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What's Dave Really Like?

One day last summer, David Letterman, Gene Siskel and I spent an afternoon wandering up and down a street in East Orange, N.J., knocking on people's doors.

"Hi, I'm Dave Letterman,'' Dave would say. "I have Siskel and Ebert right here. Do you have any questions about the movies?''

Usually, they didn't. One man said he hadn't seen a movie since "The Last of the Mohicans" (1992), and I had a strange feeling he was talking about the 1936 Randolph Scott version. A woman said she was on her way to a funeral. Letterman asked if we could do any yard chores or clean out her gutters while she was gone.

A crew from the Letterman program was taping this door-to-door visit for use on "The Late Show.'' As a TV viewer, I'd always been half-convinced that such epics were setups, that the residents of the street were not selected entirely at random, and might even in some cases be actors.

I was surprised to discover that Letterman was indeed winging it. The New Jersey street was chosen so much at random that Letterman almost didn't find it. We set out in a caravan from the Ed Sullivan Theater in mid-Manhattan, and by the time we were in New Jersey, the parade had gotten separated, and the drivers were calling each other on their cellular phones.

David Letterman is one of the more endearing enigmas on television today. He seems to live his life in public; we see him sitting at home, fretting over a cable TV installer who's late. But it's "Dave'' we're looking at - a TV character in a nightly sitcom that also stars his friend, the bandleader Paul Shaffer, and his producer, Robert Morton, forever bobbing and smiling from the shadows, a telephone glued to his ear. The real Letterman is not so easy to see, and although I have appeared on his program perhaps two dozen times over the years, I don't have any clues about his reality.

The origins of the Letterman program can be found, I think, in the old Jack Benny program - which, both on radio and TV, was a program about the making of a program. The cast was made up of Benny; his wife, Mary Livingstone; his valet Rochester, and his employees. A typical show involved Jack in meetings with his announcer Don Wilson or his sponsor, Lucky Strike. Or he might get involved in the problems of the members of his band.

Letterman (and to various degrees Jay Leno and Johnny Carson) imported the same formula over to TV and applied it to a talk show. On "The Late Show," Don Wilson is played by Paul Shaffer, Robert Morton is the authority figure who the puckish star has to pretend to obey, and the eternally at-sea Calvert DeForest is like all of those annoying characters played on Benny by Mel Blanc. The real subject of the Letterman show is the Letterman show, and "Dave" is a character on it just like the others.

That's why it was fascinating to be able to spend a whole afternoon in East Orange with Letterman. It was a rare opportunity to meet him offscreen. I've had a few dressing-room chats with him before TV appearances, but they were cursory goodwill exchanges. Letterman, I suspect, doesn't believe in leaving his performance backstage. He finds that the show plays better when his entire relationship with a guest is in front of the cameras. I doubt if he knows his perennial favorite guests, like Teri Garr or Charles Grodin, any better than he knows Gene Siskel or me. (In fact, the last time I had lunch with Teri Garr, she asked me what I thought Letterman was really like - although, with Garr, that in itself might have been a put-on. You see what tangled webs we weave.)

So there we were, on a lovely summer day in New Jersey, on a street that climbed up a hill so we could look over the river at the towers of Manhattan. The cars were unloaded, the crew began to prepare the gear, and Letterman and Siskel and I stood in the sun and chatted.

What did we talk about? Michael Jordan, mostly. Why he retired from basketball. Why he was playing baseball. Whether he would ever return to basketball. (What did male adults do for conversation before the invention of professional sports?) Michael Jordan provided an instant frame of reference, shared expertise and knowledge, and a reassuring protection against conversational intimacy. By talking about him, we did not have to talk about anything else. We knocked on a door, and taped an exchange with the man and wife who lived in the house. I was quietly surprised at how calmly the couple accepted the presence of these strange creatures on their front porch. Decades of watching television has made us all into "personalities." We walked across the street. Knocked on another door.

What I began to pick up on, as we went from door to door like a trio of sitcom salesmen, is how quick Letterman's mind is. How he can find a comic angle in a situation by viewing it slightly askew. He had a writer along with him, and a segment producer, and they had ideas, too (so did Gene and I). But some of the best moments, the ones that made it into the final piece (four hours condensed to four minutes), were David's.

