Chuck Barris Beats the Gong

Walking into the Midtown Diner with Chuck Barris on Presidents’ Day was like walking onto a television set for the kind of treacly special that Mr. Barris probably never would have produced in his television days: something called maybe Chuck Barris’ Holiday Homecoming , or Chuck Barris’ Triumphant Foray From His Apartment . Mr. Barris, who was never a tall man–and now, at 71 years old, still isn’t–strode into the establishment at 61st Street and Third Avenue ahead of the lunch rush, just before 12:30 p.m., in a pristine pair of little white sneakers, Armani jeans he wore homey-style (low on his hips, with the seat of the pants riding down near his knees) and a Texas A&M baseball cap on his head, the words “Chuckie Baby!” embroidered on the back.

Mr. Barris, who is something of a hugger, stood by the cash register greeting the staff and touching each waiter and waitress like a beloved collection of dark-skinned mezuzahs. After creating The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game in the late 60′s, creating and hosting The Gong Show in the late 70′s, and then spending most of the last 20 years in the south of France because he felt like a big chunk of America hated his guts, Mr. Barris got a reception at the Midtown Diner like a beloved and triumphant general returning from years of battle. When George, the diner’s burly proprietor, was later asked how often Mr. Barris appeared like this in the establishment–a place that Mr. Barris refers to as “The Greasy”–he said: “Oh, three, four times a day.”

After his round of hugs, Mr. Barris sat down and ordered a cup of Yankee bean soup. “Angel! Angel on my shoulder!” he cried to a young waiter, named Angelo, who came over to the booth. Mr. Barris thrust his right fist out next to Angelo’s. Both men wore similar gold wedding bands, but the wide-eyed look on Angelo’s face suggested that this was a new thing for Mr. Barris. “I’m trying it on, seeing how it feels,” he said. Angelo raised his eyebrows, apparently impressed.

The ring was a surprise. Until very recently, most everybody thought that the Chuck Barris story had been written, finished, sent to the presses. Twenty years ago, when he stole off to St. Tropez after selling his share of Barris Industries, his publicly held production company, it looked like Chuck Barris was one of the few that had been able to live out the Hugh Hefner-era fantasy: Jewish kid from South Philadelphia makes a huge pile of dough, becomes a star in the States; then, when it looks like his moment has passed, he just says “Fuck it” and embarks on a third marriage with a flame-haired Gong Show staffer almost half his age named Red whom he loves desperately, and splits to the south of France with his girl and a shred of dignity. There, he was supposed to live out his days playing boule with the local fishermen and sausage makers, putting around the Mediterranean in his Arriva and trying to write the Great American Novel, fulfilling, as he calls it, the F. Scott Fitzbarris fantasy. And he came close.

But recently, word got out among the few fans who still keep track of him that Mr. Barris’ story was growing a messy little epilogue, that Red was out of the picture, that he was back in New York, that he had cancer, that he returned to the country he at one point had grown to hate so much to die a slow, lonely death on the Upper East Side.

But now, all of that seemed to be changing. He was talking about a new woman named Mary Clagett Kane, a Kentucky girl living in Atlanta, 30 years his junior, whom he said he’d been dating on and off for three and a half years. And he was wearing a wedding ring he had lying around, just to get the feel of it again, even though he was feeling very hesitant. “The best way to avoid divorce is to not get married,” he pronounced. “I think all my major problems in life have all come from marriage.”

Mr. Barris said that lately, Ms. Kane had been pushing him to get married, and had even dragged him–a 71 year-old Jewish fellow–down to Bowling Green, Ohio, to meet her extended Methodist family. “I went down with great intimidation–very high caution,” he said. “But they were really great–really lovable, nice people. Even the Kluxer was a good guy: He showed me his pistols.”

Last year, before the thoughts of marriage had crossed his mind, Mr. Barris stared out over the Hudson from his bed at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, where he was recuperating from an operation that had removed a cancerous growth in his lung. His marriage was over. His mother had died. His only child, Della, had died a couple of years before of a drug overdose. The cancer was gone. Chuck Barris knew he would live, but he started thinking about dying.

