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the public face and
the private torment
On October 18, 1994, I was finally going on The Tonight Show, where one appearance can make or break a career. Appearing on The Tonight Show would fulfill one of my lifelong dreams. Johnny Carson had been my idol as a child. Other kids had posters of Mickey Mantle or the Beatles on the wall, but not me. I had Johnny Carson. But by the time I made it to the show, Johnny was gone. Jay Leno ruled the big desk.
I knew Jay from way back. When I started doing bits at the Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles there were three guys you could tell were going to be stars: Robin Williams, David Letterman, and Jay Leno. Jay was a journeyman comic—he'd go out on the road, work anywhere. Big clubs, little clubs. He was always working, and he is still one of the hardest-working men in show business. Johnny took thirteen weeks off each year; Jay takes two. He also has the reputation for treating guests like human beings even if they're not as successful as he is, which is more than you can say for most people in L.A.
After 25 years on television, I had finally cracked into that dubious elite where—gulp—people will pick up the phone and get back to you. My agents had been trying to book me on The Tonight Show for years. Then, suddenly, Leno's talent coordinator, Mike Alexander, called to schedule me for an appearance to talk about Double Dare and promote my new shows, What Would You Do? and Our Home.
I was booked,bounced, and rebooked nine times. Late-night talk show talent coordinators have a difficult job. Agents and publicists call them constantly, trying to get their clients an appearance. A show will always lead with the biggest star and book smaller fry that it thinks will get along with him or her. So, for whatever reason—the producers didn't like the mix of guests a particular week, or whatever—they'd book me, I'd get all excited that "next week it was going to happen!" and then they'd call a week, or even a day, before my scheduled appearance and cancel me. Sometimes they'd call and say, "We rescheduled your appearance but we don't know for when." This went on for almost a year. I'd heard horror stories of people who were booked for as long as three years and never ended up doing the show at all.
It was nerve-wracking, especially for someone like me with obsessive compulsive disorder. I didn't know the root cause, but I did know that being bounced time and again off The Tonight Show was making me nuts. Lack of punctuality and order awakened in me then—and sometimes still does now—strong emotional responses, from intense anxiety to anger. I was also aware that I had secret rituals, magic incantations and spells that I used to ensure that disaster didn't strike. I needed, for example, to read the back of the cereal box at breakfast over and over with complete fluidity or, I was convinced, the flight that I had booked for later that week would crash. I kid you not, I believed (as do millions of other Americans with OCD) that my well-being hinged on such absurdities.
Alexander and Leno wanted Marc Summers the magician, which was the way I had begun my career in show business, back in Indianapolis, where, as a teenager, I made rabbits pop out of hats at birthday parties.
"Do some magic with Jay," Mike said. "That will work well for your segment."
My segment was six minutes of the show wedged between commercials. It could catapult me to a new level of "visibility," as they say in the industry.
I had worked long and hard to get away from being billed as a magician. I was a television host, a teen icon, a comic. To focus my appearance on doing tricks made me shudder. What was I, a dancing poodle?
Finally, Mike Alexander gave me an ultimatum: if you want to do the show, you do a trick.
In this business you learn to kiss ass, or you die trying.
I'd do a trick.
If I was going to do a trick, I wanted it to be a card trick. No dice, they said. Jay wouldn't be sufficiently involved if I did a card trick. I called my friend Stan, a master magician. "Cut and restore Jay's tie," he suggested.
Jay's guys loved it.
What had I gotten myself into? I was going to do a trick I'd never performed before on the single most important television appearance of my life. I practiced and practiced my trick. Then I was bumped, and bumped again.
The tenth booking was the charm, or so it seemed. The show sent a limo to pick me up, but it arrived late. That was particularly unsettling since I was ready—as I always am—an hour early. I had laid out my suit, tie, shirt, and socks the night before. My magic props were in their little black cloth bag. I'd polished and brushed my shoes.
