Rosie O'donnel Returns to the View
Robert Maxwell for Variety

The last person who thought Rosie O’Donnell would ever return to “The View” was Rosie O’Donnell. In the spring of 2007, the talk show host opted not to renew her contract with the gabfest created by Barbara Walters, even though her controversial opinions gave the program a ratings boost. Then, shortly before her departure, she got caught in a spectacular fight on live TV with conservative co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck that started over the Iraq War, but quickly turned personal — and went viral.

“The day it happened, I was definitely crying,” O’Donnell recalls. “I got my stuff and walked out.” She phoned her longtime publicist, Cindi Berger, telling her: “‘I’m never going back. You have to call and tell them. Call the lawyer. No matter what they say, I will not go back.”

But this is daytime TV after all. And in a plot twist worthy of “All My Children,” Rosie is headed back to “The View.” The colorful and outspoken comedian will board the Hot Topics table for the show’s 18th season premiere Sept. 15. It’s a big gamble, which O’Donnell herself acknowledges — she signed only a one-year (albeit multimillion-dollar) contract so she can bail if the show devolves into another train wreck. If it works, she’ll be daytime’s new comeback kid at 52.

“I think it’s going to be must-see TV,” O’Donnell says over a plate of cookies at Sarabeth’s on a New York afternoon. “My goal is to come in peace. And the contrast between what the show will be and what it was is going to be glaring.”

Robert Maxwell for Variety

ABC executives are banking on O’Donnell to help reinvigorate “The View,” which over the summer sometimes fell in the ratings even behind CBS’ “The Talk.” Walters retired in May at 84 — “I didn’t think Barbara would ever leave it,” O’Donnell admits. ABC management decided to clean house and drop co-hosts Sherri Shepherd and Jenny McCarthy, as well as executive producer Bill Geddie. O’Donnell will join Whoopi Goldberg, who took over as moderator in 2007, and new co-hosts Rosie Perez and Republican strategist Nicolle Wallace, announced last week after a lengthy vetting process that featured more candidates than a U.S. presidential primary.

O’Donnell has always been a whirlwind of ideas, and she shared her vision for the new “View.” She wants the show to be smarter. “No one is going to think the Earth is flat,” she says, referring to an infamous flub Shepherd made when she started. “When I was at home watching that, I thought I was going to have an aneurysm.” She also wants the segments to rely less on star power. “The necessity for celebrity in daytime TV has diminished as access to celebrity has increased 100-fold,” O’Donnell says, noting that viewers are less interested in famous people now that the Internet lets them interact with their idols directly. “When I was a kid,” she says, “and Barbra Streisand was on TV, I would stay home from school.”

She explains that the Hot Topics will include pre-taped newsy intros to catch viewers up on stories they might not be as familiar with. “In talk shows like ‘The View’ or ‘The Talk,’ sometimes the argument is over what the givens are,” O’Donnell says. “We’d like to first present an objective view of the situation.”

If some parts of the show still sound vague, it’s because new executive producer Bill Wolff officially started at the end of August, after he finally cut loose from his MSNBC contract with “The Rachel Maddow Show.” He’s on a mad sprint to help cobble together a live program. The staff hasn’t even finished building the new set, since “The View” packed up and moved a few blocks west. O’Donnell didn’t like the old studios just off the Hudson River. “The dressing rooms were in the basement,” she says. “There was a rat problem.”

At the old venue, O’Donnell regularly clashed with former exec producer Geddie and Hasselbeck, who exited in 2013. “Elisabeth would go into the dressing room with (Bill) and go over Republican talking points that are sent out every day, and then come out and recite what she had ingested,” O’Donnell says. “I tried to get her to talk more about her own self and how she felt rather than being a robotic pundit.”

O’Donnell and Hasselbeck made up at a reunion show in May for Walters, where they sat next to each other at the table. Backstage, O’Donnell said the mood was cordial. She even knocked on her ex-co-host’s dressing room door and took a selfie with her, the first time they’d spoken in seven years. But after O’Donnell’s full-time return was announced, Hasselbeck launched into an angry rant about her on “Fox & Friends,” where Hasselbeck has worked since last September. O’Donnell says she wasn’t surprised. “I’ve come to expect nothing from her, even though I feel I continually make the effort to break through,” O’Donnell says.

