Untouchable Letterman

November 6th, 2018 by Max Allan Collins

The Blu-ray of Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life is out now. It’s available at any of the usual suspects among Internet retailers, but Amazon has it for about ten bucks off ($15.69).

I’m very proud of this one, which makes a good companion to Scarface and the Untouchable: Al Capone, Eliot Ness, and the Battle for Chicago by A. Brad Schwartz and me. It is, in fact, what brought Brad and me together – he went to the play in Des Moines and saw Mike Cornelison perform the one-man show in person.

Mike is gone, for several years now, and I am so grateful that we were able to have this one last, great project with the actor who was the backbone of all of my indie film projects. Mike starred in Mommy, Mommy’s Day and Real Time: Siege at Lucas Street Market. He narrated my two documentaries, Mike Hammer’s Mickey Spillane and Caveman: V.T. Hamlin and Alley Oop. He starred in two short films, one of which – “An Inconsequential Matter” – is a bonus feature on the Blu-ray. That short film was our last collaboration.

Whether, at my age, in the wake of some health issues, I can ever mount another film production is a question I can’t answer (Barb can – “NO!”). My other frequent collaborator, director of photography/editor Phil Dingeldein, is still raring to go. But I admit not having Mike on the team makes it tough to imagine.

For now, however, we have this fine Blu-ray, thanks to VCI Entertainment.

Treat yourself to this one, and it’s a perfect stocking stuffer….

* * *

For reasons I’ve never really understood, one of the questions I am most asked is, “What are you reading?” And, of course, a more general version: “What do you read?”

Regular readers of this update/blog know that I read little contemporary crime fiction, because of my desire not to be influenced by anyone working currently and also the busman’s holiday nature of it. Barb and I do watch a lot of British crime series, which slakes my thirst for mystery narrative – I generally find Brit TV crime more compelling and just, well, better than the American variety. Recently we watched the third season of The Forgotten and the first season of Bodyguard, and both were outstanding (I buy these from Amazon UK).

I also watch a lot of vintage noir, catching up with things I have never seen that have become suddenly available (the very interesting The Man Who Cheated Himself, for example, now on Blu-ray) and revisiting things I haven’t watched in ages.

My reading tends to be in bed, for a half hour or hour before I attempt sleep (not always a successful endeavor). I usually read books about film or other aspects of pop culture, including biographies. Recently I read a good book on Randolph Scott’s key director, The Films of Budd Boetticher by Robert Knott. I also gobbled up Christmas Movies by Jeremy Arnold (a TCM book), which looks at such movies with nice little well-illustrated articles combining making-of info and critical assessment, including my favorites – It’s a Wonderful Life, the Alastair Sim Scrooge and the original Miracle on 34th Street. (I skipped certain later films that I had no interest in, like Home Alone and Little Women. Not all of the author’s selections seem like real Christmas movies to me. Die Hard?) [note from Nate: It absolutely is!]

The only novel I’ve read lately is Night of Camp David by Fletcher Knebel, co-author of Seven Days in May. I dug this out of my basement storehouse of old paperbacks when I learned it was now a collector’s item. The subject is a president of the United States who goes mad.

Now and then I read a book that serves to do more than just lull me to sleep in a pleasant way. Such a book is The Last Days of Letterman: The Final 6 Weeks. I would say it’s a book that I enjoyed more than any in my recent memory, and yet I’m not sure exactly what compelled me to pick it up.

I loved Letterman’s Late Night at NBC and am fairly sure I never missed an episode. Letterman’s wry, self-deprecating humor resonated with this Midwestern boy, and he peopled his show with guests ranging from oddball to brilliant. I could see Norm Macdonald one night and Andy Kaufmann the next. Pee Wee Herman (my pal Paul Reubens) was often a guest. Band leader Paul Shaffer, with his tongue-in-cheek show biz sensibility, was both funny and hip, an incredible musician who had hung out in Canada with SNL and SCTV stars-to-be. Dave showcased top-notch musical acts. For someone my age, this was the natural next step from Johnny Carson.

