Small town boy makes good

When the world tunes in to the Oscars next week, they won't be greeted by Billy Crystal or Whoopie Goldberg, but by a goofy, gap-toothed, ordinary guy called Dave, better known in America as TV's King of the Night. Phil Reeves reports

If life really is like a box of chocolates, then Hollywood is about to rip off the cover and start gorging itself. In less than 72 hours, scores of limos will draw up outside the Shrine Auditorium, a curious Islamic-looking building on the edge of south-central Los Angeles. The world will catch its breath, anxious to begin its annual inspection of the chosen few it has crowned with fame. Oscar night is upon us.

The 67th Annual Academy Awards will, if anything, be an even larger display of star-power, wealth and glamour than its predecessors. Despite predictions that we will once again be treated to one of Tom Hanks's rambling acceptance speeches, and that the idiot savant Forrest Gump has charmed the Academy voters out of their senses, the organisers expect a larger global audience than ever. More than 1 billion across the planet will tune in to find out whether Jodie Foster will win her third Best Actress Oscar, whether Pulp Fiction was too distressing to be worthy of honours, and whether justice will be done, and the US film industry will recognise the brilliance of the little-known Briton Nigel Hawthorne.

But, unlike previous years, this fraught ritual will not be presided over by one of Hollywood's own, like Billy Crystal, who was master of ceremonies for four years running, or the razor-witted Robin Williams, or the less funny, but heartwarming, Whoopie Goldberg. No, on to the stage will stride a very different kind of person, a tall, gap-toothed Midwesterner For three hours, we will be guided through the envelope-opening, the music, the tears and the gushing speeches by David Letterman, a former TV weatherman who is also the undisputed King of American late night television, the Johnny Carson of the Nineties.

Letterman has been talking about the Academy Awards on his Late Show for weeks, and not always in the reverential tones that Hollywood prefers. On his last programme before the Big Night, he placed one of the small statuettes on his desk. There it is, one thought, that weird-looking, androgynous trophy that has exercised such a magnetic hold over so many, that has both inspired and ruined giant careers, that has generated so much wealth. Then he peeled back its golden covering and bit off its chocolate head. "Hmmmmm," he said, munching appreciatively.

Standard Letterman stuff. Ever since he embarked on his first national late night television show in 1982, he has delighted America's night owls and insomniacs with his mixture of the quirky and the slapstick, laced with irreverence and served up with his wide, small boy's Mad magazine grin.

He began as a young, scraggy-looking avant-garde comic, a Doonesbury- esque figure, with a strong student following, competing for attention on the airwaves with the array of obscure preachers, product pitchers and re-runs that fill the small hours in America. But by the late Eighties, America was on to him; he was widely acknowledged as a man whom even Time magazine declared was "defining the cutting edge of TV comedy".

Ask Americans why they adore Letterman, and you usually get a muddled answer about his zany sense of humour, his penchant for parading unusual pets and unknown New York shopkeepers on air, and his refusal to kowtow to celebrity. Sure, he interviews the stars, the biggest, but on his terms, with little of the sugary sycophancy that characterises most Hollywood interviews. Over the years they've had to appear on programmes on which he has also dressed up in a suit of Rice Crispies and leapt into a giant bowl of milk to see if he would snap, crackle and pop; covered himself in tortilla chips and been lowered into a vat of onion dip, and paraded an array of performing pets, including parrots that supposedly look like the boxing promoter Don King. It's not as if he, well, takes this show business rubbish terribly seriously.

For Angelenos, this is not surprising. For, despite his Mid-western roots, in the minds of most Americans, David Letterman represents New York, LA's fierce rival for the title deeds of the world's capital of entertainment. As his Late Show opens, the camera pans across the city's skyscrapers before honing in on his lair. His set at the Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway (where the Beatles made their famous appearance in 1964) is a model of the Manhattan skyline.

It is hard to overstate the scale of Letterman's success, a rise to power that will finally be complete when he steps out in front of the diamond- encrusted Oscar crowd. The son of a florist, he began his broadcasting career as a campus disc jockey at Indiana's Ball State University. There followed a full-time job on a local TV station, where he worked as a news anchor, hosted a Saturday morning children's show and was a weatherman. By his own admission, his performance in the latter capacity had more to do with cracks than cold fronts. "I could not resist the temptation to goof around with the weather," he said later. "It was like goofing off in church. You did it to see what you could get away with."