At least she has reconciled with her old boss, who recently phoned to congratulate her. “I love Barbara Walters,” O’Donnell says. “We even talked about going to see a Broadway show.” Walters says she will be watching “The View” from home. “‘The View’ stays fresh and relevant, and Rosie will help keep it so,” she says, crediting O’Donnell’s “wonderful humor and directness.”

O’Donnell explains that she tried not to think about “The View” after her departure, and never considered a world where she’d be invited back. “I felt like Lord Voldemort, whose name shall not be spoken,” she says. “Even when there were old photos, sometimes they would crop me out.”

O’Donnell used to be daytime royalty, the second-most powerful woman on TV after Oprah. Warner Bros. Television Distribution’s juggernaut “Rosie O’Donnell Show” ran for six seasons, from 1996 to 2002, earning Daytime Emmys for its host each year, and the outstanding talk show award five times. But in 2002, wanting a break from the spotlight, she turned down a $50 million-a-year offer to continue the show.

She’s often asked about comparisons between her talk show and the one Ellen DeGeneres has hosted since 2003. “It’s the same show,” O’Donnell says. “Some people say, ‘Aren’t you mad she stole your show?’ She didn’t. I stole Merv Griffin’s show and Mike Douglas’ show. She’s doing that, and she does it well.” O’Donnell says DeGeneres is a more natural fit for the Hollywood lifestyle than she ever was. “I never considered myself one of them,” she says. “I could never go, ‘Hey, let’s take a selfie with me and Meryl Streep.’ That would be so intimidating.”

O’Donnell, who grew up on Long Island, was 10 when she lost her mom, a moment she says defined the rest of her life. She’s thrived on her outsider status, which makes her relatable to viewers, but can take its toll professionally. On “The View,” she constantly found herself in messy public feuds — Donald Trump fought back after she questioned his finances and mocked his hair — which played out in the tabloids and left her exhausted. “Rosie’s greatest flaw, and asset, is an inability to not tell the truth,” says her pal, actress Natasha Lyonne. “It’s a tricky thing to have in life.”

Ever since she left “The View,” O’Donnell has floated between jobs — including a recurring role on ABC Family’s “The Fosters,” where she plays a social worker. Her last talk show, which debuted in 2011 on the OWN Network, was a misfire that got canceled after a single season. “I tried,” O’Donnell says. “I wish I had been able to deliver for Oprah.”

In a sense, O’Donnell needs “The View” as much as ABC needs her. She says the current TV environment makes it hard to launch a talk show — just ask Anderson Cooper or Katie Couric. “I don’t know if daytime TV will ever have the kind of effect it had back when my show was on,” O’Donnell says. “There are so many delivery platforms, nobody has appointment TV anymore.”

In February, she returned to “The View” for a Hot Topics segment, and to plug “The Fosters.” She lit up the stage with strong views on subjects ranging from Woody Allen’s sexual abuse charges (she thought he was guilty), Justin Bieber’s hijinks (“Fame is a tidal wave,” she said) and the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman (“It’s about time we stopped shaming addicts,” she maintained).

Anne Sweeney, the outgoing president of Disney/ABC Television Group, was in the audience. “It was magical,” says Sweeney, who got the idea to bring O’Donnell back. “What we saw happening with Rosie in the chair across from Whoopi is what Barbara Walters saw back in the day when she hired Rosie.” But that didn’t turn out so well. When asked if she’s worried O’Donnell’s next “View” gig could end as badly as the last one, Sweeney says she’s not. “Look at everything Rosie has conquered in her life,” Sweeney says.

O’Donnell has actually undergone a dramatic metamorphosis since the last time she was on daytime, and offers a long list of all the ways her life has changed. “First of all, I was going through a divorce,” she says. “That was a very emotionally and tumultuous time in my life.” O’Donnell says she wasn’t just afraid of how her kids would take the news, she also felt like she’d let the gay community down, as someone who had a 2004 wedding ceremony in San Francisco. “Now I’m quite happily married,” she says.

