NEW YORK (MEDIA GENERAL) – As fans of comedy and late-night television celebrate and pay homage to David Letterman upon his retirement, let’s look back at his long, winding career in the spotlight.
Letterman gets his start in TV
Letterman, born and raised in Indianapolis, graduated from Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, in 1969 and soon after took a job at WLWI (now WTHR) in his hometown. He served many roles while at WLWI, including as host of a Saturday morning children’s show and a late-night movie show. He also anchored the news and served as a weatherman.
Transition to comedy
With the encouragement of his then-wife Michelle Cook, the Lettermans moved to Los Angeles in 1975 and Dave started a career as a stand-up comedian and a comedy writer. After putting in time at The Comedy Store, Letterman started generating attention from television executives. Letterman wrote for several TV shows and hosted and starred on a variety of game shows.
Letterman got his big break while performing stand-up comedy on NBC’s “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson on Nov. 24, 1978. Letterman was brought on as a guest 22 times and became the permanent guest host for “The Tonight Show,” serving in that role 50 times.
Late Night with David Letterman
After serving as Johnny Carson’s backup on “The Tonight Show,” Letterman signed with NBC to host a daytime talk show. The show, which launched June 23, 1980, struggled to find a daytime audience and was canceled after three months.
Despite the show’s short tenure, Letterman made an impact on TV critics, earning an Emmy for best host and best writing for a daytime variety series.
In February 1982, Letterman was brought in to replace “Tomorrow Coast to Coast,” a struggling program hosted by Tom Snyder in the 12:30 a.m. time slot. “Late Night with David Letterman” debuted Feb. 1, 1982. Although early reviews were mixed, Letterman drew 30 percent more viewers than “Tomorrow Coast to Coast” within the first week.
Letterman was given time to grow and eventually thrived in the late-night role, delivering a unique, eccentric alternative to Carson’s “Tonight Show.”
‘Tonight Show’ rift, Letterman moves to CBS
A major rift between NBC and Letterman developed in 1991 when Johnny Carson announced his plans to retire from “The Tonight Show.” After nine successful years in the 12:30 a.m. time slot, Letterman believed he was the rightful heir to Carson’s throne. NBC executives, however, decided to turn the show over to Jay Leno, Carson’s permanent guest host at the time.
Letterman said he and Leno were friends growing up as stand-up comedians and says their late-night rivalry was not sparked by “The Tonight Show” snafu.
“Jay and I were friends. We were always friends. … I think he’s the funniest guy I’ve ever known,” Letterman told Oprah in a 2013 interview. “Therefore, the fact that he is also maybe the most insecure person I’ve ever known, I could never reconcile that. You’re the best. Why are you doing things to support this insecurity?”
After the “Tonight Show” debacle, Letterman and his producers were wooed to CBS to compete against Leno. “The Late Show with David Letterman” debuted Aug. 30, 1993, in the 11:30 p.m. time slot. After his launch at CBS, Letterman routinely beat Leno in the ratings until Leno scored an exclusive interview with movie star Hugh Grant on July 10, 1995. Grant discussed at length his scandalous arrest for picking up a Los Angeles prostitute. Since that infamous interview, Leno dominated the late-night ratings.
Letterman undergoes emergency heart surgery
On January 14, 2000, Letterman was rushed to emergency surgery after doctors discovered one of his arteries was severely obstructed. He underwent quintuple bypass heart surgery.
Initially, CBS played reruns of past episodes while Letterman recovered from surgery, but eventually took the traditional late-night route of guest hosts. Bill Cosby, Janeane Garofalo and Dana Carvey guest hosted, among others. Cosby, the first guest host, ran the show from the couch, refusing to sit behind the desk in honor of Letterman.
When Letterman returned to the show Feb. 21, Letterman brought out the entire surgical and hospital team that aided in his recovery.
Letterman comes clean, outs blackmailer
In October 2009, Letterman announced he was a victim of a blackmail attempt. The assailant threatened to reveal Letterman had sexual affairs with female staffers unless Letterman gave him $2 million. Letterman worked with the Manhattan District Attorney’s office to set up a sting and catch the assailant. Letterman ended up giving a phony check to the assailant, later determined to be Robert J. Halderman, a producer for CBS’ “48 Hours.” Halderman eventually pleaded guilty to a felony charge of attempted grand larceny and served six months in jail along with probation and community service
Kennedy Center Honors
In 2012, Letterman received one of the highest honors given to entertainers: The Kennedy Center Honors. For his accomplishments in comedy and late-night television, The Kennedy Center said Letterman is considered “one of the most influential personalities in the history of television, entertaining an entire generation of late-night viewers with his unconventional wit and charm.”
Letterman announces his retirement
On April 3, 2014, Letterman announced his intentions to retire from “The Late Show.”
In his live announcement, Letterman told his audience: “I just want to reiterate my thanks for the support from the network, all of the people who have worked here, all of the people in the theater, all the people on the staff, everybody at home, thank you very much.”