Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Guest That Got Away

If you read my posts on a regular basis, you know that one of the most frustrating high-profile jobs of my New York City career was the one I quit at WNBC back in the 1990s.  Why was it frustrating?  I was contacted to be a regular on a new weekend local show slated to debut in September 1992 called WEEKEND TODAY IN NEW YORK.  At the time I was contacted, I'd had three great years as a veejay and talk show host on VH1.  During that time, I also worked CBS Late Night programming.  (OK, I'll be more specific.  Pat Sajak had his own late night talk show for a while.  I was a monthly guest.)  When I had my first lunch with WNBC local news execs to talk about this new opportunity, I was in syndication as the host of a late night relationship game show.  This weeknight game show was a summer replacement program.  The initial WNBC offer was for me to do entertainment news segments including film reviews in the studio.  I'd be at the desk with the two anchors.  That appealed to me because, as you know, I've been extremely aware of the lack of racial diversity in TV's field of film critics. The summer replacement game show didn't get a green light to go into full time production, so I needed a gig.  The thought of covering entertainment for WNBC and, hopefully, working up to NBC network assignments made my mouth water.  I wanted to work in 30 Rock.
The day before our pre-dawn Saturday morning premiere in September, execs changed my duties.  I basically would read the community calendar of family events and do outdoor liveshots from shopping malls, street fairs and such.  Just two years prior, I'd had the same kind of A-lists guests on my talk show that you were seeing with David Letterman, Larry King and Oprah Winfrey.            

One day, I was flying to London for VH1 to do a one-hour exclusive TV interview of Paul McCartney.  Then I sign with WNBC local news, and they send me to petting zoos to tell folks about bake sales in Brooklyn.  Adam Sandler, then on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, asked me why I wasn't doing interviews like I'd done on VH1.  So did fellow SNL member Ellen Cleghorne.

I needed the weekend job and the non-star salary.  I kept with it to see if I could talk some light into my producer's head and get in-studio entertainment segments.  Her head was a brick wall.

I was cast on a local play that would be performed for one weekend in the East Village.  It would be a short, one-act play.  Our first meeting was a read-through and I totally like the company.  One cast member who also doubled as sort of our stage manager was a local actress I'd seen in local TV commercials.  The playwright of our one-act production was fascinating.  A very interesting guy.

The actress and the playwright were so talented and charismatic that I told my producer I'd like to interview them.  I'd like to do an individual interview of each and present a 3-minute "People You Should Know" feature on WEEKEND TODAY IN NEW YORK.  The producer replied, "No one knows who they are."  I replied, "That's the point.  They're local talent that New York should keep its eye on."  She rejected my idea.

After the play was performed early in the summer of 1994, the totally sweet and gifted actress moved to L.A. to try her luck there.  The moved paid off.  That actress, Camryn Manheim, was cast on the hit ABC series THE PRACTICE.
The playwright also moved to L.A. to try his luck.  The moved paid off for him too.  Alan Ball now has an Oscar for his AMERICAN BEAUTY screenplay.  He also gave us the HBO programs SIX FEET UNDER and TRUE BLOOD.
May 13th is Alan Ball's birthday.  I'm sorry my producer wouldn't let me interview Alan Ball and Camryn Manhein for the local news show.  She let one anchor book Pia Zadora as a live guest.  I pitched another guest.  A director.  I'd already taped the interview.  But the producer said, "No one knows who he is."

The following year,  Robert Zemeckis won the Best Director Oscar for FORREST GUMP, the film he and I talked about in my interview.  May 14th is his birthday.  And there you have it.   I quit WNBC local news a couple of months before he won his Oscar.

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