I paced the house. I lived with my family in a gated community, so I had to wait for security to telephone the limo's arrival. God, I thought, as I waited and waited, this is how they're going to tell me they bumped me again. They're just not going to pick me up. I would learn later that stress brought out my OCD symptoms, one of which was repetitive thoughts. At the time, I thought it was perfectly natural that my mind was on a loop, endlessly repeating the cut-and-restore tie trick.
Finally, the phone rang. The limo had arrived. It turned out that the driver had gotten lost.
I was in a state of acute anxiety as we whizzed down the Ventura Freeway—it was only a 20- or 30-minute drive to the studio from my house. I tried to make conversation with the driver—anything was better than being inside my head, replaying ad nauseam the tie routine. Suddenly, I felt a sickeningly familiar thud-thud thud-thud.
I leaned forward. "Is everything OK?"
"Sir, it seems we have a flat tire."
Had the show done it intentionally? Was this a premeditated break-down designed to strand undesired guests on the freeway? I couldn't believe it. God, I thought, is not pleased with me today. What else could go wrong?
The driver called the automobile club. I climbed from the car and started pacing along the shoulder of the Ventura Freeway. Auto clubs are the same the world over: sometimes technicians can arrive in 10 minutes; sometimes they take two hours. I kept checking my watch; it was a quarter to four, and the show started taping at 5:30. We were 15 minutes from the studio, near White Oak Avenue, and I was tempted to grab my suit and stick my thumb in the air.
AAA arrived. I stood in the swirling exhaust, cars whipping past, staring at the two guys who scrambled to change the flat on the big black limo.
When we finally arrived in Burbank, I arranged my belongings, as I always do before shows, in my small dressing room. I must have been nervous, because my OC symptoms were strong. I took my suit from its plastic dry-cleaning bag (I always put a plastic bag around a suit before putting it in an overnight bag) and hung it in the wardrobe closet, maniacally smoothing its nonexistent wrinkles and picking microscopic specks of lint from its crisp shoulders and lapels. I folded and refolded the plastic bag, placing it on the dressing-room couch in the middle of the right-side cushion, moving the bag around for several minutes until it was precisely centered. I could have been hanging a painting in the Louvre. I put my magic props on the vanity table, arranging and rearranging them until they sat at perfect angles to each other.
Jay came in, startling me. "Sorry you got bumped so many times," he said.
"I'm glad I'm finally here!" I replied.
We reminisced briefly about our Comedy Store days, and then I went to makeup. It was a thrill to be sitting in the same makeup room that Johnny Carson had used. The Tonight Show is one of the original, anchor shows of TV. It's living history. And I was a part of it.
I went back to my dressing room and put on my Joseph Abboud suit. This suit was my pride and joy, ridiculously expensive, with a subtle check design. I only wore it for special show biz occasions—like my first appearance on The Tonight Show.
Jay's audio man came in and clipped a microphone onto my lapel. Someone went over the questions Jay would ask and the responses I would give. (They pre-interview guests long before the actual show, but they go over the information again before taping to prevent guests from freezing up.) My mouth was parched. I was drinking gallons of water, but all it seemed to do was make me run to the bathroom every twenty seconds. My agent, Richard Lawrence, and my publicist, Coleen Gunderson, came in to lend support. But I was too nervous to carry on a conversation.
While waiting for my segment, we watched the show on the dressing-room monitor. The night before, Jay had made a nasty comment about Burt Reynolds' less-than-pretty divorce from Loni Anderson. Tonight, Burt was guesting on the show, and he was mad. We've all seen Deliverance, so we know Burt is capable of some odd behavior. But the night of this particular show, he was in an especially weird, vindictive mood. He said, in reference to Jay's nasty comment, "That was a cutting remark, so I'm going to even the score," and he brought out a pair of scissors and cut Jay's tie in half.
Out in the hall I heard a flurry of running feet. "Burt cut Jay's tie!" several people said. Leno's staff was in an uproar.
I sat there with my mouth hanging open. Oh shit, I thought. Now what do I do? Jay doesn't have a tie! What am I going to do my trick with? I had an overwhelming urge to hail a cab (with well-inflated tires) and go home.
