A veteran news producer with America's CBS television network has been arrested and charged with plotting to blackmail the popular late-night chat show host, David Letterman, by threatening to reveal certain "terrible things" about it him and his sexual meanderings unless he was paid £2m.
Details of the charges against Robert Halderman, 57, who is accused of trying to extort money from Letterman over his past, and previously private, history of having sex with women who worked on his programme, were spelled out yesterday morning by the New York district attorney.
However, a bare-bones version of the story had already been offered up on Thursday night by Letterman during one of the more unusual episodes of his nightly variety show, which is screened on CBS. "I'm glad you folks are here tonight and in such a good mood," he told his studio audience. "Do you feel like a story?"
Letterman, whose ratings have surged since President Barack Obama dropped in for a chat 10 days ago, proceeded to explain that he found a suspect package in his car three weeks ago. It contained photos and a letter that said: "I know that you do some terrible, terrible things and I can prove that you do these terrible things". Letterman, who was alternately grim-faced and jokey, added: "Sure enough, what was contained in the package was proof that I do terrible, terrible things."
Because Letterman's comedy often depends on deadpan delivery, his audience inside the Ed Sullivan Theatre on Broadway continued to interrupt with laughter and applause even as the subject of his monologue became increasingly sombre.
It made for an hour of gripping television, not least when the 62-year-old presenter, who is married, eventually got around to acknowledging what the "terrible things" were – sleeping with women who worked for him. To more nervous audience laughter, he added: "My response to that is, yes, I have."
While it may provide another bump in ratings for The Late Show With David Letterman, the longer-term repercussions for the star are less clear. He said he contacted police when he found the package and, on their advice, arranged to meet Mr Halderman. At one of three meetings, he said, he handed over a cheque for $2m (£1.3m), though it was a fake. On Thursday, he was required to testify before a grand jury.
"This morning, I did something I've never done in my life," Letterman told his audience. "I had to go downtown and testify before a grand jury." He added: "I was disturbed by this. I was worried for myself, I was worried for my family. I felt menaced by this and I had to tell them all of the creepy things I had done."
After divorcing his first wife Michelle Cook in 1977, Letterman earned a reputation as a happy-go-lucky bachelor. But in 2003 he announced the impending birth of a baby boy to himself and his long-time girlfriend Regina Lasko. The couple, who began dating in the late 1980s, married in March this year. It is not known when Letterman's liaisons with his staff took place. Though he interviews politicians frequently, as well every other breed of celebrity, Letterman is not a public servant and to that extend may be off the hook. But few things are taken more seriously in America than bosses having sex with their employees – because it implies an abuse of power.
The district attorney, Robert Morgenthau, said Mr Halderman left the package outside Letterman's home in Manhattan at 6am on 9 September. It contained a proposal for a screenplay about the star's private life. The threatening letter spoke of the producer seeking a "large chunk of money" for the script and included warnings to the comedian that his world was "about to collapse around him".
Legal documents also emerged yesterday showing that Mr Halderman owed his ex-wife $6,000 a month in child support payments.
Mr Halderman apparently discovered details of the talk show host's indiscretions while in a relationship with Letterman's former assistant Stephanie Birkitt.
When that relationship ended, according to the website TMZ, he kept Ms Birkitt's diary, letters and photos to prove his allegations – evidence that will presumably now be used against him in court instead.
Great Letterman lines
*"Congratulations are in order for Woody Allen – he and Soon Yi have a brand-new baby daughter. It's all part of Woody's plan to grow his own wives."
* "Dick Cheney said he was running again. He said his health was fine, 'I've got a doctor with me 24 hours a day.' Yeah, that's always the sign of a man in good health, isn't it?"
*"I cannot sing, dance or act; what else would I be but a talk-show host?"
* "Don't forget it's daylight saving time. You spring forward, then you fall back. It's like Robert Downey Jr getting out of bed."
*"Based on what you know about him in history books, what do you think Abraham Lincoln would be doing if he were alive today? 1 Writing his memoirs of the Civil War. 2 Advising the President. 3 Desperately clawing at the inside of his coffin."
* "The White House is giving George W Bush intelligence briefings. You know, some of these jokes just write themselves."
* "President Bush has been silent on Schwarzenegger. Of course, he can't pronounce Schwarzenegger."
* "We have defeated Saddam Hussein and Iraq. The good news is Iraq is ours, and the bad news is Iraq is ours."