Tony Mendez, the longtime cue-card holder for "Late Show with David Letterman," and a well-known figure to viewers, was fired from the show last week after a dust-up with veteran "Letterman" writer Bill Scheft, according to a report.
The report of the firing appeared in Sunday editions of the New York Post -- which quoted Mendez confirming the firing. A spokesman for "Late Show" declined to comment, saying he could not address internal personnel matters on the program.
If true -- and there's certainly no reason to doubt the Post piece -- then Mendez leaves not only months in advance of Letterman's official retirement, but has seen the end of a Letterman association that predates the CBS years. He had initially spent nearly a decade, off camera, at "Saturday Night Live." As proof of his renown, Mendez even got the New Yorker treatment in this 2001 story.
Mendez -- formerly a professional dancer who had appeared in numerous Broadway productions, including "Peter Pan," with Sandy Duncan -- has been a part of the alchemy of the show over the years, holding up cards that the host reads, or the host simply ignores (or winces at), while the camera then records Mendez's reaction -- most often a look of wry amusement.
According to to the Post, Mendez said of the contretemps with the writer, Bill Scheft, another well-known "Late Show" figure:
“[Scheft] encroaches on my work. He tells me what to do, and I have to say, ‘I know what I’m doing.’ And a lot of time when I am making changes [to the cards], he’ll stand there looking over my shoulder, and he’ll say something like, ‘Put that on top,’ because he got an idea. “Bill was always undermining me — making himself out as Dave’s No. 1,” Mendez said. “Trying to pretend that I wasn’t even in the room ... little passive-aggressive things."
The Post story said Mendez later grabbed Scheft, and pushed him against a wall. Mendez was then fired, per the report.
Mendez, 69 -- who emigrated from Cuba at age 15 -- joined the show many years ago after the death of his partner, Marty Zone -- also Letterman's cue-card reader -- from AIDS. He spoke to TimeOut New York in an extended interview in 2008, about Letterman and how he got to the show:
"I’m such good friends with [Letterman]. I’m two years older, and we’re very much alike because we’re kids at heart. He’s very impish. Of course, he’s much more intelligent than I am, but the two of us like pranks and I talk to him like he’s my cousin. Nobody at work talks to him the way I do, and he welcomes it because everybody is so afraid of him. And he knows that he’ll get the truth from me. He gave me a lot of money to help Marty [Zone, Mendez's partner.] pay his bills; Marty was his cue-card guy before me.
"Is that how you started working for him?
SNL is like six people and I was in charge. And Letterman is only two people. I had gotten Marty working for "SNL."
"He was an actor and he didn’t have that much work, so he started doing the second person on Letterman and then he moved up, and whenever I wasn’t doing "SNL" I would do the second guy on Letterman. When Marty started getting sick, I took over for him and started working for Dave [at NBC]. Then, the season ended and Dave decided to move to CBS. I went to work with Letterman two days after Marty died. It actually saved my life because I had a reason to get out of bed. The last six months, Marty was paralyzed on his right side, and it was so intense.
"Then, all of a sudden, I had no one to take care of. It happens to everybody. I would cry all the way to work. I would cry as I was writing the cue cards, but then I would have to focus on the show, and I would be OK. Then, the show would end and I would cry on the way home and cry myself to sleep. For a long time. But the show saved my life. I had to get up and do something. And New York is great; when you’re crying on the subway, no one says, “Are you all right?”