

Last Friday, with his boss out of the hospital and his prognosis brighter, Burnett got on the phone with reporters to say that, no, the show wasn't afraid of using guest hosts to fill in for Letterman, and no, he hadn't talked to Letterman about it.

"It feels inappropriate to me to talk to Dave about the show right now," he said.

For others, apparently, it didn't feel so inappropriate. Burnett wasn't naming names. He would only identify the Friends of Dave, like Regis Philbin and Jerry Seinfeld, both of whom have offered their services should Letterman himself call on them to fill in. As for the others, the ones campaigning for Letterman's chair, Burnett was professing only amazement: How could celebrities sink so low? To which show business managers respond: Is that a rhetorical question?

There was "one guy who called me," Burnett said, "someone we've tried to have as a guest for seven years but refuses to sit in the guest chair" who was now suddenly offering himself as a guest host. A source close to the show said the mystery man was Burt Reynolds, who indeed has never appeared on Letterman's CBS show. Burnett refused to confirm or deny it. A spokesperson for Reynolds did not return calls.

Rosie O'Donnell touched off some head-scratching around "The Late Show" offices, too, say sources, after she and Philbin, appearing as a guest on O'Donnell's daytime talk show last week, kicked around the idea of a different New York personality taking one night each as "Late Show" guest host during February sweeps. O'Donnell's agent then placed follow-up phone calls--one to Burnett and another to CBS President Leslie Moonves.

Was O'Donnell coveting Letterman's job in his time of crisis? Hardly, she said, getting on the phone to clear up the matter.

"People had been asking me, 'Would you fill in for Letterman?' It's not like I said, 'Call over there and see if I can get a night job,' " said O'Donnell, adding that her agent happened to be speaking to Moonves anyway about O'Donnell's hosting this year's Grammy Awards telecast and next year's Tony Awards. "When Rob [Burnett] called me back, I said, 'Please don't even think this is something I'm eager to do.' "

With a new adopted baby at home, O'Donnell was only trying to do Letterman a favor--trying to "pitch in and help out," she said. "It has to be on everyone's mind," she added of the guest-host issue. "He's not doing a play in his backyard, he's doing a multimillion-dollar show on CBS."

But in today's highly competitive talk-show universe, when is a favor just a favor? And with Letterman consistently trailing rival Jay Leno in the late-night talk-show wars, could Letterman's illness be perceived as someone else's audition? Didn't Leno, for instance, beef up his resume as Carson's successor by filling in for the icon as guest host? And isn't "The Late Show" playing it both ways, refusing to discuss specific guest hosts on the one hand, but trying to drum up renewed interest in the late-night talk show by floating various possibilities?

The situation has some of the same undertones as "The Larry Sanders Show" starring Garry Shandling, which for six seasons gave viewers a behind-the-scenes look at a talk show, and by extension show business egotism and back-biting run amok. Several "Sanders" episodes, in fact, delved into Larry's insecurities at relinquishing his chair to a guest host, fearing a coup--once while he was recovering from plastic surgery.

Letterman's medical condition is more serious. But the egotism and the insecurities still apply. Letterman, after all, has had a nearly 20-year run without a breather, without ceding control to anyone, never mind guest hosts. Now he's having to consider the matter when he's at his most vulnerable, and the show business buzzards are circling.

"Probably before they wheeled him into the hospital [managers] were calling," said Jeff Wald, who represents Roseanne. Like other managers interviewed, Wald is of two minds--he would never call "The Late Show," but he's sure other managers would. And did.

"You smell an opening, you dive in," added another manager of several high-profile comedians. "I'm sure people called [the NBC sitcom] 'NewsRadio' when Phil Hartman died and said, 'What are you going to do?' "

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