“I had started writing a book called Pismire’s Salvation ,” he said, forgoing his soup and reaching for my fries. “In that book, every once in a while the guy thinks of his epitaph–you know, he gets these flashes. My epitaph in real life would be ‘The Man Who Thought of The Gong Show .’ What a horrible thing! But when I was in the hospital, what bothered me was that I had to do something, that the years left in me were going to be a big zero …. I mean, what’s going to happen? Do you take a slow American Flyer ride out? That seems boring as shit!”

In his hospital bed, Mr. Barris made a few plans. One involved getting his pilot’s license and flying a plane somewhere spectacular–he didn’t know where, but he used as a model the case of the West German teenager who landed his single-engine Cessna in Red Square. The other plan involved just disappearing, going into the Middle East and wiping himself off the map. “I’d fly Paris to Geneva, Geneva to Istanbul, Istanbul to Tel Aviv, and then just poof !” he said.

He got out of the hospital, went home to his 61st Street penthouse and, after contracting a post-operative staph infection that put him back in the hospital and nearly killed him, he settled into a squishy green armchair he’d bought at Shabby Chic, and began reading–all day, every day. And he didn’t get up much. “I kept saying, ‘This is wrong, because I should be doing something.’ I couldn’t write. I didn’t want to. And then the ‘go’ on this movie just shot me out.”

“This movie” is Confessions of a Dangerous Mind , based on the memoir Mr. Barris wrote on a mammoth I.B.M. computer in the Wyndham Hotel in 1980, where he and Red lived together before flying off to St. Tropez. St. Martin’s Press published the book in 1984. Though the book was hardly a commercial or critical success–Mr. Barris said that of the 100,000 copies printed, only about 7,500 copies sold–the book soon developed something of a cult following. Half of Confessions is a comic retelling of Mr. Barris’ life in show business

The book includes the story of Mr. Barris’ inauspicious beginnings as a not-particularly-driven young man right out of Drexel University, skipping from job to job, selling teleprompters, paging at Rockefeller Center, chasing girls and getting head. Then there’s the story of trying to develop his disastrous first game-show idea, People Poker , which involved contestants using human beings as playing cards. Then there’s his ascent as a game-show producer, beginning in 1965 when ABC picked one of his show ideas.

Mr. Barris’ show involved allowing a cute coed to ask questions of three bachelors who were hidden from her view, a group that generally consisted of one stud and two duds. Based on their answers, the bachelorette would choose one with whom she would go on an all-expenses-paid vacation. It would be called The Dating Game . Then there was The Newlywed Game , cranked out by a successful, growing company of free-wheeling hipsters. Then there was the $1.98 Beauty Show and Three’s a Crowd, in which executives’ wives were pitted against their secretaries and which may have been– Queen for a Day excepted–the cruelest game show ever created.

Finally, Confessions told the tale of how Mr. Barris, through his decision in 1976 to step in front of the camera and host The Gong Show , was crucified by the public and press as an unseemly and obnoxious hand-clapping menace in a tux; a man who would allow his heavyset black stage hand, “Gene, Gene, the Dancing Machine,” to shake his pubis in decent American homes; a man who would air an act called “The Popsicle Twins,” a nubile duo who simulated fellatio on frozen treats. The book recalled a man who had the hubris to direct and star in The Gong Show Movie , a flop that stayed in theaters for three days in 1980 and which, combined with death threats from a defeated Gong Show contestant, hastened Mr. Barris and Red’s departure for France.

But that was just half the story. The other half of Confessions was about how Chuck Barris, starting in the early 60′s, also had a side gig of traveling to foreign cities under the name of “Sunny Sixkiller” and murdering people for the Central Intelligence Agency.

“I … jammed my automatic into his mouth,” Mr. Barris wrote of one hit that he supposedly performed in London while chaperoning a Dating Game couple on their free vacation. “The front of the silencer broke teeth as it went in. The man’s eyes became immense …. I pulled the trigger three times. The man’s eyes remained surprised while the back of his head splattered against the wall of the church.”

On the way out of the Midtown Diner, I broached the topic of the Central Intelligence Agency, which most readers of the book–and reporters–assumed was a literary convention, a gag, especially since Mr. Barris had included the names of agents and of some of his hits, and even a couple of photos of operatives. (Mr. Barris later said that the names had all been changed, and the photos “were not of the people I was writing about.”)

