By Margaret Lyons
July 23, 2009 at 10:05 PM EDT

Perennial “Hey, It’s That Guy” John Michael Higgins played David Letterman in The Late Shift 13 years ago, and he said in an interview this week that Letterman “didn’t make it easy for [him] — or for anyone doing that project.”

Back then, Higgins was a struggling actor, who desperately needed the money. “I may be able to turn it down now, but I couldn’t at the time. It would just be completely crazy and irresponsible.” (The made-for-TV movie was nominated for several Emmys in 1996, and Kathy Bates won a Golden Globe for her performance.)

The high-profile role came with some strings, though: “There was a lot of press, there was a lot of interviews and comparing me. And [Letterman] saying things about me on his television program. It was difficult. I didn’t know what I was doing,” Higgins says. “There was a famous incident where he invited me to the show and I got bumped.” My, my.

Let’s fire up the old EW time machine and see what was cookin’ back then….

In December 1995, our own Ken Tucker sat down with Letterman, soon after Jay Leno started regularly winning the ratings race.

EW: Still looming ahead of you is that HBO movie, The Late Shift, about the talk-show wars.

David Letterman: I’ve seen a clip reel, and it’s just bizarre. The guy [John Michael Higgins] who’s playing me — and I’m sure he’s a fine actor — but his interpretation seems to be that I’m, well, a circus chimp. He looks like he’s insane, like he’s a budding psychopath. And afterward I thought, Well, maybe this is how I strike people as being.

EW: Was this shown to you out of respect, for your opinion?

DL: Are you kidding? No, somebody just sneaked it out to us, so we could all gather round and see it for our amusement. Which wasn’t much, by the way.

Shortly before the film aired in 1996, EW took another look at the production.

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.)
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.”

And finally, when the movie did air, we gave it a B-. Quoth Ken Tucker at the time, “Letterman is impersonated by John Michael Higgins in a one-man orgy of squints, scowls, and growls — it’s a Dave who seems to have lice in his eyebrows and doesn’t know how to scratch.”