“He’s such a bad actor! He actually wiped a tear away with one finger like [François] Delsarte. It’s like 19th-century acting,” he told The Observer during a recent visit to his apartment.
His and Mr. Beck’s politics couldn’t be more diametrically opposed, but politics and acting aside, game recognized game.
“As much as I detest him, Glenn Beck has that quality. He’s the only one who has that quality.”
“That” quality is hard to describe, but whatever it is, it launched a million daytime talk shows in the 1990s, and Mr. Beck seems to be its last gasp.
At 57 years old, Mr. Bey has never been married. He lives alone in a two-bedroom 46th-floor apartment in a neighborhood with no name. His doorman building is a few seconds’ scramble north from Hell’s Kitchen and a dozen or so blocks’ stumble south from Lincoln Center.
Mr. Bey’s decor is Late 20th-Century Bachelor Utilitarian: The place is tidy, but sparsely furnished. A dining room set dominates the living room filled with an upright piano and a vibrating recliner facing an old TV the size and shape of a Mack truck grille. A wine glass lined with purple swill was left beside the chair. Mr. Bey would have a breathtaking view of Central Park if it weren’t for the Trump International Tower and the Time Warner Center blocking the way.
From this Xanadu, the man who changed the face of his medium looks out occasionally on the real world, and, sometimes, plots his return to it.
From time to time, his name reenters the public consciousness: Most recently, this happened when Universal released the trailer for Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest ambush movie, Brüno. In the clip, the talk show host is seen playing the role of his lifetime: a talk show host named Richard Bey.
Mr. Bey could not say whether he was duped into appearing with Mr. Cohen, but the reasons for his silence spoke volumes: There was a nondisclosure agreement. And use was made of his union membership.
Now, in his late 50s, Mr. Bey has become a self-professed “monk.” He said he’s helping to raise the 10-year-old son of an ex-girlfriend.
“I never dreamed of being on television,” he said. “It’s been pretty good to me. All of it. I don’t have regrets about any of that.”
Mr. Bey said he doesn’t even regret watching people like Matt Lauer, someone he traded jobs with for years in Philadelphia and New York, become more successful than him. “‘You could’ve been Matt Lauer,’” Mr. Bey recalled his brother telling him once. “‘Instead, you’re Soupy Sales.’”
“You know what?” Mr. Bey responded. “I’d rather be Soupy Sales.”
Richard Bey, When Are You Coming Back?
Richard Bey is not just another name from New York City’s past, like Eleanor Bumpurs, Larry “Crackhead” Davis (not to mention Larry “Bud” Melman) or Sukhreet Gabel. He’s still recognized all the time.
“If I go to a cocktail party on the east side, it’s the people working for the catering company who know me,” he said. Whenever he drives through the Lincoln Tunnel, the toll-takers always shout, “Richard Bey! When are you coming back?”
Recently a producer from the Learning Channel called Mr. Bey and said he was the Ernie Kovacs of the ’90s. The guy wanted to know who held the rights to the old Richard Bey Shows, but Mr. Bey didn’t know.
He has about 500 episodes burned onto DVDs in his apartment. In 1999, a friend from WWOR’s Secaucus, N.J., headquarters called Mr. Bey and told him the maintenance crew was throwing them away along with other shows, and did Mr. Bey want to come retrieve them?
“One-third of these are garbage,” he said. “One-third of them are all right. But one-third of them are kind of really funny as hell!”
“If they ran these late night, it’s funnier than Jimmy Fallon!”
(“The guy is so nervous,” Mr. Bey said of Mr. Fallon. “He was nervous not only the first night—he’s still nervous!. My god, suppose you went to see a Broadway show and they go, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, this is the first time the lead actor has been on Broadway stage. He’s a little bit nervous. He’ll get better in a couple of weeks. Or in a couple of months he’ll grow into it.’ Gimme a fucking break.”)
Based on the clips of those shows available on YouTube, you’d think every episode of The Richard Bey Show involved strippers or drag queens, wrestling sisters, or what is now known as “babymama drama.”
Having started out hosting a straight talk show in Philadelphia in the 1980s (“basically a Donahue clone”), Mr. Bey was eventually replaced by Mr. Lauer. He then came to New York to create Nine Broadcast Plaza, which eventually morphed into The Richard Bey Show, a shameless parody, essentially, of his chosen genre and his entire career to date.
In those days, everyone had a show: Mr. Bey shared the TV Guide grid with Montel Williams, Jenny Jones, Jerry Springer, Sally Jessy Raphael, Charles Perez, Ricki Lake, Geraldo Rivera, Carnie Wilson, George Hamilton and Alana Stewart, Danny Bonaduce, Tempestt Bledsoe and Gabrielle Carteris.