“Do you have assassin fantasies?” I asked him.

Mr. Barris didn’t turn back to answer. “You could wait all day and you’re not getting anything there,” he said icily.

“I assumed that stuff was made up out of whole cloth.”

“You can assume anything you want,” he said, walking towards his apartment building and quickly changing the subject. He took a detour so he could walk by a pet shop called Le Chien on Third Avenue. “Let’s just look at the dogs,” he said. Mr. Barris stood on the street and watched a couple of bichons frisés frolicking. “I hate those dogs,” he said, but he seemed to be eyeing them with affection. “These little chi-chi things. Look at that little guy.”

He hustled off towards home. Upstairs, on the 39th floor of the Trump Plaza, Mr. Barris settled into his green chair. In 1984, he and his friend Dick Clark bought adjoining penthouses–actually, Mr. Barris’ is a cozy one-bedroom affair overlooking the East River, stuffed with books. When a high-rise was built a few avenues east of the building, Mr. Clark “couldn’t stand it because they’d watch him get undressed,” Mr. Barris said.

The apartment is all that’s left of the Barris empire. Until returning to New York a few years back, he had kept a house and office in Beverly Hills, an apartment in Paris, two houses in St. Tropez, “a staff of a thousand,” “countless cars,” the 61st Street penthouse and an office at 76th Street and Madison Avenue. “When I came back, it dawned on me that I was happier when I was poor.” He quickly corrected himself: “Poor- er . I realized that I didn’t have this damned nut to worry about, so in the last two years I got it down to me, this apartment, a secretary, a housekeeper here in New York and a driver. That’s it, and it’s just fine. Two credit cards!” he said.

After getting out of the hospital, Mr. Barris tried to figure out something that would get him out of the green chair. He recently signed up for a course in criminology. He joined two temples in the hopes of getting the proper bar mitzvah he’d never had. After a couple of months, Mr. Barris wasn’t satisfied with the answers he was getting from his two rabbis, tossed the whole bar-mitzvah idea and went back to his previous state of grumpy nihilism. “A plant, as far as I’m concerned, has as much of a soul as I do,” he said.

So there he was, alone in the chair, reading, watching Oscar-consideration screeners that his friends lent him, and occasionally breaking up with Ms. Kane and sending her long, angry faxes–which became frequent enough that Ms. Kane, at one point, threw the fax machine in a ravine behind her house in Atlanta.

Living alone, Chuck Barris realized, sucked. “I can deal with the morning by either writing or doing things,” he explained. “And then there’s lunch. After that, around 4:00, I feel like it’s O.K. now to take a nap. So I’ll lay down on the couch and take a nap, or I’ll read in the green chair. Then I’m in trouble. At night, I start to get a little crazy. I get to about 5:30, and then it’s a long night.” He sighed. “It’s a long night.”

Then, salvation from Hollywood–or at least what seemed like it.

For more than a decade, the idea of Confessions becoming a movie had broken Mr. Barris’ heart over and over. Eleven years ago, the project was derailed when Dawn Steel, head of Columbia Pictures–which had originally bought the memoir–was pushed out. Then, Mr. Barris said, Bob Daly and Terry Semel, the co-chairmen of Warner Bros. who had gotten behind the film, resigned before greenlighting it, and the project died. Several months ago, Mike Myers was set to portray Mr. Barris in the film but, with a writers’ strike looming, pulled out at the last minute, temporarily killing the project and forever assuring Mr. Barris’ feelings about Mr. Myers. (“It’s awesome in its evilness,” he groused. “Who does that and fucks up so many people?”)

Finally, in October, it all seemed to gel. Renaissance Films, a British production company, had arranged financing for the $38 million project. Being John Malkovich screenwriter Charlie Kaufman had written a script. Usual Suspects and X-Men director Bryan Singer agreed to direct. Johnny Depp was to play Mr. Barris, with George Clooney as Jim Byrd, Mr. Barris’ C.I.A. liaison. Uma Thurman, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Drew Barrymore were rumored to be mulling over the female roles. Mr. Singer, before heading to Toronto to begin location scouting, came to New York to have dinner at Rao’s with Mr. Barris.

