An Inside Look At Battle For Johnny Carson's Crown

Posted: February 18, 1996

``The TV business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free,'' Hunter S. Thompson wrote in one of his better lines.

There are no thieves or pimps in The Late Shift, but otherwise Thompson would probably figure that this boisterous telemovie fits the TV biz as tightly as a streetwalker's working clothes.

The Late Shift, beginning at 8 p.m. Saturday on cable's Home Box Office, soundly and scrupulously depicts the machinations and maneuvers, ploys and plots, invective and infighting involved in Jay Leno's inheritance of The Tonight Show from Johnny Carson. It is based on Bill Carter's soundly researched and very accurate 1994 book of the same name. Carter cowrote this script with George Armitage, assuring the show's fidelity.

Rollick along from 1990 to 1993 and meet this vivid gallery of movers and shakers, makers and breakers:

* Jay Leno (played by Daniel Roebuck) is the epitome of a nice guy. But he is no pushover for the powerful people around him as he vies for Carson's spot on NBC; he is clearly capable of shrewdly defending his own interests.

* David Letterman (John Michael Higgins), Leno's only competition for Carson's crown, is desperately insecure and chronically uneasy. But he is as relentless as Leno in pursuing his ambitions - his desire to move from the late-night show on NBC to Carson's program.

* Helen Kushnick (Kathy Bates), Leno's longtime agent, lifts vulgar language to the level of an art form as she belittles and abuses anyone bold enough to oppose any of her moves to advance her man up the ladder. From her first scene to her last, virtually everything she says in this show is unprintable.

* Hollywood agent Michael Ovitz (Treat Williams) makes Machiavelli look like a tyro as he lays out for Letterman a course toward the stars. The two-minute scene in which Letterman first meets Ovitz is a dazzling little gem of timing, delivery, and selection of camera angles.

* CBS president Howard Stringer (Peter Jurasik) is intelligent, decent and purposeful as he strives to create a new show for Letterman to compete against Leno on NBC.

* Johnny Carson (Rich Little) is a national icon, worshiped by both Leno and Letterman. In the end, when Letterman can't decide whether to stay with his longtime employer, NBC, or go with his new suitor, CBS, it is Carson who points out the path he chooses to take.

* Warren Littlefield (Bob Balaban), president of NBC's entertainment division, and John Agoglia (Reni Santoni), president of NBC Productions, are the Mutt and Jeff of The Late Show, belittled and berated by both Kushnick and Letterman. But in the end, after many others around them have fallen or moved on, they are still sitting there raking in chips as the peacock network posts the highest profits in its history.

Anyone seriously interested in television's bottom line, and how it is reached, will find much that is fascinating in The Late Shift. But the financial details never become burdensome to a viewer, with just enough detail doled out to make the big picture clear but uncrowded.

The battle between Leno and Letterman for Carson's mantle left both men bruised but unbowed. Leno tells an assemblage of TV critics: ``Welcome to NBC, which stands for `Never Believe Your Contract.' '' As Letterman walks the three blocks in midtown Manhattan that separate the headquarters of NBC and CBS, he tells two cronies: ``Gentlemen, we are just going from one bizarre circumstance to the next.''

The Late Shift does not conduct a search party for villains, although Kushnick sure looks like the agent from hell. But as NBC forces Leno to fire her, her side of the story is included as she bluntly tells the man she made famous: ``You just want me to keep serving you the steaks; you never want to know how I'm slaughtering the cow.''

The Late Shift serves up filet mignon, and also shows you how they kill the kine.

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