"I have to go to a funeral," one woman said. Another performer might have expressed his sympathy and withdrawn. Not Letterman. "Can we come along?" he asked. And then he offered our services for yard chores. After the woman had agreed that the gutters could use some cleaning, she drove away in her car. We found ladders and baskets and climbed up to the gutters and filmed ourselves cleaning out the dead leaves. A great comic moment on TV, if I say so myself.

But Letterman was not finished. Later, on our way back to Manhattan, we borrowed a funeral home and shot low-angle footage of ourselves ostensibly filing past a coffin.

Some of the residents of the street did not know who we were - not Siskel and myself, which was quite plausible, but also not Letterman. One woman worked nights in an emergency room, and so she never saw "The Late Show." She was cool to us, and we repaired to the sidewalk to plan our next move. Then her mother-in-law explained who Letterman was, and she hurried out to offer him a gift: an original railway sign from her husband's collection. Then we talked to her about the movies. She said she hardly ever went.

At another house, a middle-aged man and his adult son appeared at the door. Both were drivers for a local bakery. Their routes began before dawn; they were home in the afternoons. No, they never went to the movies because they were always in bed too early. "Then can we offer you $100 to shave off your mustaches?" Letterman asked. Gee, said the older man; he'd had his mustache since Vietnam. Letterman produced two crisp new $100 bills. Both men agreed.

Walking into their house to help them shave off their mustaches, I had thoughts of my own. Was this a proper role for me to play? I take my film criticism seriously. I doubted that Pauline Kael, my heroine, would spend an afternoon like this in New Jersey and find herself shaving off any mustaches. And was the show somehow, in a subtle way, using these two men? Letterman could spare the $200. So did that mean he was buying them - buying their mustaches, even one that had been growing since Vietnam?

By now, we were in the spotless kitchen of the home, and the men had bath towels around their necks and were applying shaving cream, while the cameras rolled. My eyes caught Gene's, and I guessed that he was having some of the same thoughts. But a few minutes later, as we were leaving, the man and his son were breaking up with laughter over the whole episode: You're sitting at home, and David Letterman knocks on your door and gives you $100 to shave off your mustache! Are the guys at the bakery ever going to believe it? When is this gonna be on TV?

And then I thought that I had taken the situation too seriously. It belonged to that genre of Letterman programming that could be described as High Goofy. It has absolutely no purpose other than the one it obviously achieved: to take the routine of an ordinary day and inject a grin into it.

Later on, Letterman gathered his cast and crew, and several of the neighbors, and we sat along a low stone wall and took off our socks and looked for ticks. After all, a visit to the countryside in wild East Orange can be dangerous, and who in Manhattan has not heard of Lyme disease? And then we headed back to Manhattan.

There was one revealing moment. Inside one house (I will not reveal the details) we saw something that made us think about mortality and the inexorable passage of time. Back out on the sidewalk, Letterman was quiet, thinking about it, and then he said, "That's exactly how it goes. You're young and the whole world is ahead of you, and then one day you're not young anymore, and the whole world is behind you, and it's all over."

Then we talked some more about the National Basketball Association.

Did I get any other insights into the "real" David Letterman? Yes, I did. I got a few when the two of us exchanged arcania about the Steak 'n' Shake, a restaurant chain that is popular in his hometown, Indianapolis, and in mine, Champaign-Urbana. We knew the slogans by heart: "Four Ways to Enjoy: Car, Table, Counter and TakeHomaSak!" We knew that the chain "uses only government-inspected choice cuts of meat, ground in our own commissaries." That the motto was "In Sight, It Must Be Right!" And that the founder of the chain was named A.H. "Gus" Belt, whose signature on the menu used to be preceded by the words, "Thanks for Your Liberal Patronage!"

Talking with Letterman about the Steak 'n' Shake, I suddenly felt a connection over the years to his adolescence, in which he had sat with his buddies in those restaurants, and read the menus, and realized that they were very funny. Others saw them as merely menus, and ordered their double steakburgers and tru-flavor shakes, and were satisfied. But I can visualize young Dave Letterman, his gap teeth revealed in a goofy grin, as he reads the menu aloud to his friends: "Man, oh man! `Specializing in Selected Foods With a Desire to Please the Most Discriminating!' "

And in that moment, I foresee his entire career, and I know all about the "real" David Letterman that I really need to know.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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