David Letterman beats on -- Despite recent bypass surgery, the ''Late Show'' host returns to boost ratings

By Brian M. Raftery
Updated December 23, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

Their tickets were worthless.

Tony and Mimi Pavao, a couple of Late Show fans from Vancouver, were getting ready for a trip to New York when they heard David Letterman was going under the knife for sudden heart surgery. The taping was supposed to be a vacation highlight for the Pavaos, so they packed the tickets anyway, just in case. Halfway into the trip, they got a call from someone at the show: Letterman, after literally having a change of heart, was coming back. They waited for over an hour in spiteful weather outside the Ed Sullivan Theater — and thereby got to witness one of the most triumphant resurrections in TV history.

Describing Letterman’s return from a five-week sick leave as a full-on Lazarus act might seem like an exaggeration. But this was a guy who hadn’t missed a show in 20 years, who’d weathered all his public crises — losing The Tonight Show to Jay Leno, getting dissed by Madonna, being the victim of countless geeky haircuts — while keeping his imperturbable gap-toothed grin intact. And it truly seemed that on Feb. 21, after weeks of national nail-biting, the 53-year-old host and his show experienced a blast of new life.

”It really made you realize just what Dave’s place in the world is,” says then executive producer Rob Burnett. ”When he wasn’t there behind his desk, everything in the world felt like it wasn’t quite right.”

True to form, Letterman restored order with a minimum of sap. Much of the show was typical Dave — a Seinfeld cameo, Robin Williams prancing around in surgeon’s scrubs, the Foo Fighters playing along with Paul Shaffer — but the highlight came early, during a 21-minute opening in which Letterman introduced the doctors and nurses who had tended to his ticker. ”It was incredibly moving,” says Burnett. ”You look over, and you see the hardened teamster guys holding back tears — and some of them not holding back tears.”

Even Letterman, for all his ironic posturing, got caught up in the moment. ”It almost seemed like he got choked up a little bit,” says Tony Pavao, who watched with his wife from the second row. ”I’d never seen Letterman do that.” Neither had we. And frankly, before that night, we didn’t know how much we cared.