The Good, the Bad, the Bitchy

Looking back at some ­memorable moments behind the mic

I RECENTLY SAW a fascinating interview with Dick Cavett, in which he talked about some of his more noteworthy talk show guests. I’m no Dick Cavett, but I was a talk show host for more than two decades and I got to thinking about some of the highlights of my years behind the microphone.

Favourite guest: Cavett said Groucho Marx. Way out of my league, but my favourite was also a Hollywood all-star—Steve Allen, the first host of the legendary Tonight Show. Also a bandleader, movie star and as nice a guy as you’d want to meet. Did I mention he wrote more than 5,000 songs and 50 books? That alone made me like him, but he was so forthcoming yet humble about his remarkable life that he remains my number-one favourite.

Most cheerful: No contest—Kim Campbell. Just days before the biggest election loss in Canadian history, and knowing full well the polls had ­consigned her to the ash heap, she was sharp, on the mark, upbeat and quite funny. I asked her how she managed to be so “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed” after months of campaigning and facing such gloomy prospects. Instead of becoming offended (which some listeners later told me they expected her to be) she just laughed and thanked me for what she rightly took to be a compliment. I didn’t support her politics, but she was A-1 in my books as guest.

Bitchiest: Richard Simmons, oh my! Nothing phased this guy when he started pushing his ­videos and meal deals (instead of talking about his career as he had promised). When I ­innocently referred to his cheerful self as “Rich”, he stopped the interview to chastise me before returning to the supposed benefits of sweatin’ to the oldies, so I pulled the plug on what had quickly become an aimless exercise (pardon the pun).

Most intimidating: Pierre Berton was a national literary and media icon who fully deserved his status, but he did not suffer fools gladly

Most reluctant: Jean Chretien. Along with many other former interviewees, he had been booked by producer Kathleen Keating to call best wishes into the show on my 50th ­birthday. But I wasn’t one of his favourites because I had ­repeatedly been very hard on his ­government, and had it not been for ­long-time Liberal ­supporter Ms. Keating, I doubt he would have called at all. When he said hello, it was pretty clear he’d rather be doing something else. Passing years have muddied my recollection of exactly what was said, but the gist of it was, “They tell me I have to call you, so Happy Birthday.” My thanks to “they,” I guess.

Most intimidating: Pierre Berton was a national literary and media icon who fully deserved his status, but he did not suffer fools gladly. In our first interview, I tried to put one of his characters into a historical context and got it wrong. I should have known better. He cut me no slack, made it clear it was a stupid reference and generally assumed the countenance of Mount Rushmore for the rest of the interview. It took a couple more guest spots before I was able to ­convince him I wasn’t entirely a dolt, after which he was generally a delightful guest.

Favourite guest who had previously hosted Saturday Night Live: Steve Forbes, publisher of Forbes magazine, was our guest several times. He was obviously on top of the business news of the day, but he also had lots to say about the world in general. He talked about SNL, his famous father, Malcolm, his father’s famous friend Elizabeth Taylor, and his wife and kids, all like we were part of the family. A wise, funny guy who might yet have a future in politics, having previously run for president. Stranger things have certainly happened in the meantime. Jim Chapman

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