In a bombshell announcement on Thursday night's edition of "Late Show with David Letterman," the 62-year-old host said that he had been the target of a $2 million extortion attempt by an unnamed individual who had threatened to reveal that the talk show host had had sexual relations with members of his staff.
“This morning, I did something I’ve never done in my life,” said Letterman, on the program, “I had to go downtown and testify before a grand jury,” where he acknowledged sexual relationships "with members of his staff," according to a statement released Thursday night, a few hours after taping.
“My response to that is, yes I have [had the relationships]. Would it be embarrassing if it were made public? Perhaps it would,” he said. “I feel like I need to protect these people - I need to certainly protect my family.”
According to Thursday night's statement, Letterman received a "package" from the person -- Robert Joe Halderman has been arrested -- which was said to contain proof of the relationships.
What happened next -- according to the statement -- was the stuff of cloak-and-dagger melodrama: “Letterman said that he referred the matter to the Special Prosecution Bureau of the Manhattan district attorney’s office, which Letterman said conducted an investigation, which included his issuing a ‘phony’ $2 million check to the individual, and culminated in the individual’s arrest earlier today.”
Meanwhile, “Late Show” proceeded last night as if nothing had happened. There was a monologue, as always, with jokes about skunks, Mayor Bloomberg’s stature (a Letterman standard) and even a couple of mildly bawdy jokes. Roman Polanski, he joked, was arrested attempting to pick up an award — “that’s exactly why I never picked up my People’s Choice Award.”
Then, the news. “I’m glad you are here tonight and I’m glad you are in such a pleasant mood,” he said, “because I have a story to tell you. Do you feel like a story?”
Letterman then said that about three weeks ago he had gotten to his car early one morning and found a package in the backseat containing a note saying, “I know that you do some terrible, terrible things.”
The audience laughed, and in fact, continued laughing. Letterman said the extortionist planned to write a screenplay about him, while adding: “I want to reiterate how terrifying this moment was . . . was I going to get a tap on the shoulder? I am motivated by nothing but guilt.”
A meeting was arranged with the person, and then another, he said. The police were also notified. “This whole thing has been quite scary,” he said. “I had to testify before a grand jury, how I was disturbed and worried for myself, my family felt menaced and I told them all the creepy things.” He then noted that the man had been arrested, later saying “it’s been a very bizarre experience, and . . . I hope to protect my job.”
Thursday night, CBS issued a statement saying it “was made aware of an ongoing police investigation involving David Letterman and an employee at '48 Hours,' who was subsequently arrested earlier today on charges of attempted grand larceny in the first degree. CBS is cooperating fully with the authorities and the employee has been suspended pending the results of the investigation. Mr. Letterman addressed the issue during the show’s broadcast this evening, and we believe his comments speak for themselves.”
The New York City Police Department referred all inquiries to the district attorney's office. Alicia Maxey Greene, a spokeswoman for Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, refused to confirm or to deny the information from the Letterman show. "We decline to comment ... across the board," she said.
A spokesman for the show declined further comment, saying "I am not going to be able to characterize it other than what the release says or what Dave said on the show. Everything else is a matter for law enforcement."
Beyond obvious and immediate law enforcement developments, the impact on Letterman -- who married his longtime girlfriend in March and has a 5-year-old son with her -- and the show itself will, of course, float into the realm of speculation.
Extortion attempts on famous people are not necessarily uncommon -- John Travolta was the victim of one recently after his son's death, while a painter on Letterman's ranch was also charged with plotting to kidnap his 16-month-old son four years ago. But the one that millions of viewers learned about Thursday night is unprecedented.
And for both CBS and Letterman, the timing could not have been worse. "Late Show with David Letterman" has emerged as TV's top-rated late night show -- both a huge profit and prestige engine for the network. Letterman's recent success has also been a sort of vindication. For most of his 16-year run at CBS, "Late Show" has been the also-ran late night show -- critically revered, but a ratings laggard behind "Tonight Show."
How the extortion attempt affects ratings or fans or the show itself may be the least of CBS' worries. How it affects Letterman -- and any other legal actions he may or may not be subject to -- has to be the larger concern now.