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Early Word on HBO's ''Late Shift''

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If Hollywodd were an adolescent boy, it would be in danger of going blind. The industry’s self-love is everywhere in evidence — from The Player to Swimming With Sharks to Get Shorty. But at least these films don’t have a plot that was played out in front of millions of TV viewers. Such is the situation of the ultimate onanistic tale, The Late Shift, the HBO docudrama based on New York Times writer Bill Carter’s biting ’94 best-seller. Set to debut Feb. 24, The Late Shift follows the boardroom jockeying of the 11:30 p.m. players — Jay Leno, David Letterman, and a vanload of network suits — to determine the successor of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. The talk-show hosts themselves don’t appear in the Ivan Reitman-produced farce but instead are portrayed by Puttermanesque doppelgangers who shuttle from meeting to meeting.

Who will watch? Well, surely everyone in the TV business, if only to whine about their portrayals. But to true media hounds, another story is just as intriguing: the backstage machinations of the movie itself. In fact, they could make a docudrama about the making of The Late Shift. They’ve certainly got the material.

Shortly after the book came out, Leno left a message on Carter’s answering machine: ”Can you get Lorenzo Lamas to play me?” He was joking. Yet when the $6 million film zoomed into development, the real-life players swamped the production offices with straight-faced casting suggestions. As it turns out, great egos think alike. ”It’s amazing how many people wanted Richard Gere to play them,” says Don Carmody, a Late Shift producer. Not many were pleased when they learned of their actual, less swoon-worthy counterpart. ”Most of them said, ‘Why are you casting him? He’s not as good-looking as I am. He’s too big’ or ‘He’s too fat.”’

Gere aside, Late Show‘s Paul Shaffer suggested Mel Gibson was his double. Leno, in all seriousness, chose ER hunk George Clooney. (The producers went with Matlock regular Daniel Roebuck.) When asked for his thoughts, all Letterman said was ”I guess Buddy Ebsen wasn’t available.” (Broadway’s John Michael Higgins got the role.)

The true casting nightmare was finding someone to fill the Armani suit of Michael Ovitz, Letterman’s former agent, the scarily powerful founder of CAA, and now the president of the Walt Disney Co. Michael Douglas and Alec Baldwin expressed interest but ultimately opted out. Many actors figured that the gig would be a Stupid Career Trick. The last-minute victim was Treat Williams. ”Well,” shrugs Williams, ”I’ve always got my farm in Vermont.” It looks as if he’s safe for the moment: Ovitz reportedly likes what he’s seen. Other execs too are basking in the publicity — CBS’ former VP of programming Rod Perth even makes a cameo, doing a double take with alter ego Ed Begley Jr.

But some principals have been as chilly as the Ed Sullivan Theater. On a recent edition of Larry King Live, Leno huffed, ”We just write jokes, you know? I don’t quite get what the story is.” Letterman called the movie ”the biggest waste of film since my wedding photos.” He later likened Higgins’ portrayal to a ”psychotic chimp.”

Which actually doesn’t surprise the Man Who Would Be Letterman. ”It’s a bit invasive, what I’m doing. I’m really not that sort of person,” says Higgins, who wore a fake gap in his teeth and suffered through ”23 cigars” for one scene before finally vomiting.

When the movie was filming, Letterman asked Higgins to appear as a guest. Higgins declined. ”There was some concern [Letterman] was lying in wait,” remembers Roebuck, who subjected himself to 4 1/2 hours of makeup each day to create Leno’s Burbank-size chin. ”I know if I go on Leno, at least I’m not going to be emasculated.”

Another nonfan: NBC. After all, the waffling Peacock executives emerge with some serious yolk on their faces. According to one source, the network even refused to sell old Leno and Letterman footage to the production.

But perhaps no one will be less amused than Leno’s former manager Helen Kushnick, who comes off as a foulmouthed virago. In one scene, Kushnick (played by Kathy Bates) insists that Leno, in his debut show, make no mention of Carson (Rich Little) — a move now regarded as one of The Tonight Show‘s Top 10 mistakes.

Kushnick wasn’t pleased with the book. In 1994, she filed a $30 million libel suit against Carter and his publisher, Hyperion. Kushnick, who couldn’t be reached for comment, later dropped the suit but can still sue over the film. ”I know Helen, and she will probably be upset by the movie,” says Carter. ”All I’m doing is writing what I know to be true.”

Which raises an interesting point: When writing about living people, the truth has a curious way of shifting. The result: The Late Shift has the most fretted-about end since Demi Moore’s Scarlet Letter.

An early script, written when Letterman was still Nielsen czar, finishes with an epilogue slamming NBC, claiming Leno cost the network ”about a half a billion dollars.” But then Leno edged past Letterman in the ratings. ”I guess this means HBO’s got to shoot a new ending to their movie,” Leno crowed in his Emmy acceptance speech last year.

They did. The movie’s most recent kicker, which was still undergoing tinkering last month, marked Hugh Grant’s flutter-eyed apology as Leno’s turning point. Meanwhile, another proposed ending got left on the cutting-room floor. This one featured two anonymous NBC execs cooing about Leno’s comeback. ”Now,” one says, ”what are we going to do with this Conan guy?” Regardless, seesawing ratings may actually help. Says director Betty Thomas: ”All the stuff that goes on between them — we kept praying it would all keep happening.”

Like Thomas, everyone on the production dismisses the idea of a talk-show-war overdose. ”I used to be against showing what’s behind the canvas,” says producer Carmody. ”But there’s this incredible fascination with the inside of show business.”

Indeed, anticipation is so high, media junkies have been clamoring for a grade-Z bootleg that, much to HBO’s dismay, is making the rounds. The network beamed an unfinished version of The Late Shift on one of its obscure auxiliary channels at 4 a.m. in late December. According to HBO president Bob Cooper, the broadcast was for the IRS — allowing the network to write off a portion of the movie’s expense in 1995. But some trigger-fingered night owl caught the amateurish production on tape.

The bootleg has drawn mixed reaction. While one critic called it ”fast and funny,” the electronic newsletter The Late Show News dismissed the movie as ”dumb on arrival.”

The moviemakers argue that the version aired was very much a work in progress. ”I was certainly angry,” said Reitman at a recent press conference. ”I remember fighting with [Cooper] in December and saying that I didn’t think [the airing] was a good idea.” A sheepish Cooper apologizes: ”I guess when we did a movie about the lunacy of the industry, we displayed our own.”

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