But it had been a long road to The Tonight Show. I had rechecked my props ten thousand times in preparation. I was staying. I was relieved to see Jay return from the commercial break with a new tie.
A pissed-off, weirded-out Burt Reynolds makes good television, so Jay and his producers stuck with him. Instead of doing the usual star segment through two commercial breaks, Burt did three. The tone of the show was combative, confrontational. Burt was sullen, swaggering, sarcastic, and aggressive. It was a testosterone pissing match. Jay kept pummeling Burt, making references to the size of Loni's divorce settlement, making fun of Burt's being on a book tour for his autobiography, a book he hadn't actually written. Soon, Burt was on his knees. Jay wouldn't give in, which is not Jay's reputation—he's known as a nice guy. But Burt, in the kind of nasty supercilious mood he was in, brings out the worst in people.
Right before the third commercial break, after which I was due to go on, Jay closed in for the coup de grace. He opened the book to a 1972 Cosmopolitan magazine photo of Burt naked. Burt recalled his embarrassment as the photo editors had peered over the print of the photograph with magnifying glasses, inspecting his body.
"They needed magnifying glasses?" Jay said, referring to the size of Burt's manhood.
The audience erupted. Burt had been set up, he knew it, and he was livid as the show went to commercial.
Jay had time for only one more guest, but there were two of us scheduled.
Chaos erupted in the hall. "Summers or Carrot Top? Summers or Carrot Top?" Leno's staff shouted. This was every performer's nightmare: me versus the then-biggest comedian on college campuses. To my horror, the consensus among the show staff was that Carrot Top had bigger mojo than Summers.
My publicist and agent came into my dressing room and said, "You may not get on tonight."
"Let's go with Carrot Top," said a Leno executive.
My publicist stepped into the hall. "This is enough already," she said. "You've canceled us nine times. You can run Carrot Top tomorrow. Put Marc on tonight."
It was incredible: Leno's staff saw things our way.
From there, everything was a blur. The stage manager told me to stand by the stage entrance and watch the monitor. When The Tonight Show insignia came on, the band would stop playing and I'd hear my name.
"Dear God, please let me get through this and not embarrass myself!" I prayed.
"... Marc Summers!" was the next thing I heard. It was one of the most frightening moments of my life. I walked onstage, the audience from the corner of my eye appearing in what we call in film a slow-motion swish-pan blur. They were clapping, but I could feel their rhythm, skittish and on edge, as they were waiting, with a quickened sense of anticipation and embarrassment, to see what new humiliations would ensue. As a performer, you can't really see an audience, so you learn to have an aural sense of them. I angled toward Jay, propelled across the stage by instinct, shaking his hand and sitting down in the chair next to the big desk in one fluid motion.
I knew I was walking into the lion's den. Two titans of show business were going head to head. And I knew both of them were thinking as I sat down, who the hell is Marc Summers? I had six minutes to prove myself; I needed to score. It's a one-shot deal out there. There are no retakes, no second chances. I wasn't nervous; I was petrified. I began to banter with Jay, as all guests do. I felt Jay relax a little: he had been sparring with one of the all-time champs. I sensed he had no idea why I was on the show. And neither had I. I was sitting up there purely because of the superb work of my publicist.
Now, let's get one thing straight. I have no illusions about my status in the Hollywood food chain. I'm still best known for my long stint on Double Dare. My weekly adventures of being submerged in a vat of applesauce, or dragged through oatmeal or green goo, make good conversation fodder. Jay, with a nervous eye on Burt, jumped on my role in Double Dare.
"Now, do you like doing the messy stuff especially?" he asked.
This wasn't a question we'd rehearsed, but Jay's allowed to ask whatever he wants.
Do I give the pat Nickelodeon-type response? It's great! At least once a week, I know I'll get dessert before dinner.
No, I thought. Don't be pat. You made it to the couch. Give a thoughtful, genuine answer.
"No, it's very strange," I said. "I'm Felix Unger: I'm a neatness fanatic, so it's weird that for the last nine years I've been doing that kind of TV."