Most shows, he’d enter the studio to raucous applause, run into the crowd, maybe do a little soft shoe or take a female audience member by the hand and give her a twirl. Sometimes he’d trot out characters like Dick Bey, Private Eye, or quote Shakespeare to the astonishment of his crew. He never worked with cue cards or a TelePrompter. Many of his shows aired live, and he refused an earpiece feeding him directions.
“We would give him this stuff and he’d study it with a highlighter and by the time he walked out there, he had written an entire show open in his mind. He could make something from practically nothing,” said Alexandra Cohen, Mr. Bey’s supervising producer, who has since gone on to executive-produce The View for ABC.
“I don’t think the show got the credit it deserves,” said Andy Lassner, executive producer of Ellen DeGeneres’ show. In the early ’90s, he was an associate producer on Nine Broadcast Plaza and eventually an executive producer of The Richard Bey Show. “Here’s this guy with this million-dollar Yale smile, and he’s talking into the camera and explaining how we’re gonna do a big-butt contest, and somehow it made it legitimate because it came out of his mouth. Because he’s so smart and so articulate about it.
“He gave a legitimacy to all this,” Mr. Lassner said.
Mr. Lassner said that at its height, the show was doing 5-to-6-share ratings. Mr. Bey claimed that in some markets he was beating Oprah Winfrey’s syndicated show some days.
During this time, Mr. Bey was also enjoying an active social life.
“How many nights can you spend at Le Bar Bat with like your hairy chest out there?” Ms. Cohen remembered thinking.
Miraculously, Mr. Bey never wound up in the gossip pages, except for one piece in The Globe that claimed he was “a closet snob.” The gist, according to Mr. Bey: “On television, he’s your working-class everyman, but in real life, he likes nothing better than to go to the opera or the ballet!”
“I went to the ballet once,” he said. “And I love Gilbert and Sullivan. I’ve seen Carmen—like everybody.”
Raised half-Jewish and half-Catholic in Rockaway, Mr. Bey attended four colleges before making it to Yale on scholarship. There he found himself in the company of aristocratic performers like Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver and writers like Mr. Durang and the late Wendy Wasserstein.
Talking to The Observer at a recent Atlantic panel discussion, Ms. Weaver remembered her classmate. “He was just an underused actor, the way a lot of us were,” she said. “It was such a competitive program and they didn’t encourage many people.”
She said she never caught Mr. Bey’s show (“I don’t think his show was aimed at people who live in New York, really,” she said), but noted that her father, Sylvester Weaver, had helped create the talk show genre.
In 1994, Mr. Bey bolstered his working-class bona fides in a letter to New York magazine criticizing Tad Friend’s article “White Trash Nation”: “In times past, such people were called ‘the rabble’ and ‘the great unwashed’; I call them the salt of the earth. They make this city and this country great, and most of them do not read snotty magazines like New York.”
Mr. Bey’s show was a very complicated parody of that certain segment of the culture. Like most great comedians, Mr. Bey parodied the part of America he loved, not the one he hated.
If the show occasionally took on an air of minstrelsy with segments like “Mr. Punyverse meets Miss Thunderthighs” in which skinny men were dragged on roller skates by large—and largely African-American—women, Mr. Bey was quick to say that it had “almost a gay comic sensibility” and that “it was the first show where there were a lot of black people speaking for themselves.”
In 1995, Newsday’s Marvin Kitman wrote: “There are two ways to measure the sleaziest. One is on an absolute scale. Here Richard Bey wins. He never tries to be anything more than a totally exploitive person.”
“He doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about,” Mr. Bey said almost 14 years later. “Listen, people volunteered to be on the show, they wanted to be on it. … The people on the show were pretty tough cookies.”
On Touching or Not Touching Gennifer Flowers
Amazingly, it wasn’t Miss Thunderthighs that got The Richard Bey Show taken off the air, but rather a serious, issue-based episode featuring Ms. Flowers and others talking about the president’s alleged marital infidelities and proximity to drug users while governor of Arkansas. (It would be two years before Mr. Clinton admitted to one encounter with Ms. Flowers after his relationship with Monica Lewinsky made headlines across the world and led to his impeachment.)
Mr. Bey said that he’d noticed Ms. Flowers was scheduled to appear on another talk show around the time of the 1996 presidential elections but that her segment never aired. He called up the singer-actress himself and booked her for his show since, as he put it, “mainstream media wouldn’t touch her.”
