AKA David Michael Letterman
Birthplace: Indianapolis, IN
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Talk Show Host
Nationality: United States
Executive summary: The Late Show
David Letterman is a gap-toothed, grouchy, balding and bespectacled comedian, who was the funniest man on television for more than twenty years. He is old enough that as a youngster he admired radio star Arthur Godfrey. When Letterman watched The Tonight Show as a boy, the host was Steve Allen and then Jack Paar -- and Letterman was watching. He was 14 when Johnny Carson took over in 1962, and always looked up to Carson as the best of the best, the epitome of comedy and class. For years, Letterman wanted to be Johnny Carson.
Letterman married his college girlfriend, Michelle Cook, a music major, and got his own degree in telecommunications. Then he went to work as a wacky weatherman in Indianapolis, occasionally making up cities that didn't exist ("Eight inches of snow in Bingree and surrounding areas"), and once erasing state borders from a weather map during a broadcast. He anchored the evening news for a short while, and even hosted a news/talk radio show. Too funny to play it serious, though, Letterman starred in a local kiddie show, and wisecracked as host of late-night TV "Freeze-Dried Movies" until he quit his job, loaded his possessions into his truck, and left Indiana in 1975.
In Los Angeles, Letterman wrote for Good Times, the Jimmie Walker sitcom. Letterman became popular in local comedy venues, making friends with another young comic, Jay Leno. Letterman wrote songs and comedy for The Starlight Vocal Band Show, and after his stand-up gigs, he cheated on his wife with more than one woman who wanted to catch a rising star. The marriage ended in 1977, before Letterman had even enough success to be ordered to pay alimony. His ex-wife got custody of the car and the dog.
Over the next few years, Letterman participated on daytime game shows like Liars Club, Password, The $10,000 Pyramid, and The Gong Show, and sang and danced (woodenly) on Mary Tyler Moore's short-lived sketch comedy show Mary. When he made his first of dozens of appearances on Carson's Tonight Show, after doing a few minutes of stand-up, he was invited to join Carson on the couch -- at the time, the highest honor any comedian could earn.
His own David Letterman Show debuted in 1980, but it was aired weekday mornings, opposite game shows and soap operas. Wacko actress Edie McClurg was a regular, and the show was humorous, but housewives didn't seem to get the jokes, so the show was cancelled after just a few months. It was nominated for five Emmys, and won two -- one for writing and one for the host.
Letterman's Late Night debuted in 1982. With Paul Shaffer, Chris Elliott, Dwight the troubled teen, gruff but lovable Gus, Larry "Bud" Melman, the NBC bookmobile, and "The Museum of the Hard to Believe", Late Night proved a perfect follow-up to Carson's Tonight Show on NBC. Unlike other talk shows' predictable chats with stars hawking movies or authors selling books, Letterman's interviews were irreverent, unpredictable, smart-alecky and sarcastic. He had memorable on-air spats with a few stars who needed to have their egos punctured, including Cher, Madonna, and Shirley MacLaine.
In 1991, Letterman, well-known for his Connecticut speeding tickets, was involved in an accident in St. Petersburg when his rental Chrysler collided with a pick-up truck in a rain-slicked intersection. The police report found neither driver at fault, but two people in the pick-up were injured. Letterman later visited both, apologizing profusely, and paid $125,000 to settle their medical bills -- apparently without being sued.
In 1992, when Carson retired and NBC announced that Leno would take over The Tonight Show, Letterman felt jilted, or worse, that his career was over. Carson had always been Letterman's idol, and hosting Tonight had always been Letterman's ambition. He had guest-hosted Carson's show exactly 50 times, and Letterman was a guest on Carson's next-to-last Friday night show, ten days before Tonight would be Leno's show. Letterman took the opportunity to offer Carson a job.
"I have a show," said Letterman. "You could be on my show. You could be a guest. You could be a guest host. Come to think of it, you can have the damn thing. Why not? Things ain't that great." Carson laughed and said, "You're still pissed, huh?" Even Carson thought Letterman would have been a better choice than Leno to take over Tonight. On Carson's advice, Letterman took his "Top 10" lists and his band leader Shaffer to CBS, and started The Late Show with David Letterman.
