Reading a new biography of Johnny Carson reminded me of this unfortunate reality: Many superstars we write about are tortured, neurotic prisoners of their own fame, and we journalists are complicit in shielding their true natures. We help sell their wares while nimbly avoiding their character flaws.
Carson’s traits, good and bad, are detailed in the soon-to-be-published book “Johnny Carson,” written by his attorney and business partner of 20 years, Henry Bushkin. While acknowledging Carson’s brilliant reign, Bushkin, whose long association with the King of Latenight ended bitterly in the late ’80s, also lets us know: Carson was habitually rude to fans and even TV guests, distrusted women but kept marrying them (four times), often carried a .38 revolver and once led an illegal raid on a girlfriend’s apartment whom he suspected of cuckolding him, told colleagues “the wicked witch is dead” when he learned of his mother’s demise, and died alone at Cedars Sinai in 2005 of emphysema.
I asked my friend Michael Fleming of Deadline Hollywood to comment on the tendency of journalists to look at the glitterati through rose-colored glasses, since we both have interviewed and written about countless celebrities.
Fleming: I think you are too hard on these folks. For Playboy and other mags, I have had great conversations with the so-called “terrible” interview subjects like Harrison Ford and Daniel Day-Lewis; once they know you are not trying to trap them into “gotcha” moments, you can go anywhere with them. Our mutual passion for doing carpentry led Daniel Day-Lewis to reveal an interesting irony. His preparation is legendary, but he can’t bear to watch himself onscreen. If he builds something, he can see and hold it. I expected Jim Carrey to hide behind jokes, but he was smart and tightly coiled. After our interview, his reps said great job, but never again. Why should Jim turn himself inside out when he can do a junket that’s easy? I met the Rock in a Prague steakhouse, and as this nice guy put away enough food to feed a platoon, he told me about his days playing college football at the U. of Miami, and how he once tried to tear a guy’s tongue out. The guy was a teammate.
Bart: I figured you’d see the bright side. I guess my problem is that I’ve done TV interviews with stars and found them congenial but, as a studio executive, I had to negotiate with them on salary and perks and script changes when they’d turn nasty.
Fleming: My job isn’t negotiation, it’s honest conversation. I treasure those experiences. Imagine the joy of being regaled by Martin Scorsese about his early days with De Niro. Or learning halfway through an outrageously revelatory Playboy interview with Quentin Tarantino that his mother gave this fatherless kid a subscription to help make him a man. He memorized every star interview and was determined ours would be better, directing me in a Tarantino production. Best interview ever.
Bart: Here’s the paradox: Many stars and star directors aren’t as important as they think they are. For example, movie star covers don’t sell magazines anymore; newsstand browsers are more likely to pick up covers with reality TV creepazoids. Cosmopolitan has consistently scored with the Kardashians.
Fleming: I am uninterested in people paid to manufacture controversy in their lives. Stars steer away from that, especially when Web jackals wait for any revelation, serving it up salaciously.
Bart: I get that reputations are all the more fragile in the social media era. Look what bizarre twists have occurred in Walt Disney’s legacy. Tom Hanks is playing a kindly Walt Disney in an upcoming Disney movie, but Walt is depicted as a mean sonofabitch in a new documentary and even in the new London opera “The Perfect American.” I once interviewed him and guess what — he was a delight!
Fleming: Shows you rarely get character flaws in an interview encounter, but sometimes you get a hard truth. I interviewed Denzel Washington in Miami once. We had dinner in a hotel, and had to exit through the bar, which clearly had a gay-night theme going. When I said that I could do worse leaving a gay bar with Denzel Washington, he sized me up and said, “Speak for yourself.”