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Daily Dave: A salute to the David Letterman loyalists

David Letterman throws a pitch to New York

David Letterman throws a pitch to New York Mets third baseman David Wright outside the "Late Show with David Letterman" studios in Manhattan on Monday, April 14, 2008. Credit: AP / Jeff Zelevansky

Loyalty ...

In one word, if it's just one word you seek, this may the one ...

The key to David Letterman's historic late night run.You can't touch such loyalty or see it. Can't bottle or box it. Loyalty doesn't tell jokes or do sketches or Top Tens, although Monday night may have been the exception ... (See video).

Can't even precisely define what loyalty is in this context, although it's certainly born of friendship, love, admiration, camaraderie and that abiding sense that we're-all-in-this-together.

But there's little chance Letterman's run would have lasted 33 years without it, or, I should say, without THEM: Those people who served him behind the scenes so loyally all those years. You don't see them necessarily, or sometimes you do. They are usually hidden from view, dozens who have helped him put out a show,  6,028 shows, to be exact, over the decades. They are the unsung heroes of Dave's long saga.

Why this ironclad loyalty of staffers to host and vice versa over the decades? In TV terms, it is highly unusual. Jay Leno had his core crew at "Tonight," and Johnny Carson had his. But key members of Letterman's have remained since the days when he was hosting a ragtag morning show that lasted barely three months and which offered neither job security nor any indication that the putative star would ever get in front of a camera again.

Yet they stayed. Ask them to describe this bond, as I have over the years, and answers have tended to coalesce around the obvious: Their boss is demanding but fair, and, above all, decent. He has their back. They have his. But in years past, others also privately admitted that the extortion scandal--and, after announcing on the air that he had had intimate relations with a number of female staffers--strained those long-held bonds.

But they never snapped. They held fast.

Letterman's ties with his loyalists are complex simply because Letterman is so complex: He is remote and intensely shy. He doesn't engage easily or comfortably with anyone, presumably with the exception of family. Television, as everyone knows, is a collaborative medium, but he is quite possibly the most solitary figure to have ever worked in front of a camera. (TV history, by the way, has had other notable hermitical paradoxes a Fred Allen, Arthur Godfrey, and, of course, Johnny ...)

Solitary figures in the most public of forums need people who bring out their gifts. Mostly, they need people they can trust. Letterman has been lucky enough to have had many, including Rob Burnett, who has run his production company, Barbara Gaines and Jude Brennan, co-executive producers who have been with him since the very earliest days at NBC. Biff Henderson, his stage manager, has had a unique role a as a Letterman foil over the decades. Paul Shaffer has had a triple role as friend, music director and sidekick. Letterman has had only two directors in 33 years. Rarely seen, directors are the true beating heart of the operation, the magicians who shape what viewers see and hear each night. Directors are a host's left AND right hand ...

A few of Letterman's associates have left over the years; Merrill Markoe, with whom he had a personal relationship long before TV came along, was a major creative force in the early run of "Late Night"; Robert Morton, his producer, was let go in the mid-90s. (Long story, but it had to do with "Morty's" desire to hire a new producer to run the day-to-day business of "Late Show" while he took on a larger role at the company. He lost Letterman's trust.)


Last week I spoke with three key Letterman loyalists, including a former one. Their thoughts on the eve of the end:

Biff Henderson

Henderson, 68, is just "Biff" to a generation or two of viewers. He was to Letterman an on-air necessity, a softer, friendlier, more approachable presence who filed down the edges that Letterman so prominently displayed. Biff was also a "real" person in the midst of the contrivance that a late night show is: a working man, a Vietnam veteran, a family man, a guy with a mortgage and a day job managing a big sprawling stage. Biff in all his various guises over the years gave "Late Night" and "Late Show" an entry point to viewers who may have been just like him, or at least recognized some part of themselves in him.

He recalls that he first started with Letterman back at the morning show, in 1980: "I was vacation relief [for the regular stage manager] and they brought me in to the morning show at the time. After it was canceled [and 'Late Night' began], I was made a permanent employee. Never got the reason as to why ..."