A neatness fanatic, I thought. That's interesting. First time I had ever mentioned that. Why was I saying it now in front of a national TV audience?
In fact, this was the first time I had acknowledged—in my own mind—that spending hours and hours and more hours putting everything exactly the way it should be wasn't normal. I'd spent almost four decades obsessed with cleanliness, neatness, order, spaces, angles, borders, and straight lines. Everything I touched had to be spaced with exact precision. To me, that was being a "neat freak."
I had said it. I wasn't ashamed of it. In a world full of Oscar Madisons, you need a few Felix Ungers to balance things, right? Call me Felix.
I continued, "We've done some weird things on the show. We once built a container with 4,000 pounds of baked beans and made kids dive into it, which was really great."
"Gee," interjected Burt, "I wish I'd seen that." The audience laughed. Jay laughed. I laughed. Burt was deadpan.
Jay tried to pull us back on track. "You force kids' heads under baked beans?"
More laughter. I explained, smiling, "We have an obstacle coarse, and ..."
Burt jumped in, cutting me off mid-sentence: "Who told you you were a neatness freak?"
Alarm clock. Needle scratch. Wrong answer buzzer.
"I just say that," Burt said with annoyance, "because your back is to me and I was just talking to a back."
I guess he thought it was the Burt Reynolds Show. Why should they bring anyone else out? At the time, Jay was still pretty green as The Tonight Show host. He'd been at it only about a year. On the other hand, Burt had been on The Tonight Show fifty times with Johnny Carson, and a few more with Jay. Burt Reynolds was the most veteran man on the stage that night, a fact he seemed eager to exploit.
I wanted to keep the peace. "No, no, I can talk to you, too, Burt."
"Watch out," Jay cautioned, "he's got scissors."
Burt hammered away, the scorn in his voice palpable. "I was just wondering, who told you you were neat?"
This was one angry son-of-a-bitch. Bart hates me, I thought. It's obvious. I'm looking at this guy with a toupee and jeans that had been worn at least a hundred times and boots with a three-inch lift. Every morning he wakes up and has to transform himself into Burt Reynolds. I suddenly felt a wave of pity for the guy. In my mind I looked younger, dressed better, and was funnier. I tried to give him a quick non-answer grin, and go on with my segment. No dice.
"Who told you that you were a neatness fanatic?!" Burt repeated.
"My wife tells me that often," I said. "And," I patted his shoulder, "by the way, I'm still married."
The audience went crazy. I glanced at Jay triumphantly. Jay jumped to his feet, eyes wide, and reached out to grab my arm. But it was too late. Burt dumped a mug of water into my crotch. I grabbed Jay's mug and tried to toss it on Burt, but Burt straight-armed me, bashing the mug into my mouth.
This is great, I thought. I'm finally on The Tonight Show and I'm engaging in fisticuffs with Burt Reynolds. It was, without a doubt, the most bizarre moment of my life. I was drenched, but I didn't even notice. At any other time, my normal obsession with my appearance would have made me acutely uncomfortable. I can't stand to have a hair out of place, the slightest spot or defect in my clothing. And here I was, sopping wet, my best suit blotched and spotted, my carefully coiffed hair hanging lankly over my forehead. But I was beyond concern for my appearance or comfort. I was trying to stay alive.
The audience roared. "You're not a neatness freak anymore," Burt scoffed.
I thought I'd lost a tooth; I was sure there was blood running down my face. I looked at Jay. He nodded comfortingly, which I took to mean—you're okay, you're blood-free.
"This is what's known as losing control of the program, ladies and gentlemen," Jay said. I think he felt a little protective of me. Yet he knew how good it was for the show.
I turned to the audience. "Burt Reynolds just dumped water on me. Did you notice that, folks?"
"And you'll treasure it later," Burt said, patting my hand.
"Don't touch me," I spat.
More laughter. Maybe I could still make this work. Maybe we could get along. I turned to Burt. "I used to be on your show all the time, Win, Lose or Draw. I loved that show."
"Funny," he shrugged, "I don't remember you."
"Oooooooh," said the audience.
