David Letterman Was In The Spotlight But These Facts Weren’t

As one of late-night television’s original stars, David Letterman has become a household name as the host of The Late Show since the 1980s. Letterman’s show has lent a hand in launching the careers of many successful writers and comedians and has showcased nearly 20,000 guest stars over Letterman’s 33-year tenure as host.

Stars from Barack Obama to Robin Williams have had a chance to appear on the show, but no one is more iconic than Letterman himself.

David’s Early Years

David Letterman’s career beginnings are rooted in Indianapolis broadcast news, where he worked as a radio talk show host on WNTS and as an anchor and weatherman on WLWI. He received attention for his humorous and unpredictable behavior while on camera, reportedly congratulating a tropical storm for being upgraded to hurricane status and predicting hail storms “the size of canned hams.”

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Maureen Donaldson/Getty Images
Maureen Donaldson/Getty Images

In 1975, he and his then-wife, Michelle Cook, decided to move to Los Angeles where he performed stand-up comedy. After finding work as a writer and actor, scouts for Johnny Carson’s talk show discovered Letterman, who by 1978 became a regular guest host.

Late Night Beginnings…And Cancellations

After guest-hosting for Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, Letterman was given his own morning show by 1980. The David Letterman Show won two Emmy Awards and was well received by critics, but due to low ratings was eventually canceled.

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Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Because of his success as a talk show host, NBC still kept Letterman under contract and would end up giving him his own time slot. On February 1, 1982, Late Night With David Letterman premiered with Bill Murray as the first guest. For the 1980s, the show was viewed as edgy and unpredictable, featuring genre-mocking skits like “Stupid Human Tricks.”

Competition with Leno

Letterman’s late-night talk show career spanned over 33 years, starting with NBC’s Late Night With David Letterman and ending with CBS’s Late Show With David Letterman. Between the two programs, Letterman hosted over 6,000 episodes, surpassing friend and mentor Johnny Carson as American television’s longest-serving late-night talk show host.

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Yvonne Hemsey/Getty Images
Yvonne Hemsey/Getty Images

After Johnny Carson retired from The Tonight Show, everyone expected David Letterman to take his place. Despite Carson’s wishes, the job was given to Jay Leno. Letterman then switched networks to CBS in 1993, where he signed a $14 million annual contract to become the host of a show opposite The Tonight Show, called The Late Show, which incurred over $140 million in costs to cover studio renovations, new announcers, writers, and a live band.

Joaquin Breaks Down

Actor Joaquin Phoenix weirded everyone out when he made an appearance on Late Show in 2008. He appeared on set looking rather different with a bushy beard, and standoffish with dark shades and a black suit. The interview threw Letterman for a loop, as Phoenix announced that he was retiring from acting to begin a rapping career.

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Jason Merritt/FilmMagic
Jason Merritt/FilmMagic

Along with the strange announcement, Phoenix went on a series of unintelligible ramblings. As it turns out, it was all a stunt that was a part of Casey Affleck’s mockumentary I’m Still Here, and nobody knew what was going on. Phoenix reappeared on the Late Show to explain the stunt.

Heart Surgery

In January 2000, a doctor’s visit revealed that an artery in Letterman’s heart was severely obstructed, which prompted him to undergo emergency surgery for a quintuple bypass. While in the stages of recovery from the surgery, Letterman had a slew of guest hosts for Late Night, including Kathie Lee Gifford, Dana Carvey, and Janeane Garofalo.

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Jamie Squire/ALLSPORT/Getty Images
Jamie Squire/ALLSPORT/Getty Images

When he returned to the show near the end of February that year, he brought with him all but one of the doctors and nurses that played a part in his surgery. Letterman was nearly in tears as he thanked the medical professionals who saved his life, and the episode earned him an Emmy nomination.

Harvey Pekar Was Out of Control

David Letterman is no stranger to guests that he can’t control. In 1987, Letterman hosted comic book writer Harvey Pekar on his show. Pekar had already been known to be rather outspoken about his opinions in regards to corporations and the way they control the media. On his second appearance on the show, Pekar even wore a shirt that said “On Strike Against NRC,” which, according to salon.com, “encouraged workers at General Electric — part of the joint venture holding company NBC Universal — to go on strike.”