Five weeks before principal photography was to begin shooting, Mr. Barris was in New York, gearing up to be trailed for a few days by Mr. Depp. Then a fax rolled across his home machine from Mr. Lazar. “When I saw the words ‘I regret …,’ I didn’t even need to read any more,” Mr. Barris said. At the last minute, Renaissance had financing problems and the project died again. The day after he got the fax, Mr. Barris had his secretary Loretta call to tell me that the movie deal was off, and to see if I still had any desire to interview him.

Mr. Barris sat in silence for a moment. “People are calling up,” he said, “and saying, ‘I’m sorry. Geez, I’m sorry to hear about that.’ They were sorry to hear about that , they were sorry to hear about my cancer operation, they were sorry about my daughter, sorry about my mother. I’m tired of ‘I’m sorrys’!” Mr. Barris looked as though he might collapse into a mess of tears, then steeled himself. “It’s just me in a strange place–you know, it’s not a normal place to be. I’ll kick it. I’ll kick it, and I’ll be back to where I was. I don’t really know where that was, but it was O.K.–you know, on a boat, rocking back and forth or something. I’ll figure it out.”

Two weeks and a day later, Mr. Barris was sitting in the green chair, but he was not alone. His housekeeper was puttering around in the kitchen, and Mary Clagett Kane, who had come into town a week and a half before, was preparing to venture out into the snow to return a suit she’d bought at Barneys, and also to go shopping for a wedding dress. Ms. Kane is a stunner, considerably taller than Mr. Barris, with the look of one of those Southern women who probably wouldn’t think of leaving the house without makeup, but also would never leave the house wearing too much.

Mr. Barris looked a little confused, a little older than he had before, and his hair was sticking up as if he’d been napping. He was wearing a gold band that looked identical to the one he had sported two weeks before, but this one was real. He said he had to make the interview quick; he was getting married tomorrow in the apartment and had some cleaning to do, which he said involved taking down some of the numerous pictures of Red hanging on his wall.

“You better be careful,” he said to Ms. Kane, eyeing the snow and speaking in a higher voice than usual. She was putting on her hooded fur coat.

“I’m off to find a dress,” she said.

“You better be careful,” he said.

She was heading for the door.

“You going to be O.K.?” he asked. She turned at the door, smiled and left.

After Ms. Kane arrived in town, Mr. Barris resolved that they would go the easy way, just go to City Hall and do a quick and dirty job of it. But when they were getting a marriage license, they checked out the City Hall chapel. “I couldn’t do it there,” he said. “It looked like a subway station.” So Mr. Barris had gone and gotten commitments from 20 of his friends to witness the ceremony. And when Mayor Rudolph Giuliani didn’t respond to Mr. Barris’ request that he perform the ceremony at his home, Mr. Barris found a judge who would.

I brought up the C.I.A. thing again. It was just too weird.

“There’s no comment on that,” he said, not quite so brusque as he had been before. “Whoever wants to check up on me can check. Call the C.I.A. They’ll say they’ve never heard of me and say it’s fiction. I don’t give a shit. Just realize that the C.I.A. has never accepted the employment of anybody they’ve used as killers, or even spies for that matter.”

Mr. Barris hopped to his feet to go to the Midtown Diner. Ms. Kane, said Mr. Barris, didn’t like going there “as much as I do.” The place was bustling. The day before, the waitress, named Maria, had gotten arrested for screaming at a cop. When Maria passed by the table, Mr. Barris, who had laid his wallet on the table, made a great gesture of putting it back in his pocket. “You can’t be too careful when Maria’s around,” he said. The pair howled.

Rumors have been circulating that Miramax may come in and try again to make a go of Confessions . Mr. Singer, the director, said that in Charlie Kaufman’s script, an epilogue read by the actor playing Mr. Barris “talks about a game show he’s been thinking of called The Old Guy Game .

“He says, ‘You put three old guys in a room; they recall their life, what they’ve done, and how close they came to achieving their dreams. The one that doesn’t blow his brains out wins. He gets a refrigerator.’”