It’s worth remembering that at this point in history, talk shows were under intense scrutiny as part of an anti–“trash television” movement led by the former drug czar and Book of Virtues author William Bennett and Joseph Lieberman, then Connecticut’s Democratic senator. Both men were putting pressure on advertisers to help clean up the airwaves, creating a moral panic not unlike Fredric Wertham’s crusade against comic books in the 1950s or the PMRC’s attacks on explicit lyrics in heavy metal and hip-hop a generation later.
In 1995, a guest on The Jenny Jones Show killed another after being surprised on air with an admission of a same-sex crush. The murder was followed by a sensational trial that forever dashed the perception of talk shows as harmless, albeit tawdry, entertainment.
“There was a lot of crap coming down,” Mr. Bey remembered. It may not have been the best time for Mr. Bey to invite Ms. Flowers onto the air.
Mr. Bey still has little love for Bill and Hillary Clinton, but he said he had no problem with the president of the United States (or, at the time of his alleged relationship with Ms. Flowers, the governor of Arkansas) having extramarital affairs. It was the coverup that pissed him off.
“I do believe Bill Clinton screwed around like crazy, which I don’t give a shit about,” Mr. Bey said. “But if you screw somebody, you don’t threaten them! You don’t send them out of the country! You don’t have a squad called the ‘Bimbo Alert Squad!’”
“I hope somebody gets a blow job every day in the White House—I don’t give a shit about that,” he continued. “But you don’t go after the people afterwards to keep them quiet. You take your lumps.”
“He got a raw deal,” Ms. Flowers told The Observer. “He was very brave to have me on.”
She’s currently living in New Orleans, developing a stage play with music based on her life. Her partners want her to play herself and have their sights set on a Broadway run. She said she had no idea who could play Bill Clinton.
Of her appearance on The Richard Bey Show in 1996, she said, “I had some offers, but anybody that would give me an appropriate forum to tell my story in my words was not going to be popular with the Clintons. These people had tremendous influence over the governing bodies for television, radio and that sort of thing.”
Shortly after Ms. Flowers’ appearance, The Richard Bey Show was canceled.
Ms. Flowers hasn’t talked to Mr. Bey since then. (She does, however, claim she received a personal phone call from Mr. Clinton, who wanted to visit her after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.)
According to Ms. Flowers, whom President Clinton once called “a person who had spread all kinds of ridiculous, dishonest, exaggerated stories about me for money,” it could’ve been a lot worse for Mr. Bey.
“He could be jeopardizing himself,” she said, still speaking in the present tense as if the 1996 election season were still happening for her. “He could disappear or die by mysterious circumstances,” she said, alluding to the long-standing, but little proven, whispers about the Clintons and their so-called Dixie Mafia.
“I still have that concern,” she said.
It’s taken more than a decade, but Mr. Bey has put his time on air in perspective. “You’re not Mick Jagger and you’re not Bob Dylan. And you’re not Picasso,” he said of hosting a show.
“It’s not great art. Some people can do it. I can do it. Whatever it is, it’s not the greatest artistic skill in the world. Listen, I went to Yale Drama School with Meryl Streep: It isn’t a matter of trying harder. I will never be the genius that Meryl Streep is. A talk show is ephemeral. … Meryl Streep has created characters, especially on film, that will live forever. Her stage performances will be legendary. People will see them and remember them all their lives. Somebody will see The Richard Bey Show and they may remember it, but it’s not a transformative experience.”
He had high hopes for another career in radio, but he lost a gig on New York’s ABC affiliate for speaking out against the war in Iraq. His own father told him, “You’re gonna get fired from your job! Can’t you be for this war a little bit?”
“Probably the thing I’m most proud of in my career is speaking out against Iraq,” he said.
“I didn’t have to do the Gennifer Flowers show, but I did have to tell the truth about the war.”
It was almost time to leave. Mr. Bey had a dinner date with his ex’s son. The boy had called several times during the day, and Mr. Bey promised him they’d get together tonight. Really, it seemed like the kid just wanted to hear the sound of Mr. Bey’s voice on the other end of the phone. Mr. Bey, who used to entertain millions of people, even beating Oprah some days, sounded pleased performing for a key demographic of one.
He was asked one more time about his view. Doesn’t he wish he could see the park?
“I’m happy with this,” he said gesturing uptown. “I can see the reservoir. I’m happy to live like this. I’m satisfied. I don’t need ten million dollars. What they say you need to be happy in your life is someone to love, and work that you love. I have a 10-year-old boy right now that I love, but I don’t have a relationship and a steady job.
“I’d like to get those things, but I’m not sitting here going, ‘Woe is me.’”