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Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

A conversation ensued and a lot of yelling and talking over one another happened.

What Cher Really Thinks of Dave

In 1986, Letterman had singer Cher on his show and the two shared a rather casual rapport. The main focus of Letterman’s interview, in the beginning, was the fact that it took four years for Cher to agree to come on Late Night. At first, she joked around saying that she needed money to pay off a rather lofty hotel bill, but a determined Letterman knew there had to be a better reason, saying, “You must have had a change of heart about something.”

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Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images
Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

Cher explained that she didn’t like his personality (or thought she wouldn’t). But Letterman took the insult in stride, saying that a lot of people probably think that about him. But Cher admitted that she actually watches his show and only thought the worst because of the way Letterman tends to handle his guests.

Paris Doesn’t Want to Talk About Jail

In 2007, Paris Hilton was a guest on Late Show following a brief stint in jail for driving with an expired license. Although Letterman introduces Hilton as being there to promote her fashion line and fragrance, he wastes no time asking her about her jail time the moment she sits down. Hilton was visibly embarrassed by the topic but carefully answered Letterman’s questions about jail food and what she did to keep her energy up.

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Chris Weeks/WireImage
Chris Weeks/WireImage

Eventually, Hilton gets fed up with all of Lettman’s jail-related questions and refuses to answer any more.

Richard Simmons Got His Feelings Hurt

Bubbly workout personality Richard Simmons was a guest on Late Night in 1994, but it seemed that he was there more for Letterman’s ridicule and amusement than an actual interview. When Simmons was announced, he appeared in the audience and handed out cookies that he had made. Finally making it to the stage, he offered some to Letterman, who refused to try them and ended up discarding them back into Simmons’ basket.

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Michael Ochs Archives/Stringer/Getty Images
Michael Ochs Archives/Stringer/Getty Images

A visibly hurt Simmons didn’t let that get the best of him and continued to try to have an upbeat interview with Letterman, who wanted to talk about the fact that Simmons purchased an engagement ring to give to Barbara Streisand, who Simmons has never met. When Letterman tells Simmons that Streisand is backstage and is going to come out, Simmons gets really excited only to be disappointed when it turns out to be Late Night funnyman, Larry Melman.

Crispin Glover Almost Kicks Letterman in the Face

In 1987, a young Crispin Glover made his first appearance on Late Night. At that point, viewers had mostly known him as George McFly from Back to the Future and they may have been surprised to see Glover in a wig and platform shoes. Glover appeared to be awkward and stuttering throughout the whole interview, even challenging Letterman to an arm wrestle.

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Aaron Rapoport/Corbis/Getty Images
Aaron Rapoport/Corbis/Getty Images

After Letterman refuses the arm wrestle, Glover insists that he is a capable guy, even saying that he can kick and demonstrates by nearly kicking Letterman in the face. Letterman then got up and walked off set mid-interview.

Retirement

On April 3, 2014, Letterman announced that he was retiring by saying that he issued his resignation notice to president Leslie Moonves. By May 2015, he would retire from hosting the Late Show with the last episode airing on May 20, 2015. The final show opened with a presidential send-off that included former presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.

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Brian Killian/Getty Images
Brian Killian/Getty Images

Other regular guests that were there to send him off included Bill Murray, Alec Baldwin, Jerry Seinfeld, Jim Carrey, Steve Martin, Tina Fey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Barbara Walters, and Chris Rock. The episode closed with a montage of scenes from his CBS and NBC shows and a live performance by The Foo Fighters. Shortly after his retirement announcement, it was announced that Stephen Colbert would succeed Letterman as the host of the Late Show.

Letterman’s Successors

Letterman’s final show was watched by 13.76 million viewers in the United States and was that evening’s highest-rated program on network television. Letterman’s late-night hosting talents set precedents for many of today’s late-night talk show hosts.

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James Devaney/GC Images
James Devaney/GC Images

For example, after Letterman left NBC’s Late Night in 1993, Conan O’Brien was commissioned to take over. Although O’Brien was not well-received by audiences early on, the show improved over the years and was well-liked by the time he retired in 2009. After O’Brien left Late Night, Jimmy Fallon took over and was then succeeded by Seth Meyers. As for CBS’s Late Show, Stephen Colbert continues to host the late-night show that Letterman left behind.

