Small screen celebrity meltdowns -- From Jack Parr to Crispin Glover, some TV stars just can't keep their cool

By Ken Tucker
Updated February 19, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

We are used to orderly television: Beyond sitcoms and dramas — and ignoring deliberate shockmeisters like Jerry Springer and Howard Stern — talk and news shows are governed by rules of decorum and propriety. No naughty words, please; no swearing at the host even if he’s being a jerk; and for heaven’s sake, no taking a poke at the guy sitting nearest you.

The first TV star with a meltdown personality was Jack Paar, known not only for getting teary-eyed while telling stories but for a petulant streak; on Feb. 11, 1960, the then host of The Tonight Show walked off the air for being censored by NBC the night before (he’d told a mildly risque joke containing the phrase ”water closet”). Red-eyed and peeved, Paar announced during his monologue that he was leaving the show, forcing startled announcer Hugh Downs to carry on. (Paar returned a month later, snit-free, with the now-classic ”As I was saying…”)

The late ’60s seemed to inspire meltdowns. There was the spectacle of Dan Rather getting roughed up on the floor of the ’68 Democratic convention. (”A security man just slugged me in the stomach,” Rather told safe-in-the-studio anchor Walter Cronkite.) At the same convention, William Buckley and Gore Vidal, providing commentary for ABC, got into a name-calling match that had Vidal labeling Buckley a ”crypto-Nazi” and Buckley casting aspersions on Vidal’s sexuality while threatening to punch him.

Fast-forward to 1987, and we find Rather leaving his anchor post on the CBS Evening News, enraged that the network had let a tennis match run over into his time. The result: six minutes of dead air. Recently, however, we find a veritable lightning rod for odd behavior in the form of David Letterman. In addition to presiding over Andy Kaufman’s infamous dustup with wrestler Jerry Lawler, Dave came within a hairbreadth of getting kicked in the head by a worked-up Crispin Glover in a 1987 wonky martial-arts demonstration. Letterman’s alternately prickly or affectless demeanor during some interviews seems to inspire rash behavior: Cher lost it and called him an ”a–hole”; Madonna went ballistic and used the F-word 14 times in the course of a standard-issue, smart-aleck Dave grilling. But sometimes the host is politeness itself, just minding his own business, and a star like Farrah Fawcett will come on, as she did on June 6, 1997, and use her two interview segments to have what looked like a mild breakdown.

That’s TV — you never know what’s going to happen. Is it any wonder we stay glued to our boxes?