His first brush with stardom, so to speak, was as a warm-up man to restless audiences assembled in Studio 6A: "I walked on, started telling jokes, reading the cards, and he would come down, and push me out of the way ..." Always got a laugh, and Biff's alter ego began to take shape: As someone who had a real job, but had to fill in on other jobs,  like, for example, as interviewer because the show had no idea who else to put in the role. Biff wasn't "hapless," just naturally funny. A star was born.

"People would ask me all the time, you get nervous being on TV? I'd say, what is there to be nervous about when you don't know what you're doing?"

"Dave has always been respectful and courteous and never wanted me to do anything that I didn't want to do...." But Biff did plenty: He was on the air hundreds, if not thousands, of times: A regular presence and correspondent at Super Bowls or major sporting events, asking the man-in-the-street question:"I'd stick a mic in people's face and they'd make fools of themselves [even] when I talk to people when I interview them [and say], don't try to be funny, just go with it ..."

The mood inside the Sullivan these last few days, he says, is almost normal, deceptively so.

People doing their jobs just as they have for years. He includes himself in their company: "I think gradually as we get closer to the end, people are starting to feel some emotion, and feel ... and feel ..." He pauses, "I don't know what word to use. I'm not there yet. I'm dealing with reality. I've been around this business for so long, and there is always temporary work and rejection anyway. It hasn't hit me like that yet. I'm sure it will, especially because I don't have anything to do on the 21st.

"I don't know what's going to happen the last show. When it ends, and I hang up my headset, and that I'm not going to be putting it on again. I don't know what it's going to be like ...

"I hope it's not too much of a downer for me. Mentally trying to prepare myself. I think I'm pretty prepared. I just don't know if my emotions are going to show. When Jack Hanna was on the show [recently] and he got so emotional, that kind of touched me. Then thought, 'Oh Lord, we're not going to start doing this ...?"


Hal Gurnee

Gurnee was one of TV's legendary directors, the man who directed over 200 episodes of "The Jack Paar Program," and before that a hundred episodes of "Tonight." He joined Letterman on his morning show in June of 1980 after having been out of the business for nearly a decade.

"I've told this story so many times," he said last week. "I was retired, and when I came back to New York from eight or nine years of living with my family in Ireland, I ran into Dave's manager at the time and he said 'Gurnee, what are you doing?' He said [he and Letterman] were doing a show they were certain was going to be canceled ..."

Would Gurnee be interested in joining? Sure he would. No long-term commitment!

He met with Letterman and his manager at a Manhattan restaurant (Lindy's) ..."I told [Letterman] I was out of the business, and he was fascinated by that, that I'd walked away and left ... He was feeling besieged and it sounded like a nice thing to do. We had a big garden at our house, where we had tomatoes and cabbage, and I told him I made sauerkraut. And he said his dad used to make sauerkraut. So we spent an hour and a half talking about living in Ireland and preserving vegetables. At the end of the lunch he said, 'Why don't you come and do the show on Monday.'

"I think Dave and I had a similar view of the world [and] our bond was that we never talked about the show ... We talked about everything else. Part of it was that I didn't want TV to rule my life. I wanted it as a way to make a living and have some fun [and] he was willing to take some of my ideas."

Some of those ideas, Gurnee admits, "I stole from Charlie Chaplin. The first thing we had, we did a cold open, where we'd have him hang upside down and turn on the camera, then turned it around so that it looked like he's right-side up. Then he'd open a thermos, and [the liquid inside] would go straight up. That was right out of Chaplin ...

"A few days later, we did something with Dave crawling up the side of a building, but it was the picture of a building on the floor. "Everything we'd done had been done before in some form or another, [but] if you were clever enough you could take that and make it your own without stealing. Ernie Kovacs stole from other people and we stole from him ... "

The morning show was, as promised, not looking long for this world. "We did it day to day and kept getting calls to come up to the programming vice president in charge of daytime at NBC who kept giving us advice and [who] finally seemed to hit on the idea that if we turned it into a semi-cooking show, we'd get a bigger audience, We shrugged it off and walked away."