So much for peace, love, and understanding. I turned back to Jay. "So, anyway, we were talking about being a neatness fanatic."
"Yeah," said Jay. "You started out as a magician, if I'm not mistaken."
Burt cackled like a hyena, laughing because the staff had tossed me a towel. He was sprawled on his chair, like he was soaking up rays at the beach. I couldn't resist. I blind-sided him with a mug of water, dousing him. The audience screamed in delight. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see folks in the balcony leap from their chairs to give me a standing ovation.
I learned later that my agent Richard was trying to stop the show. "My client looks like an idiot," he had said to the producers. "Stop taping!"
But my dignity, or career for that matter, was way down on the producers' list of priorities. They were looking for notoriety, ratings, hits in the press, and they knew they were going to get them.
Jay turned to his crew, appealing for a diplomatic solution. Before the show, Jay's producers had wanted to do a pie fight, but Jay had said no. Now, however, he mouthed to his crew, "Let's do the PIE."
Burt and I were drying ourselves off.
"It's all right," Burt said, "I deserved that."
"You deserved it?" I asked, quizzically.
"I deserved it. As I was saying to your wife the other night ..."
Another wave of laughter. This would never end.
"Burt's been on a very rough book tour," Jay said, apologetically.
"I know!" I turned to Burt. "I once saw you on a PBS special. You were a nice guy then!"
"It's easy to be nice to nice people," he snarled.
"It is," I growled back.
"It's nice to see you two hit it off so well," Jay said.
Burt had his towel wrapped around his neck, his lips curled into a snarl.
"He's doing his Milton Berle impression, take a look at that," I said.
Jay cracked up, but the room was quiet. Whoops, I'd missed.
"Too obscure for the room," I said nervously, "anyway ..."
"I'll bet that plays great on Nickelodeon," sneered Burt.
"At least I have a full-time job," I shot back.
"That's true ..." Burt stopped mid-sentence. The two of us stared in disbelief. Jay walked toward us with what I could smell were pies made from shaving cream (an old show-biz trick) in his hands!
"What's this?" I protested, as Jay handed a pie to me and a pie to Burt.
"Shall we go back to back?" Burt said.
Before I knew what was happening, Burt and I were standing back to back with pies in our hands.
The band started a drum roll. Jay counted: "One, two ..." We both spun before he got to three and smashed each other with pies. Mayhem erupted. There was shaving cream everywhere—on the wood floor, on the carpet, on the chairs, on me and Burt, everywhere except on Jay.
Burt hugged me, and then tried to hug Jay.
"Get away from me!" Jay said, running off stage into the band pit. It made me angry that Jay was clean. Johnny would have taken a pie; Johnny wasn't afraid to "pay off the joke." Jay was still too new to realize that getting dirty was part of the job. I was handed another pie. I said to the audience, "If I look like this and Burt looks like this ..."
"Jay! Jay! Jay!" they chanted. They knew he should take one, too.
Jay appeared back onstage and managed to say into the camera, "Oh, ladies and gentlemen, we are out of time. We'll be right back right after these messages." He dashed away as Burt pitched shaving cream at his back.
We came back on the air for the show's wrapup. Staffers wiped me and Burt clean. Burt hugged me and whispered, "I only did that because I really like you."
What a liar, I thought.
Jay suggested Burt sign a copy of his book for me.
"What's your broad's name?" Burt asked me.
"Your broad. Your wife."
Broad. Now that was a term I hadn't heard in several decades.
"To Marc and Alice," he wrote. "All my love, Burt." I kept the book, as a memento of the night. I've never read it.
|foreword by eric hollander||xiii|
|the public face and the private torment||7|
|sunday, day of rest||29|
|nurture and nature||47|
|adolescent ambition, adolescent angst||71|
|waiting at the altar||89|
|the moment of truth||129|
|waging war and winning||191|
Posted March 6, 2003
This book was very interesting. I was on the edge of my seat until the end of the book. Marc has a funny was of telling a serious problem. I recommened this book to any that is interested in OCD.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.