But shortly after exchanging vows in 2012 with Michelle Rounds, O’Donnell suffered a heart attack. Doctors inserted a stent, and saved her life. “When you have a heart attack and almost die, it kind of puts things in perspective instantly, and it did for me,” she says. A year later, she decided to have vertical gastric sleeve surgery, and lost 55 pounds. “I was 230 pounds,” O’Donnell says. “I was morbidly obese.” She can now fit into a size medium T-shirt.

Her family lives in Saddle River, N.J., where O’Donnell, who wears an “M” tattooed on her ring finger in honor of her wife’s first initial, wakes up every morning and hangs out with her five kids. She watches “Frozen” on an endless loop with 19-month-old Dakota, whom she and Rounds adopted a few months after they were married.

“When Parker was a baby,” O’Donnell says of her first son, now 19 and a freshman in college, “we had a ‘Beauty and the Beast’ tape, and it eventually wore out. Dakota is able to consume ‘Frozen’ five to 10 times a day — any scene she wants on the iPad. She walks around the house going, ‘I’ve been impaled,’ ” O’Donnell says, making the voice of Olaf the snowman.

Rosie 2.0 is doing things healthier. She’s stopped drinking alcohol, and she meditates daily — 20 minutes in the morning, and another 20 minutes at night. She had previously contemplated a gastric bypass, but was worried about a side effect (“very poor control of pooping”). “I have such anxiety over going to the bathroom in public,” O’Donnell says. “I don’t ever pee in public.”

She might look different, but she still sounds like the same old Rosie — the BFF who loves to overshare. She tells a story about how she was feeling down one day, so she went to 7-Eleven to stock up on bubble gum and chocolate-covered pretzels. But sweets no longer interest her. “I never knew what the feeling of full was,” O’Donnell says. “I never knew what the feeling of hungry was either. If it was there, I’d eat it.”

Even though she’s skinnier now, O’Donnell still doesn’t sense it. “I feel as if I’m big as I was then,” she says, adding that she thinks she suffers from body dysmorphic disorder. She recently went to an Eileen Fisher store to buy clothes, and the saleswoman scolded her when she tried to stock up on XL-sizes. “It’s a very hard thing to wrap your head around the newness of a body you’ve ignored for many years,” she says.

O’Donnell admits to a long struggle with depression, tracing it to the 1999 high-school shooting in Littleton, Colo., which made her realize she couldn’t use her celebrity to help the victims of gun violence. “After Columbine, I started on the meds,” she says. “I took Prozac to begin with, and Effexor a few years later. I’m pretty much on nothing now. I’m calmer.”

The burning question for ABC is whether the new Rosie can actually save the new “View.” Some of that will depend on how the rest of the panel interacts. The appointment of Wallace wasn’t a surprise, because she was among the contenders ABC had been formally auditioning. “It was very much like the ‘Hunger Games,’ how they did it,” O’Donnell says.

In August, all the candidates were herded into a room and escorted to a table with O’Donnell and Goldberg for mock debates. “I think Whoopi and I were both a little shocked at having to do a chemistry test,” O’Donnell says. “I don’t know if there’s a way to test that. It felt very negative and competitive.”

The hiring of Perez, who wasn’t in the group but has co-hosted “The View” before, was more unexpected. “I love Rosie Perez,” O’Donnell says. “I didn’t even know she was being considered.” Executive producer Wolff is a champion of hers, and now daytime will have a double dose of Rosies.

But all eyes will be on O’Donnell, and she’s hoping to handle the spotlight better this time. She says with age — and menopause — comes wisdom. “I don’t think I care so much about how I’m perceived,” she says. She tries not to Google herself to keep from worrying about what people think. “My kids sometimes do,” O’Donnell says. “I’ll say, ‘Honey, I don’t need to know.’”

The new panel of co-hosts will all meet for the first time this week, just five days before their first live show. “To me, it’s shockingly late in the game,” O’Donnell says. She’s excited to get started on a range of topics, from the threat of Isis to slain journalist James Foley to the death of Robin Williams, who was a friend. Her goal is to enjoy the “View” this time around. If she does, she’d be open to staying for more than one season.

“I don’t think it’s going to affect me the way that it did before,” she says. “But who knows? Let’s see how controversial it becomes.”

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