The show got canceled, and Gurnee, like Letterman, kept getting paid. Then one day, to Gurnee's almost-consternation, Dave called: Care to join me on this new late night show ...?

The eventual move to CBS, he says, "was a surprise to all of us, but [Letterman agent Mike] Ovitz made a great deal of money for Dave and CBS was willing to spend more ..."

Gurnee would be crucial to the decision to go to the Ed Sullivan Theater. CBS wanted the show to relocate to California; Letterman "would have been OK moving back to California. He had a house there, and you know he had had successes out there [and] New York is a challenge ..."

Gurnee wanted to stay in New York. CBS tried 'to sell us on a studio in the Broadcast Center on West 57th street. It was dreadful. It was almost the same size as the one we had at NBC ..."

The Sullivan beckoned. It had been converted to a studio years earlier, and Gurnee had once directed "The Garry Moore Show" from the now dusty and penumbrous cavern. He loved it.

Letterman and his director did a walk-through one day. Letterman was unpersuaded. "Could this work?" he wondered skeptically. Gurnee said, "'Let's walk outside ...

"Look! You're on Broadway. BROADWAY!"

Still not convinced, Dave called a meeting. "'Will this look like an 11:30 show, Hal?" He was thinking about "The Tonight Show.'" "I said, 'No, it'll look like an 8 o'clock show. It will look like PRIMETIME."


Jerry Foley

When Gurnee finally retired for good in 1995, he suggested to Letterman his young protege as replacement, Jerry Foley, who had been "Late Night's" technical director.

"There's a through-line of loyalty in everything that Dave does," says Foley, who suddenly had the imprimatur of one of Letterman's most trusted loyalists.

Foley however, "had never directed anything."

Movies are often called a "director's medium," while TV is a producer's one, the difference being that a director shapes the narrative structure of the film by manipulating the visuals. By contrast, a producer gives overall creative direction by writing or shaping the script.

To a certain degree, a talk show director is an amalgam of both roles, but also, to make the role just a little more tricky and treacherous, he or she is a conductor too, who keeps and maintains pace, rhythm and timing. Screw up any of those and the host tumbles and falls. When that happens, there will be hell to pay. Shows can't host themselves and they can't direct themselves either.

Foley stumbled. Stories of Letterman's ferocious unhappiness with his new director began to filter out to the press while Foley, in his words, had suddenly found himself "in the deep end of the pool ... Looking back, I was hit pretty hard by the reality. No one could prepare you for that.

"The good news is that there's an amazing CBS crew here, that was my strength ... They somehow didn't let me fail ..."

He took the job during a period "that was not the happiest of times [at the show]. Hal leaves, then Morty leaves. Jude had left and come back. Combine that with Dave maybe losing a little creative footing [because of the turnover, along with viewership], and then you throw a rookie director ...

But Foley, learning on the job, survived, and thrived. His long run now rivals his predecessor's, in both duration and quality.

He says he's tried to avoid being reflective about the end. "We're in an altered state," he says. "There's no precedent for this ... an entire company being disassembled, people scattered. I'm not sure how I feel about the whole thing. I've been using an example to some people that it's a form of hospice. I certainly don't want to put it in a category with people who are terminally ill, but the idea of letting go gracefully and of wanting to hold to hold on to as much as you can. You want to honor the exit and you want to honor him. You don't want to have his last show be less than perfect so every night we're doing the equivalent of a prime-time special. This hyperactivity has been going on for months."

 Foley is often asked how Letterman is dealing with his own impending separation anxiety.

"You don't get in deep, wide-ranging discussions, but you read the tea leaves and in-between the lines, and I think he feels an obligation to conjure grace and strength as he walks out.

 "In the last few months, he's made it clear how much he has loved the show and how he's loved the environment and how he's been very grateful for this machine around him ... We never got that depth of appreciation, but in the past year, he's mentioned how good he's had it, and how grateful he is for that.

 "As he gets down to the last couple of minutes, he's also trying to upload as much as he can."


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