And I grew up on Carson, but also Jack Paar and even Steve Allen, the original Tonight Show host. Our house was set up with my bedroom adjacent to where my father watched television; he often fell asleep, while I couldn’t due to the blaring TV and frankly didn’t want to, because I was listening to Allen or Parr or Carson. Sometimes, knowing my dad was likely cutting zee’s, I would go out there and sit on the floor right in front of the tube and watch till he woke up and shooed me back to bed. (I learned to write dialogue listening to old Dragnet episodes that way, as if they were radio shows, and of course they had been – Jack Webb came on at midnight after Carson signed off.)

So late night TV was a part of the fabric of my life. I remember dreaming about being a Carson guest some day – he was a Midwestern boy, too – and later I hoped I might get successful enough to be invited onto Letterman’s Late Show. Didn’t happen. Well, it sort of did. Stay tuned through the rest of this essay.

The Last Days of Letterman, written by Scott Ryan, hit me surprisingly hard. I realized that Letterman, of all the great late-night hosts I’d grown up with, was the most intimately, intricately woven into the aforementioned fabric of my life. He was on air for over thirty years. And for a long time, I never missed a show, including when he moved to CBS with the Late Show. I saw it all, for a long while, from Drew Barrymore dancing topless on Dave’s desk to Stupid Human Tricks, from Darlene Love singing “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” every year to Chris Elliot’s ongoing insanity. I also met Larry “Bud” Melman, Dave’s mom and her pies, Rupert Jee, Biff Henderson, and so many and so much more. For me a particularly memorable thing about Letterman and Late Show was the host’s love for Warren Zevon’s work and the way he and Zevon dealt with the latter’s oncoming death. Zevon’s advice to the rest of us is something I think of frequently, and did even before I (like Dave) had open-heart surgery: “Enjoy every sandwich.”

But at some point, probably around fifteen years ago, I started missing episodes. It began when a guest was announced – usually a sports figure – that I had no interest in. At some point politics had Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert tempting me away, now and then, and finally regularly. Things evolved into my having to know that someone I was a fan of (Elvis Costello, for example) was going to be on Letterman for me to watch. And I would tune back into Dave, and bask in the familiarity of Dave and Paul’s effortless banter, and slip back into that comfy shoe of Late Show.

Funny thing is, what made Letterman and his show so comfy was how uncomfortable Dave himself seemed. He was embarrassed by his success. He always seemed like somebody just waiting to get found out and hauled off the stage. He was anything but comfortable in his skin. In a way Johnny Carson only pretended to be, Dave Letterman was us – particularly Baby Boomer boys like myself.

The genius of Scott Ryan’s book is the writer’s decision to focus on the final six weeks of this long-running show (and, let’s face it, Late Night and Late Show were one show). It gives Ryan a framework to discuss all the frequent guests, the famous show business figures who were indebted to Dave and (to Dave’s embarrassment) loved him. Ryan can look at the Top Ten List and various other running gags and traditions, in between describing each individual episode of those last six weeks and who was on and what happened.

Because the show is coming to its conclusion, there’s a sort of suspense-novel engine at play. How will Dave handle the loss of the thing that has been his life? How will the staff around him deal with the pressures of expectation for one special episode after another? How will Letterman endure the love fest that is being flung at him and smothering him into full-throttle embarrassment? Did anyone in bigtime show business ever deal so poorly with praise?

The second stroke of genius in this fine book is Ryan’s decision to tell the story as an oral history. He gets interviews not from Dave and Paul (who would never cooperate, of course, but Ryan seems not to have bothered approaching them) but to the army those two generals commanded. We hear from the officers – directors and producers – and from the grunts – stagehands and bookers. We experience the war of those last six weeks from the trenches. And it’s fascinating. And strangely moving.

As I say, I had not been regularly watching Letterman. I didn’t see the final episode. I think I caught one or two of the shows during that last six weeks. But here’s the thing – as I read about these episodes that I had missed, they nonetheless played in my mind as if I had. I was so familiar, so much a part of the Letterman experience, that a few words could blossom in my imagination into the feeling that I had indeed seen them…or maybe I should say, knew them.

