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Almost Famous

Celebrity interviewer Skip E. Lowe basks in the low-wattage glow of Hollywood--public access style.

June 13, 2001|CHARLES CASILLO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Public access was in its infancy in 1978, in need of personalities to fill the time slots, when Lowe was approached about doing a talk show. Molly Ballantine, then a college student interested in television, became Lowe's first producer. "Everyone loved him because he was one of the most real interviewers out there," recalls Ballantine, who now works in publishing. "He got straight to the heart of both regular people and celebrities." His first guest was tough-guy actor Aldo Ray, and with that Lowe had found his niche: reintroducing stars who hadn't been seen for a time.

Today, more than 6,000 shows later, there still is no studio audience, no snappy band to liven things up, no sweeping camera angles. What Lowe does with guests on his show is talk, with close-ups so tight that host and guest seem to be directly in the viewer's face.

While public access reaches as many homes as have cable, there is no Nielsen ratings equivalent to gauge a show's success. Popularity is based instead on public opinion in the form of e-mail, letters and recognition of a show's host.

Yvette Sotelo, the public access coordinator at West Hollywood Public Access--one of the two studios where Lowe tapes--says Lowe is one of her most popular and asked about performers. "The mystery of his appeal is that audiences seem to relate to something in his character," Sotelo says. "He's such a real person. There's something in his technique, maybe it's his lack of pretension, that always manages to unearth something intimate from his guests."

"I'm like the grandfather of the current crop of serious interview shows," Lowe says. "I've seen myself copied, redone, revamped. Charlie Rose is my favorite, but, honey, you have to understand, I was doing it way before him. Of course, he's much more intelligent than I am, and he does his homework more than I do."

Yet it is for his unprepared chatter that Lowe is known. His style of interviewing is a casual, spontaneous kind of conversation. While chatting, Lowe often becomes befuddled, mixes up names and allows the conversation to drift into a sublime kookiness. "Now, Marilyn Monroe went back with Joe DiMaggio after she committed suicide, didn't she?" he recently questioned one guest author. "After she committed suicide?" the confused guest asked. "Oh, you know what I mean," Lowe burbled. "After all, she tried to do it so many times." And with that recovery the conversation was safely steered back to a discussion of Monroe's love life.

For several years Martin Short has been making appearances as a pudgy, oddball talk show host named Jiminy Glick, mispronouncing names of guests and confusing the facts while interviewing celebrities in a self-assured, lisping tone. In a recent appearance on "Late Night With David Letterman," Short allowed that the Glick character was "a little bit of Skip E. Lowe," explaining that he "talks to people, but he gets confused with tremendous enthusiasm."

Short will bring the character's loopy persona to "Primetime Glick" on Comedy Central later this month, an imitation Lowe takes in stride. "Yes, I make mistakes," Lowe confides, settling back to sip red wine out of a goblet given to him by actress Alexis Smith. "But my audience likes that I'm not so perfect. The thing is, I'm genuinely interested in what my guests are saying. I listen to their comments. I look into their eyes. Sometimes I touch them. People want to be listened to. I'm like a psychiatrist who sits there across the table."

Obviously, people want to be listened to by him. Such celebrities as Bette Davis, Tony Curtis, Orson Welles and innumerable others have allowed themselves to be probed by Lowe's off-center questions and unflinching camera for the half-hour segments, resulting in a glimpse that goes beyond the Hollywood magic and makeup.

Actress Sally Kirkland returns to his show again and again. "He has a tremendous respect for talent, no matter what the package it comes in," she says. "And he gives voice to people who can't get on 'Letterman' and 'Leno' every night. His show isn't about giving a sound bite promoting some current project. Skip gives me license to talk about whatever is important to me."

Dom DeLuise, who has done his fair share of talk shows, describes what makes doing Lowe's show like no other. "I always felt like I was being interviewed by a pixie, some magical person," he says. "His face looks like it was drawn lovingly by Walt Disney. It's a pleasure to watch him thinking because he has the most animated face."

Entertained Other Kids in His Backyard

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