January 21, 2018

Rivers and a Bey

I interviewed JOAN RIVERS on live television, PEOPLE ARE TALKING, back in 1988. She was delightful, quick and had an easy access to that ability I always strove for, to punch through and actually make a real connection with the viewer on the other side of the screen. To turn live TV into LIVE TV! She was also, I think, the most insecure person I’ve ever interviewed. From the moment she arrived she nervously and repeatedly asked what questions I had, expressed concerns about the format and suggested topics for which she had jokes pre-planned (skiing was one!). By the time she was in make up I put a reassuring hand on her shoulder and assured her I would set her up as the perfect straight man, that she was so good at this and that I wanted her to look her best. She also was an attractive woman in person back then, much more so than she appeared in photos or on TV and when I told her so, she nervously denied it and joked about that.

On air I mentioned that unlike many TV celebrities she was more than gracious and friendly with fans off air. I’d seen her spend time talking with on-lookers, signing autographs, answering questions from fans and in a way that was down to earth rather than self-aggrandizing. I turned to the camera and said to the viewers: “You should know, not everyone is like this. A lot of people seem friendly and gracious on air but they’re not so in real life…” Immediately Joan jumped on it and demanded to know who this was. “Name names. Say it? Who was mean to you?” When I demurred, she insisted. “Oh, come on, don’t be a wimp. The way to get famous if you’re a little fish is to attack the big fish.” I kept refusing. “Look, if you ever want to get out of Secaucus say it. Who was it? They want to know!”. And I blurted out “Regis Philbin!” Someone once introduced me to him at a buffet table and he kind of waved me off. Joan turned to the camera and declared: “Regis! He hates you!!! Why were you so mean to Richard!” Live. On the air. I tried to make excuses for Regis and he certainly deserved them but Joan just kept on: “Tell him the truth! You hate him now! Regis, he hates you!” The audience both in the studio and home loved it. And it was another example of Joan punching through the screen on live television. Afterwards, Regis’ producers called to find out what I was upset about and I apologized profusely and a few months later I ran into Regis again and he was as apologetic I was. He didn’t remember meeting me at all, which was understandable under the circumstances And over the years, he’s always been gracious and personable with me. Even helpful with advice.

Since her death, there have been a lot of reports about how Joan’s drive to work continuously was motivated by a fear that it would all stop at any moment, that she might suddenly lose a way to support herself with her talent. Joan was funny and self-deprecating but she was also fearlessly honest and unguarded. For someone so intrinsically insecure this was a feat of great bravery.

Twice we were competitors. Her radio show aired against the one I hosted with Steve Malzberg on WABC. Her TV show aired against THE RICHARD BEY SHOW on WWOR. And once, we had a row on THE HOWARD STERN SHOW where Joan promoted her show as #1 in the time period (It wasn’t. My show was #2 after the PRICE IS RIGHT and Joan was far behind both shows in the NYC ratings). Two hours later as I prepared to leave home, Howard was still on the radio and I heard him tease: “Richard Bey, Joan Rivers is #1. Do you hear me? She is #1, Richard Bey!” I smiled. Howard had millions of listeners but now he was talking just to me! And now, I’m just one out of the millions who will miss Joan.

Joan Rivers was NOT #1 in our time period. But in so many other ways Joan Rivers WAS #1.


Patricia Neal died today on Martha’s Vinyard.

On top of the fact that she starred in two of my favorite movies, I had the memorable honor of interviewing her for an hour in 1988 live on PEOPLE ARE TALKING on WWOR.

Patricia Neal, People Are Talking, 1988 WWOR-TV

She was one of the warmest and most transparent celebrities I’ve ever interviewed. By the end of the interview I literally loved her and I’m sure many viewers did as well. She was completely open about discussing her life including her love for Gary Cooper while he was married (“I’ve got my reasons!” she memorably purred), her battle back from stroke and her conflicted marriage to Roald Dahl (who incidentally wrote Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory among other books). She was hard on herself and not everything she described about her life was pretty or complimentary but she was obviously someone who had contemplated her years and made sense and peace with them.

A FACE IN THE CROWD is near the top of the list for my favorite movies. It is the story of a transient hobo who becomes America’s premiere talk show host. His power and influence extends into American politics and business belying the oft-repeated claim that ‘its all just entertainment’. Directed by Elia Kazan, it also stars Lee Remick in her first movie role, Walter Matthau, and Andy Griffith in a star-making bravura performance. But it is Patricia Neal who is the moral center of the film, taking the audience along on her character’s transformation from booster and lover to antagonist and destroyer. She is a media Dr. Frankenstein by the end aghast at the monster she created. Every person in the media should watch this film. It cries out for a remake in our times.

THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL is a movie that received a horrid 21st century remake so maybe I should be more cautious about what I wish for. This was one of my favorite movies as a kid and I watched it over and over on local TV. It was Neal’s recitation of the sci-fi version of ‘Open-Sesame’ that made this phrase a staple of kids raised in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s: ‘GORT! KLAATU BARADA NIKTO’. It was Patricia Neal who saved the world with those words.

I have the interview with Patricia Neal on DVD and will try to post it soon.

Don’t believe those obituaries that moan about her ‘sad life’. Surely her life was centered amidst a whirlpool of tragedies but she was a person who faced adversity with a fighter’s stamina, a mature humor, a humane compassion and a love for life.

I miss her inordinately for someone with whom I only spent an hour.

But then again, I did spend many hours in the pleasure of her company…