Show Highlights

Because of Letterman’s unpredictably sarcastic and jaded sense of humor, people enjoyed the show for his antics and recurring skits.

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Paul Natkin/Getty Images
Paul Natkin/Getty Images

The list of notable goofiness is long. There were visuals showing items being destroyed with hydraulic presses or dropped off office buildings. There were all kinds of on-set special effects that were triggered from a control panel at Letterman’s desk. He had access to a bubble machine, lighting effects, and more. The famous Top Ten list, written by the show’s staff and announced by Letterman, has always been a favorite. Small Town News, in which Letterman read headlines, police blotters, etc., that proved to be unintentionally hilarious, was also a winner. More memorable than Letterman’s antics, however, were some of his guests.

Notable Appearances (and Reappearances)

Bill Murray was the first guest to appear on both of David Letterman’s late-night television shows and would reappear another 43 times over the years. If you think that’s a lot, Tom Hanks paid Letterman a visit a total of 60 times but that’s nothing compared to the 73 times that New York Knick’s sportscaster Marv Albert appeared on Late Night over the 11 years that it was on the air.

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George Rose/Getty Images
George Rose/Getty Images

Stand-up comedian Richard Lewis appeared on the show 48 times, with George Miller and Tom Brokaw coming close behind with 40 appearances. Even Letterman’s rival Jay Leno appeared on Late Night, being a guest 39 times. Teri Garr and Robert Klein showed up a total of 30 times each. Some of the most memorable musical guests include Sonny & Cher, Ringo Starr, Jerry Garcia, Carly Simon, and Eric Clapton.

Dave’s Awards

Dave Letterman’s long and glorious career has been honored and awarded numerous times over the years. David was first nominated for an Emmy back in 1981, which he won and has been continuously nominated for the Emmy Awards over the years. He has won an Emmy nine times. He has also received Funniest Male Performer in a TV Special at the American Comedy Awards twice.

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Ron Sachs – Pool/Getty Images
Ron Sachs – Pool/Getty Images

In 2011, he received the Johnny Carson Comedy Award at the Comedy Awards, and as Letterman looked up tremendously to Carson this was surely a great honor. In 2012, he was honored at the Kennedy Center Honors gala and was given the award by President Obama, other recipients that year included blues musician Buddy Guy, actor Dustin Hoffman, ballerina Natalia Makarova and the iconic rock band Led Zeppelin.

Used To be A Weatherman?!

Everyone has to start somewhere, and that includes iconic late-night host David Letterman. He got his start back in the 1970s as a radio host and also as a weatherman at WLWI (now WTHR) in Indianapolis, Indiana. He was already known for cracking jokes back then and once congratulated a tropical storm for being upgraded to a hurricane.

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Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

He also once described hail as being “the size of canned hams.” Dave would also sometimes make up fictional cities and report the weather for them. Clearly, comedy was his forte. He once also reported from the Indianapolis 500 as a pit reporter back in 1971. He was able to interview the legendary Mario Andretti, although Letterman was mistakenly introduced with the wrong name of Chris Economaki.

Early Showbiz Days

After it became super clear that David Letterman was actually more cut out for comedy than for weather, he made the leap from his home of Indiana to Los Angeles, California. He began performing stand-up, most notably in the legendary venue, the Comedy Store. While still struggling in his fledgling comedy career, he was even hired by actor Jimmie Walker of Good Times fame as a writer.

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Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

He also did some television appearances, back in the day, including on Mary Tyler Moore’s variety show called Mary. However, it wouldn’t be long until Letterman scored with his appearances on Johnny Carson’s show, which led to him having the career we all know him for today.

A Friend Of The Environment

Dave Letterman is also a friend of the environment and is very interested in the issue of climate change.

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Joey Foley/WireImage
Joey Foley/WireImage

Recently, David Letterman participated in a show called Years of Living Dangerously, which airs on the National Geographic Channel. Letterman’s segment focuses squarely on the issue of climate change. In the segment, viewers follow Letterman as he travels to India and speaks to various individuals regarding the country’s approach to renewable energy.

Worldwide Pants?

Worldwide Pants is a production company owned by David Letterman that produced numerous hit shows, including his late-night segment. Some of the shows include Everybody Loves Raymond, The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn, and The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.

