Then there was the phone call I got one hour before my Hanks interview. The call was from Richard's doctor at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. I had to get him to the hospital a few days before I flew out. I stayed with him. His excellent doctor was pretty sure he just needed some observation for a while and he would be ready for me to take him home when I returned from my short business trip. She called that morning, concerned that he was not responding to treatment. "Don't panic," she said, "but I think you should call his parents." When I hung up, the weight of what she'd said hit me so hard that Richard was my immediate and sole focus. I had to be honest with the film publicity people, tell them that I could not interview Tom Hanks and that I needed to catch the next flight back to New York. I'd have to call Richard's mother. I gathered my thoughts, prayed for strength and guidance, prayed for Richard and then the phone rang again. Richard's doctor called me back. She'd talked to Richard and told him what she'd told me. She called again to say "Richard is adamant. He does not want you to fly back without having done your work." She said that she felt positively in her soul that nothing critical would happen before my return. Richard wanted me to do the Tom Hanks interview.
Richard entered and changed my life at a time when there was still great discrimination against gays. The AIDS crisis still made headlines in the early 1990s. Gay celebrities did not "come out" for fear of losing employment. A few co-workers in the newsroom confidentially urged me not to tell the local management at that time that I had a partner disabled by AIDS. A couple of top male execs in upper management were neither well-liked nor were they trusted (they're long, long gone from WNBC). My co-workers stressed that I was part-time and not under contract. My salary helped me take care of my partner. But, if I came out, management might find a way of not needing my services anymore regardless of how popular I was on the show. When the news director refused to air my taped interview of Harvey Fierstein, co-starring in Mrs. Doubtfire, because -- in his words -- "I have a problem with him being openly gay," I knew that management team definitely had a problem with diversity. For most of the time I was making viewers laugh on that live weekend program, I was caring for a terminally ill partner off-camera. Occupationally, I felt like someone had put a hand over my mouth when I wanted to scream for help. But I got wonderful emotional support from his family down South.
My heart was understandably heavy when I walked into the room to interview Tom Hanks. But he lightened it up quickly by proclaiming "It's Bobby Rivers! The Godfather of Cable TV!" He'd been a fan of my VH1 talk show host work in the late 80s.
In my Hanks interview, I wanted to honor Richard with a question about discrimination against gays. I posed the question in relation to Hanks' Oscar-winning career. The question is in this old reel on mine:
He won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Cast Away. He was voted Best Actor of 2000. A voting film critic friend of mine asked me to be her date at the awards dinner. Hanks was there and, after the ceremony, recognized me again and came over to greet me. At the time, I was seen as guest host on Channel 13, New York City's PBS station. I hosted the premiere of Ken Burns' Jazz. Tom Hanks complimented me on that work and said, "Rita and I watched you in the hotel room." He said this in front of a table of movie critics. It made The New York Post.
In 2008, when I was seen in Monday through Friday late morning repeats as host of Top 5 on Food Network and heard in the early mornings as a full time regular on Whoopi Goldberg's national weekday show for Premiere Radio, I met three veteran agents in New York City. I wanted TV representation. All three were with major agencies. Two turned me down saying that they wouldn't know what to do with me. The third opened our meeting by asking, "Have you ever done any on-camera work"?
This is why I love Tom Hanks. He made me feel that I mattered. Richard died in June 1994. Just like Hanks character in the first 20 minutes of Sleepless in Seattle, I had so much rage inside because this person I loved so much was gone. I'd grown into Hanks' character when I rented the movie a couple of years later. If I'm lucky, one day I'll see him again and I can tell him how his performances have gotten me through some heartache.
His new political thriller opens this fall. He's so good at what he does. Can you get me into that Bridge of Spies movie junket? Please! I hope Tom Hanks has a terrific birthday.