Ask Mr. Politically Correct if he was embarrassed by his 1989 show on dwarf tossing and Phil Donahue’s patience becomes a little, uh, short.
”We should do more shows like that!” he says, pounding the desk in his Manhattan office. ”Would you suggest we ignore a live human being thrown through the air for entertainment? Would you want a law to ban dwarf tossing? This is about civil liberties! Freedom!” Donahue pauses to let his indignation settle in. ”While we’re at it, what does the dwarf think?”
What does the dwarf think? In the world of dwarfs, transvestites, and women who sleep with their friends’ husbands, Phil Donahue is the erudite patriarch of the daytime hosts. Through 25 years and nearly 6,000 episodes of Donahue, he has shaped public opinion and the face of television — and on Sunday, Nov. 15, the man who begat Oprah and Geraldo, Montel and Sally Jessy will be paid tribute by these and other TV offspring in a silver-anniversary NBC retrospective.
Among his milestones, Donahue was one of the first to feature an openly gay man on TV, in 1967; the first Western journalist to visit Chernobyl after the nuclear accident, in 1987 — and the first to feature male strippers, in 1976 (they’ve been on 11 times since). ”I thought it was a terrible idea,” he recalls of the original stripper show. ”I mean, where were we going to put the microphones? But KABOOM! I have never seen such audience excitement.”
He’s particularly proud of his exclusive interview with Jimmy Hoffa shortly before the union leader’s 1975 disappearance. ”He talked about himself in the third person: ‘When Hoffa did this, when Hoffa did that,”’ Donahue recalls. ”You know something ironic? The tape of the Hoffa show is missing. Maybe we’d better look in Biscayne Bay.”
A magnet for controversy, Donahue has also drawn criticism: In 1988, when he wore a skirt for the second time, TV columnists ridiculed him. ”What’s the scandal?” he asks. ”Is it homophobic, is that what this is about? A little nonsense never hurt anyone. We’re not Nightline.”
Hardly. But that’s not all. ”What about Lesbo a-Go-Go?” Donahue asks suddenly.
”Yes! Lesbians who strip for lesbian audiences. What’s wrong with lesbians celebrating their bodies? A great show.”