Late Show's schtick included most of the familiar bits from Late Night, as well as "Will it float?", "Is this anything", "Know your current events," "Dr. Phil's words of wisdom," innovative ways to beat the hell out of announcer Alan Kalter, and stagehands' hilariously droll readings of Oprah transcripts. Embarrassed or pissed-off celebrity guests have included Richard Gere and Farrah Fawcett.
Letterman hosted the 1995 Oscar ceremonies, and the telecast had its highest ratings in a dozen years, but critics declared his performance a bomb. Within a few months of the Oscarcast, Letterman's Late Show went from first place in the ratings to a distant second behind Leno, where it stayed until and even after Leno departed. Soon, long-time director Hal Gurnee was gone, along with long-time producer Robert Morton and long-time punchline Melman.
In 2000, Letterman had quadruple heart bypass surgery, and returned to his show with a sincere tribute to the doctors who saved his life. "My career flashed before my eyes," he said. "I'm telling you something. It was mostly awkward silences." Shaffer has said that the experience changed Letterman. Prior to his surgery, the show's staff took memos from CBS execs semi-seriously, and worried about the show's ratings. After the surgery, says Shaffer, Letterman "doesn't give a damn anymore" -- about the suits' memos, the ratings, or anything but whether a gag is funny or not.
Letterman won kudos for his unscripted, teary, heartfelt remarks when The Late Show returned after the 2001 terror attack on New York, and he held hands with a weepy Dan Rather. And beginning in 2002, Letterman made several trips to the Middle East to entertain American troops (in Afghanistan in 2002, and Iraq in 2003 and 2004). For his 2004 trip, Letterman brought Ilana, the Late Show Grinder Girl, and Anna, the Hula Hoop Girl. At one point in his act he asked for a volunteer from the crowd, and hundreds of soldiers raised their hands. "Isn't that how you got here?", he asked.
In retirement and until his death, Carson occasionally sent Letterman jokes for his monologue. Letterman responded by using the bits, of course, and eventually said "thank you" by reviving some of Carson's long-running material, including "Stump the Band" and "Carnac the Magnificent," with sidekick Shaffer playing Ed McMahon. Letterman himself retired from The Late Show in 2015, and was succeeded as host by Stephen Colbert.
Letterman's company, World Wide Pants, produced The Late Show while he hosted, as well as The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson, Ray Romano's Everybody Loves Raymond, Thomas Cavanagh's Ed, and The Bonnie Hunt Show.
Letterman is co-owner of the Rahal Letterman Racing team, which won the Indianapolis 500 in 2004 with Buddy Rice driving. For Letterman, an Indianapolis boy and a big racing fan, winning at Indy was a tremendous accomplishment. He reportedly pushed several Emmys aside to give the Indy 500 trophy the most prominent spot on his mantle.
His most famous stalker, Margaret Ray, was arrested several times for breaking into his house, stealing his car, and claiming to be his wife. After writing him hundreds of letters, she killed herself by kneeling in front of a freight train in 1998. He has had at least two other stalkers, and has bulletproof glass in his office window.
In 1985, Letterman established the a scholarship at Ball State, providing financial assistance to students based solely on their creativity, not their grades. His generous contributions to the school have kept the telecommunications department flush with the latest equipment, acknowledged with an understated plaque which reads, "To all 'C' students before me and after me. --David Letterman."
Father: Harry Joseph Letterman (florist, b. 1921, d. 1974 heart attack)
Mother: Dorothy Mengering (church secretary and housewife, b. 1921)
Sister: Janice Shelton
Sister: Gretchen Letterman (executive, St. Petersburg Times)
Wife: Michelle Cook (college classmate, m. 1969, div. 1977)
Girlfriend: Merrill Markoe (Late Night writer, 1978-89, briefly engaged)
Wife: Regina Lasko (SNL production manager, together since 1986, m. 19-Mar-2009, one son)
Son: Harry Joseph Letterman (b. 3-Nov-2003)
High School: Broad Ripple High School, Indianapolis, IN (1965)
University: BA Telecommunications, Ball State University (1969)
Al Franken for Senate
Sigma Chi Fraternity
Heart Bypass Operation quintuple (Jan-2000)
Risk Factors: Smoking, Marijuana
Late Show with David Letterman Host (1993-2015)
Late Night with David Letterman Host (1982-93)
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