Oprah to Jay Leno about Conan: Are you 'selfish'?

Verne Gay

Verne Gay Verne Gay

Gay is the television critic.

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Jay Leno got the full Oprah treatment Thursday, and for the once and future host of "The Tonight Show," it could not have come at a better time.

With the fires still smoldering from the wreckage of NBC's late-night schedule and a few million viewers, fans, bystanders - and even Winfrey herself at moments Thursday - continuing to wonder whether Leno had a role in the demolition, he told his side of this complicated story.

PHOTOS: Jay Leno through the years

PHOTOS: Oprah Winfrey through the years

He said there's "a lot of damage control to be done" before returning to late night on March 1. Indeed, there is, Jay. Indeed there is.

With legs crossed and tie loosened, Leno wasn't exactly in a confessional mood, but he was in an expansive one, and occasionally a blunt one, too. He needed to be.

Winfrey wondered if he was "selfish," or whether he "felt any personal responsibility" for Conan O'Brien's departure, or if he should not have gone back to "Tonight, or if he "stole Conan's dream."

While he essentially said "no" to each of those, he also insisted that "I felt really bad for Conan. I think it's unfair, but TV is not fair. I thought it was unfair for me."

He added that "NBC could not have handled it worse, from 2004 on. This whole thing was a huge, huge mess."

Winfrey naturally wondered (as you might have): Then why stay? This is the company (still run by essentially the same bosses) who fired him "twice."

In a rare (for Leno) moment of emotional candor, he even said early in the interview that when NBC chief Jeff Zucker first told him back in 2004 that he was going to be replaced by O'Brien in 2009, "It broke my heart. It really did. I was devastated. This is the job that I always wanted and it was the only job that ever mattered in show business." But he stayed because he was comfortable, and wanted to protect the jobs of 170 staffers.

Still, the decision to move back to "Tonight," he says, was "agonizing. . . . I think I'm good guy."

Oprah circled back. But why not just quit? Make NBC take care of his staff, give him and them a proper financial farewell, and just move on.

In the most interesting exchange, a Freudian slip, perhaps, he said:

"If you're a gunfighter, you want to die in the street."

PHOTOS: Jay Leno through the years

PHOTOS: Oprah Winfrey through the years