David Letterman: Remembering the Ted Koppel Interview When His Mask Came Off

A former senior producer of ABC News’ “Nightline,” Richard Harris was in the middle of the storm in 2002 when ABC tried to woo David Letterman to take over the 11:30 p.m. slot that had long been home to “Nightline.” Letterman showed his character not long afterward when he agreed to sit for a rare one-on-one interview with Ted Koppel, which Harris produced. Here Harris shares his behind-the-scenes memories of that experience.

As the parade of celebrities has marched through the Ed Sullivan Theater during the past few months to pay respects to David Letterman, they’ve lavished him with adulation, leaving him with a half-smile and looking slightly bemused and uncomfortable.

Getting inside the head of the gap-toothed goofball from Indiana to decipher what he’s truly thinking is no small feat. Famous for his Top Ten List and showcasing stupid pet and human tricks, Letterman’s self-deprecating, sometimes silly on-air persona reveals little of the thoughtful person with the huge heart I met 13 years ago. Letterman has never enjoyed talking about himself and over the years, rarely granted interviews. But back then, circumstances conspired and the comedian let us see — for at least one brief moment — the man behind the mask.

The Letterman drama began one March morning in 2002 when those of us working at ABC News’ “Nightline,” one of his late-night competitors, opened the newspaper and thought we were reading our own obituaries. The New York Times broke the news that our ABC/Disney bosses were seriously wooing Letterman to jump from CBS to ABC. That would have pushed “Nightline” into the wee hours of the morning. More likely, it would have pushed all of us out of a job.

We were stunned, but no one felt more blindsided than the man synonymous with “Nightline,” Ted Koppel, who had been a latenight fixture for 22 years since he began anchoring “America Held Hostage,” the nightly update of the Iranian hostage crisis and the precursor to “Nightline.” You can imagine how painful it was to read this quote from an anonymous ABC executive in the Times story that broke the news, which came just a few months after 9/11: “The relevancy of ‘Nightline’ just is not there anymore.”

Letterman didn’t want to be branded as the man who kicked Koppel to the curb. He reportedly told ABC executives that he had to be assured that “Nightline” was being moved from 11:30 p.m. no matter what he did.

While Letterman, of course, ended up staying at CBS and “Nightline” got a reprieve from the guillotine (Koppel would anchor three more years), things soured between Koppel and the ABC network brass. And sensing that this very public seduction by ABC had hurt his friend Koppel, Letterman did something few television stars would ever do: compete against himself.

The interview-averse host agreed to sit down as the first guest for an extended one-on-one conversation with Koppel in July 2002 for ABC’s new post-“Nightline” broadcast “UpClose,” a seven-month program designed to bridge the gap between the end of Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect,” which had aired after “Nightline,” and the premiere of “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”

“It was an extraordinarily gracious gesture by David, willing to set aside his famous reserve as an act of good will,” “UpClose” executive producer Tom Bettag recalls.

The day of the interview, we set up our cameras on the stage of the Ed Sullivan Theater with director’s chairs looking out on an empty audience. When Letterman arrived after taping his show, where he had announced “I’ll be leaving halfway through tonight’s show to go watch myself on Ted Koppel,” he had shed his suit and slipped into khakis and a sweater.

What followed was a Letterman one critic described as “subdued, thoughtful and choked up, an approximation of the private Dave,” one you rarely saw before or since.

Koppel couldn’t resist beginning the broadcast with one jab at his corporate bosses. “We always like to make our friends at Disney happy. They wanted Letterman. Here he is,” he said.

From the start, Letterman started to slip off the mask when he described his brief dalliance with ABC. “It’s like dating. You show up at the prom with a girl and you look across the floor and think, ‘Maybe I’d be having more fun with that girl over there.’ ]”

The mask slipped some more when Koppel told Letterman, “You seem to be in some strange way better to handle when things are going badly and when everything is going well for you, you seem acutely uncomfortable with that.” Letterman agreed, saying, “I don’t know if it’s geographic or just rampant insecurity, but that seems to be a fair assessment.”

And when Koppel asked him what he has to be insecure about, Letterman’s mask dropped still lower: “I guess I have a very low threshold of embarrassment. … Every day we put on a new show and it all comes down to one hour. If I somehow do something that embarrasses me, I feel like I’ve thrown away that effort for the day. It’s very frustrating. But I think it’s the same for everybody, regardless of your work. I think humans just don’t want to embarrass themselves.”

When Koppel told Letterman there were two times — following his heart surgery and after 9/11 — when he had seen him get “the least little bit emotional on the air,” Letterman smiled and couldn’t resist injecting, “Don’t push your luck, Ted.”

Just two years past his quintuple bypass surgery, Letterman described the procedure as “the most exciting thing that happened to me.” With a family history of heart disease — his dad dying at 57 — Letterman knew his genes would catch up with him. So after an angiogram one day, Letterman suddenly found himself lying in a bed, getting prepped for surgery and “the room fills up with strangers, in the little green pajama outfits ready to go.”

When he came to, Letterman said, “You have no idea how long you’ve been gone … a voice says, ‘It went great, you’re going to be great’ … you’re in the Hall of Fame … with that one or two sentence bit of encouragement, you’re sky high,” especially for a guy who “always knew he was going to drop dead of a heart attack.” After the open heart surgery, Letterman has seemed less manic and he told Koppel he “doesn’t think about death anymore.”

Near the end of the interview, Koppel asked him about Sept. 17, 2001, the day he returned to the air to do a New York-based comedy show when laughter was in short supply. He revealed that as late as 4 p.m. that day, he was still talking to the staff to ask if “we are honestly going to do a show?”

Letterman talked extemporaneously about how he and the city were feeling in the wake of the attacks. “If we are going to continue to do shows,” Letterman said from his desk, unable to maintain eye contact with the camera, “I just need to hear myself talk for a couple of minutes” and proceeded to describe the sadness in New York City following the loss of thousands. “As I understand it and my understanding of this is vague at best, we were told that they were zealots fueled by religious fervor. And if you live to be a thousand years old, will that make any sense to you? Any god damned sense?”

The New York Daily News called it “one of the purest, most honest and important moments in TV history.” But Letterman told Koppel he refused to watch the broadcast after the taping. “I didn’t want to see it,” Letterman said, his eyes filling up. “I don’t know.”

Before he signs off for good on Wednesday, Letterman had said he’d welcome his longtime rival Jay Leno and newsman Brian Williams, now in a six-month suspension for embellishing stories about covering the news, including one he told to Letterman about taking fire aboard a helicopter in Iraq. Both Williams and Leno are long shots. Either would be ratings gold.

But it’s not as though Letterman needs another notch on his belt. When you spend 33 years in front of the TV cameras as a late-night host, you can’t survive unless people want to spend time with you. What’s Letterman’s secret? He may have unwittingly taken the mask all the way off and disclosed it at the end of that interview with Koppel.

“My greatest fear in life,” he mused, “is being dull. You can be great, you can be awful, but just don’t bother being dull.”

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