In 1975, he moved to LA in search of better things, and began working on the stand-up circuit, making his debut at the Comedy Store, the standard baptism of fire for aspiring Hollywood entertainers. It broke up his marriage with his college sweetheart, but he eventually landed his first network break, an appearance on the CBS series Mary, starring Mary Tyler Moore. Then came the dream invitation, a call from Johnny Carson's Tonight Show. He went on to be the show's guest host on 50 occasions.

Carson, the patriarch of American TV talk shows, is a key figure in Letterman's career. It was he who pressed the network executives to give Letterman a slot of his own, and who viewed him as his anointed successor after his retirement in 1992. And Letterman, who has always idolised Carson, turned to him when the succession did not occur and his row with NBC erupted.

This was a battle of operatic proportions, which for months captured the headlines and dominated conversation in the United States, where they take their TV talk shows almost as seriously as their sports. Without Letterman's knowledge, NBC had made an agreement with Jay Leno, his talented rival, guaranteeing that Leno could take the chair on the Tonight Show when Carson retired.

When he found out, Letterman was in despair. His Late Night with David Letterman (which followed the Tonight Show) had been highly successful for a decade, particularly in the advertising rich 18-34 market. Carson's job was the obvious next step. After months of negotiating and considerable dithering, he decided to take an offer from CBS, although not before placing a call to Carson, who advised him to walk. His new network promised to run his show head-to-head against Leno at the coveted 11.30pm slot, sweetening the deal by throwing in a $12.5m salary and ownership of the show.

It was a risky move that could have resulted in humiliation had Leno trounced him in the ratings. That did not happen. Ever since his opening week, Letterman has ruled the late-night roost, beating all other network competition in his time slot and establishing a lead that currently stands at nearly a million households. His "Top Ten List", delivered every night, is now part of the language. "Top Ten unpleasant things to hear on an elevator. `I'm not just a Jehovah's Witness, I also sell insurance', `Just ignore Duke, we're going to have him fixed'." And so on. During last year's Winter Olympics, his show became the official comedy version of the Games, not least because of his inspired decision to dispatch his mother to cover events in Lillehammer. He even has a following in Britain (his show is on Sky), and he will be broadcasting from London for a week in May.

But not everything is hitch-free. Few will forget the "Madonna Incident" last year. She had barely stomped on stage in her combat boots - and hadn't even lit up her giant cigar - before she started goading an evidently embarrassed Letterman by repeatedly saying the work "fuck", a no-no on mainstream American television, no matter how late the hour. CBS dutifully bleeped out each of the 13 utterances, although the network could do nothing to stop her rambling on about the merits of peeing in the shower.

It caused a great deal of huffing and puffing in the American media, memorably described by Norman Mailer as a "two-day Kristallnacht", written by "all the boozers, cokeheads and solid suburb-anites who do the TV column".

Letterman's discomfort was palpable. Suddenly he was a Midwestern boy again, an ineffectual lad who heard someone cussing in front of his mum and didn't like it. "I wasn't pleased with how I handled that," he later admitted to America's TV Guide. "Maybe I should have saved her from herself." And even after the two were publicly reconciled in a painfully staged stunt at an MTV awards ceremony, Letterman went on feeling unhappy about the whole affair.

To viewers, such discomfiture seemed odd. But those who knew him off- camera are less surprised. For the private David Letterman is not a back- slapping, fast-quipping funster.True, he loves pranks, like making crank calls to radio talk shows or challenging friends to oyster-eating contests, but he also has a reputation as an insecure, angst-ridden perfectionist.

After his show ends, he usually retreats to watch it alone on videotape. His colleagues say that when mistakes arise, he invariably blames himself. Although he sifts through his material painstakingly beforehand, rejecting dozens of guests, he is rarely satisfied with the results. Friends say he only seems truly happy once a day, when, veins jumping with adrenalin, he's strides out on to the stage. On the rare occasions he agrees to be interviewed, he tends to be awkward, restless. He so dislikes having his photo taken that it is said his producer stands by him encouraging him to smile by chanting, "Happy Dave, Happy Dave".

His style of life is modest fora multi-millionaire. He used to be an enthusiastic tippler when he was younger (he's now 47), but he hasn't touched alcohol for a decade. He also jogs, swims, and diets.

Oscar night live before 1 billion viewers, many of whom have little understanding of American humour, let alone Hollywood's in-jokes, is very different from entertaining a late-night American TV audience. But my guess is that his impromptu humour and painstaking attention to detail will ensure that he emerges triumphantly. Unless, of course, Madonna lights up that cigar and makes an unexpected entrance.

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