Letterman is my age, more or less. We are Midwestern boys. I’ve had a little success and am not at all embarrassed about it, though mixed in with my egotism is some of that self-deprecation that Letterman – a huge success and extremely embarrassed about it – is so successful at conveying. Again, he also had open-heart surgery. He seemed to like a lot of the same things I did – Elvis Costello, Warren Zevon, Darlene Love – and he introduced me to the pleasures of Norm Macdonald, Chris Elliott, and Amy Sedaris. He also gave us new sides of superstars like Bruce Willis, Steve Martin, Bill Murray and Tom Hanks.

Speaking of Tom Hanks.

This is the closest I ever got to being on Letterman, and frankly it was enough. Okay, almost enough. Dave made it clear, usually when Hanks was a guest but other times too, that he loved Road to Perdition. That got my attention. I talked to the TV and raised my hand like a kid in class.

“Dave! I wrote that! Not the movie, but the book – you could ask me what a graphic novel is! You could call it a ‘funny book’ and make me smile in embarrassment, because you are a Midwestern boy! And so am! Dave! I’m right here!”

As it happens, not long after, I began to leave the fold. I decided that watching talk shows (and I don’t watch any now, though I know Colbert, Fallon, Conan and others are worthwhile) was ultimately an ephemeral waste of time. I stopped watching Colbert when, at the Second City reunion, he refused to sign an autograph (I am a petty fucker). And even Stewart faded away for me, when some of his recurring players went off to have careers. I started watching a movie on DVD and later Blu-ray at night, in the talk-show time slot, wanting to catch up with old films noir and various terrible movies for which I have an inexplicable affection.

Reading The Last Days of Letterman gave the Late Show back to me. Those last six weeks, anyway. If you are or ever were a Letterman fan, you are in for a bittersweet treat.

* * *

This review of Scarface and the Untouchable has a peculiar headline, but the piece itself is fine.

Finally, here’s a great review of Kiss Her Goodbye, a Mike Hammer by Mickey and me.

M.A.C.

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7 Responses to “Untouchable Letterman”

  1. Paul.Griffith says:

    O.K. So what is this about another ending for KISS HER GOODBYE? Is it currently available? I want a copy! It was one of my favorites. Also, I ordered the DVD Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life. Loved the book and look forward to the movie.

  2. Thomas Zappe says:

    I especially loved the earlier days of Carson. He would have on REALLY INTERESTING PEOPLE such as Oscar Levant, Bette Davis and her twin sister Ayn Rand and one of my all time favorites Alexander King. As another whitebread midwest boy, King showed me there were whole other types of people out there. He wrote four autobiographies, three of which were totally fascinating.

  3. Scott Ryan says:

    Wow and wow. Thank you so much for your kind words. I am very grateful. I like that you “got” the book and the set up. I actually did reach out to Paul, but he declined. I never did try for Letterman because that wasn’t really what the book was about. It is about the people that did the work. I am honored by your words.

    Thanks,
    Scott

  4. Thomas Zappe says:

    I have to correct myself, it was the days of Jack Paar for Levant and King.

  5. My editor, Otto Penzler, objected to my ending of KISS HER GOODBYE. He thought it was too much like another famous Hammer ending. My original ending was clearly where Mickey’s material was headed. I wrote a second ending, varying it a little, and Otto objected to that. I came up with a third ending that I liked fairly well, but I always hoped to restore my — and Mickey’s — original intention. Looks I’ll be able to.

    Thomas, I remember Parr and Alexander King and Levant very well. I think King and maybe Levant were also on Carson in the early days — King got pretty big, with several hit books.

    Scott, I am thrilled that you noticed I wrote about your Letterman book. How wonderful to hear from you. It’s my favorite book of recent memory. I did goof by not mentioning the writers you interviewed, whose contribution to Letterman’s show and their recollections for your book were particularly strong and outstanding. I would love to know if you ever hear from Dave or Paul. It’s a terrific book and had a big impact on me. Several times I got teary-eyed, but don’t tell Dave. You know he doesn’t truck with sentiment.

  6. Scott Ryan says:

    I have not heard from Paul or Dave. I think they both have seen the book, but I have not gotten feed back from them. I really am excited that you enjoyed it. It meant a lot to me. I am now trying to do a similar thing for the X-Files, but as you know, it isn’t easy to get access. To be an unknown author, just makes you work harder.

  7. Brian Van Winkle says:

    I have been trying to get a copy of Night of Camp David for 2 months now – awesome that you have a copy!

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