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Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images
Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

They have also had their hand in non-comedic productions, including various PBS documentaries like Coming Home: Military Families Cope with Change, Families Stand Together: Feeling Secure in Tough Times, and Sesame Street: When Families Grieve.

Alma Mater Building

In 2007, Letterman was given a great honor by his alma mater, Ball State University, located in Muncie, Indiana. The school named its brand-new communications facility after Letterman. The building is a sprawling 75,000-square-foot building that cost $21 million to construct. It was dedicated under the name David Letterman Communication and Media Building. It has been open since the fall 2007 semester.

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Ron Hoskins/Getty Images
Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

When Letterman attended the dedication, he gave quite an emotional speech and even did his own special Top Ten — “top ten good things about having your name on a building.” According to Ball State, Letterman has been generous with his old stomping grounds and has donated a lot of money over the years, including an annual scholarship. The scholarship, which he started in the ’80s, is awarded to a student based only on their creativity, not grades.

What Is With The Cars

As it turns out, Letterman has a fascination with cars.

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Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Crackle
Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Crackle

In 2013, Dave even made an appearance on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffe and, as per usual, they film part of the show while in one of their vehicles. For this episode part of the show was filmed while in Letterman’s 1995 Volvo 960 station wagon, which seems like a completely benign vehicle. However, Letterman had the Volvo restored and it’s actually powered by a 380 horsepower racing engine. Apparently, it was a gift from the late legendary actor Paul Newman.

Earl Hofert

David Letterman has lent his talents to several movie productions as well. Sometimes, you might double guess yourself after you hear his voice, however. Letterman often gets credited in films with the name Earl Hofert. Earl Hofert was actually Letterman’s real-life Uncle’s name. In the film Cabin Boy in 2004, Dave played “Old Salt and a Fishing Village”.

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Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

In Beavis and Butt-head Do America in 1996, Letterman voiced the Motley Crue roadie who the boys also might think might be Butt-Head’s real father. He also used the name Earl Hofert to be credited in that movie. That same year, Letterman even had Beavis and Butt-Head appear as animated characters on his show. It was quite impressive to view animated characters on the live-action show back in 1996.

Johnny Carson Wanted Him

It’s no secret that Letterman views Johnny Carson as one of his biggest ever inspirations. Before Johnny retired, Letterman guest hosted over fifty times. Everyone thought it was a natural progression that letterman would assume the Tonight Show after Johnny left, even Johnny. However, other higher-ups at the network had other ideas and they went with Jay Leno.

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Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

This is where the Letterman and Jay longstanding feud came from. Although Letterman went on to get his own late show, it was a sore spot for many years to come. Even Johnny Carson himself reportedly said that he believed Letterman to be the rightful “heir” to his show.

Dave, The Music Mogul?

Back in 2010, it was reported that David Letterman started a record label called Clear Entertainment. They also signed a pop-punk band out of Huntington Beach, California called Runner Runner. Back in 2010, they used MySpace in order to promote their songs.

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Mike Coppola/Getty Images
Mike Coppola/Getty Images

However, MySpace has since become relatively obsolete yet the band seems to have still been active into December of 2015 according to their official Facebook. It seems as though Letterman attempted to make a foray into music but did not put too much time into it.

Letterman’s Pencil Trick

David Letterman always ended every show by tossing a pencil; it was kind of his own personal version of Johnny Carson with his curtain. It’s unknown if there was ever an accident, but, at some point, producers started supplying Letterman with a pencil that had erasers on both sides.

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IMichael Hickey/Getty Images
IMichael Hickey/Getty Images

This was probably an insurance issue to make sure their huge star didn’t accidentally get stabbed on set. While his pencil trick might look like a run-of-the-mill flip of the pencil, it actually spins three times.

Letterman’s Favorite Song

David Letterman once said that his favorite song of all time is The Spinners’ “I’ll Be Around”. The Spinners are a band that gained popularity in the 1970s for their R&B songs. On the July 27, 2006, episode of The David Letterman Show, the host probably had one of his favorite shows ever.

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Charley Gallay/Getty Images for ATI
Charley Gallay/Getty Images for ATI

The Spinners appeared live on the show and played his favorite song, “I’ll Be Around”, with Letterman’s house band Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra.