Legends of Local New York Television: Bill Boggs

Bill Boggs.

Bill Boggs. Mike Coppola/Getty Images

In the 21st Century, New York City’s low-on-the dial local television channels are a lesser page in the flipbook of the vast cable spectrum, largely abandoned to Judge shows and loud and chatty talk shows (we are talking about channels 5, 9, and 11, by the way). But once, this was the land of giants, full of character and characters: probing news and talk shows deeply linked to the cultural and political lifeblood of the city; absurdist, sprawling children’s shows; late night oddities; and the best re-runs of all time.

As anyone over 40 can tell you, the pre-cable age wasn’t an incomplete era in television; it was a unique era in television.

From 1975 to 1987, Bill Boggs hosted Midday Live on WNEW Channel 5 in New York City. The show aired for 90 minutes each and every weekday, usually beginning at noon (it shifted from 11:30 to 1 at various times during its run, and for a few years it was cut to “only” an hour). An intelligent and entirely unique mix of talk and news, it provided deeply provocative and insightful interviews with newsmakers, tastemakers, and some of the biggest legends in show business. Underlining it all was the heartbeat of New York City.

With his leading-man good looks, welcoming smile, and beaming, probative intelligence that mixed disarming warmth with skepticism, Boggs was cut of the same cloth as David Frost, Dick Cavett, Jack Parr, and Steve Allen (with a little bit of Norman Mailer and Nichols and May thrown in for good measure).

When Boggs arrived at Midday in January of 1975, the franchise had already been well established, having been originally hosted by Lee Leonard. After Leonard left the show, a pile of guest hosts were tried – everyone from Nora Ephron to Arthur Godfrey – but once Boggs arrived, Midday had found it’s definitive host, Boggs had found an extraordinary venue for his mix of charm and insight, and New York television had found one of it’s defining faces of the 1970s.

I first met Bill Boggs last summer at a Kinky Friedman show in Sag Harbor, New York. Not only was he an utterly familiar and welcome face from my past, he was also a kind and gracious man, who remains extremely active and entrepreneurial.

“[T]he rise of the MTV-era short attention span led to the slow death of the longer form interview.”

Observer: What have we lost since we lost the connection to community provided by local networks, like WNEW, WPIX, and WWOR?

Bill Boggs: Change is inevitable. Growth from the change in optional. Yes, there is a personal touch that is missing, from the strong personalities we had at the time. All of what we did – what I did with Midday, what, say, Stanley Siegel did – became subsumed by syndicated programming. The combination of that happening and the rise of the MTV-era short attention span led to the slow death of the longer form interview. For example, if we had someone on Midday, I pretty much had control about how long I wanted to talk to the person. If you had Sean Connery on, you wanted to talk to him for half the show! It’s Sean fucking Connery, for god’s sakes. Now, what you’re going to see on a show like Extra or Live With Kelly, you will see a spunky interview that will plug the product, but nothing in depth. Once you have any of those shows where they are calibrating the ratings according to every thirty-second module, they are not going to go on too long about anything. And you know what? As Jimmy Durante said, “Dems de conditions dat prevail.”

Midday Live had these unique, defining elements — you had the in-depth interviews, and it was live, and you were also responding to local issues, as they happened.

Midday Live was a public affairs program. What does that mean? It means that Channel 5 had to get X number of minutes of public affairs credit in order to meet FCC requirements. So there’s a transit strike, there’s housing issues, and some of that stuff is not that interesting, but we had to do X number of that a week. So it wasn’t all celebrities, it was a blend of these things. In the fall of ’85, legislation was passed that abrogated the FCC requirement that a local station had to commit to X number of minutes of public affairs programming. And I was standing in my office, and Gwen Barrett, who was at that time the producer of Midday, came in and told me about the new legislation, and I said “Gwen, that’s the end of this show.” A year and a half later, we were off the air.

How did you come to do Midday?

I was doing a show in North Carolina, which was 60 minutes, called Southern Exposure with Bill Boggs, and it was a big hit, for a lot of reasons. However, I have always been an ambitious man. I never wanted to step on people – early on, it was evident to me, keep a good reputation — but I’ve always been aggressive in pursuit of career goals. So I arranged to do some guest hosting at another local show in NYC – before Good Morning America came on, there was another morning local show on Channel 7. I can’t remember the name of it. So I did a week of those shows, as a guest host.

Now, much of my life has been intertwined with Frank Sinatra, as you know. I went back to North Carolina, and Sinatra was scheduled to play the Philadelphia Spectrum. So I got tickets and I was flying up for the weekend to take my mother and her best friend to see Frank Sinatra. On the seat of the Eastern Plane is a newspaper with a Kay Gardella column about how Lee Leonard has left Midday, and they were looking for a host [Gardella was a legendary columnist for The NY Daily News for over sixty years]. And I thought, “Jeez, that’s interesting,” and I made a mental note of that. I get off the plane and I get into a taxi – my plan is to meet my mother at the eagle at Wanamaker’s, have lunch with my mother, then go to her house in Philadelphia, then drive out to the Spectrum for the show. Walking across the street to Wanamaker’s to meet my mother, I get stopped by [WNEW Newscaster] Judy Licht who recognized me from having hosted this thing on Channel 7, she says “I work for Channel 5, they’re looking for a new host for Midday, they liked you, you ought to give them a call.” So, had I not been going to see Sinatra that weekend and seen the thing on the seat and met Judy Licht on the street as I was on my way to meet my mother, I would have had no idea what Midday was. That’s the way life works sometimes.

Boggs on ‘Midday’ highlights: “Interviewing Philippe Petit the morning after he did the walk between the World Trade Center towers. The morning after! And that was my audition week.”

There is no way we could detail the extraordinary amount of people, and the extraordinary diversity, of the people you interviewed on Midday. I have to ask you – and I know it’s a difficult question – what were the highlights?

I’ll give you a wide range. Covering the opening of Studio 54, and having Steve Rubell on, and really seeing that they had created something that was going to be equal to great clubs like the Copa. Covering the Son of Sam case, and having the cops on who were trying to track down the serial killer. Interviewing Philippe Petit the morning after he did the walk between the World Trade Center towers. The morning after! And that was my audition week. Bing Crosby. Sinatra coming to do the show, and it ending up being the longest interview of his career. And, thirty or forty years later, seven clips from the interview being used on the Sinatra special HBO did.

I’ll keep going. The Pope’s visit to New York. Doing something in 1976 on liposuction, face lifts, breast implants, when this sort of stuff was not part of our popular culture. We did at least three shows with transsexuals. Entire shows, 90 minutes, not just a segment. And of course the great artists: Having Bobby Short and Gerry Mulligan play together, the only time they ever played together. Having Marvin Hamlisch come on and talk about his compositions. And look on YouTube, you can see the entire show with Eubie Blake, the father of ragtime. That’s good stuff. David Bowie on, talking about being in The Elephant Man. All manner of things, Tim. All manner of things.

As you mentioned, your Sinatra interviews are considered definitive, just about the essential interviews of his career.

I met Frank at 4 O’clock in the morning, Easter Sunday morning. I had seen Elvis’s early show, and Sinatra’s late show, I was drinking, partying, I was feeling no pain [The Sinatra and Elvis shows Boggs is referring to were in Las Vegas]. Jilly Rizzo introduced us. Frank was very gracious. We talked for ten or twelve minutes. I initially told him that my mother was a bobbysoxer, I told him how I had snuck into the 500 Club in 1961 dressed as busboy when I was a teenager to see him.

I never asked him to come on the show. And this is true, hand to god. After our initial conversation, he says to me, and this is a direct quote, “Jilly says you have a show on 5 in New York. I’m not going to promise you anything, but I’m going to be in New York in September” – this is April, Easter Sunday, remember – “Maybe I’ll come and do your show.” And instinctively, without missing a beat, and meaning it, I said “Frank, I’m not asking for anything.” He took my hand in his, cupped my hand and pulled it close, looked me right in the eyes, and said “Bill, I know you’re not. Maybe I’ll come. We’ll see.” Something that night connected us.

“Was I being a good journalist that day? I don’t give a shit, excuse my language.”

Now, two years later, after our interview, Judith Campbell Exner wrote a book claiming she had affairs with [Mob boss] Sam Giancana, and Kennedy, and Frank. Now, history has proven that this actually happened. But in 1977, there was no proof of this. She could have just been a bimbo writing a book about these people. So I come in, and they’ve booked her for Wednesday. On Tuesday, I go home and read the book, and I think, “There is no fucking way I’m going to interview this woman tomorrow. Out of loyalty to Frank, I’m not doing this interview, right? I’m just not going to do it.” So I say to the producer, I’m not doing the interview. They say you have to do the interview. And I say I don’t have to do the interview, because I don’t want to do the interview. So I don’t do the interview. They get Mark Monski, the news director, to do the interview with her. By coincidence, Kay Gardella is watching Midday, and she writes a column that says “Bill Boggs refused to do an interview with Judith Campbell Exner,” and once again, as fate would have it, Sinatra sees Gardella’s piece in The Daily News. I get a letter from Frank thanking me not doing the interview with “The hooker with an agent,” as he put it. He says “You showed a lot of class, I wish more people would show class like that.” Signs it “Francis.” Was I being a good journalist that day? I don’t give a shit, excuse my language.

[Boggs was also a significant player in two other shows that changed the television landscape forever. In 1985 (with his longtime production partner, Richard Baker) he produced Comedy Tonight (1985), the very first syndicated show devoted solely to stand up comedy; it is regarded as a major factor in the dissemination of the stand-up revolution. Secondly, Boggs was executive producer of the extraordinary Morton Downey Jr. Show (1987 – ’89), which is considered a fundamental influence on the development of tabloid television and reality TV; it is also frequently cited for its then-radical blend of populist politics, must-see television, and a dynamic, controversial figurehead who was unafraid to make his opinions known.]

It seems like the world has not fully appreciated your role in bringing live comedy to television.

The idea for Comedy Tonight came to me because Richard Baker and I had been doing research into what people were looking for. Syndicators were looking for cheap late night programming. One day in the New York Times I read this featured article, in the entertainment section – this is ’84, ’83, somewhere around then — about the proliferation of comedy clubs, in strip malls, in Cleveland, in Denver, in Tampa. And I thought to myself, jeez, if there are all these comedians, there’s probably enough to do a strip show on comedy [in TV parlance, A strip show is a show placed, usually five nights a week, in unchanging time slot]. So, we got clearance from Sondheim to use the title Comedy Tonight, and we put together a deal based on five pilots – thank you to Whoopi Goldberg, who was on Broadway at the time, for coming and doing one of the five pilots – and then we ended up, Richard Baker and I, personally auditioning 2100 comedians over the course of two years, and booking 453 individual comedians on the show. I consider that one of the great feathers in our cap – Richard Baker and I – the first national show in the history of television to deal only with standup comedians. That was a pioneering show.

You have frequently appeared in television and movies – some of them quite big – as yourself, or playing a newscaster.

I’ve always liked to act. Funny, sometimes you have to audition to play yourself. There’s a new movie coming out with DeNiro called The Comedian. Taylor Hackford is the director. And I have two scenes with DeNiro, where I’m playing myself, that’s a highlight.

“[Morton Downey Jr.] took a lie detector test about the skinheads’ shaving his head, which of course he did himself, and he passed the lie detector test. He was able to believe his own lies.”

I’m not going to go too in depth about Morton Downey Jr., since that subject was very well covered in Evocatueur (an acclaimed 2012 documentary about Downey, which Boggs features prominently).

The fastest rise and fall in the history of television. An extremely brilliant person and an enormously self-destructive person…partly truth and partly fiction…he would make up stories! And he never knew what was true or what was not, but he would believe it. He took a lie detector test about the skinheads’ shaving his head, which of course he did himself, and he passed the lie detector test. He was able to believe his own lies. Brilliant guy. Fun to work with, but a hair-trigger temper. Like Howard Stern, he was a performance artist. You want a quote on him, I’ll give you one: Morton Downey Jr.’s legacy is performance art on television.

Downey was not only the prototype for tabloid and reality television, but also the prototype for the reality television candidacy…well, you have to see those parallels.

There is no question. The things that made Morton Downey Jr. enormously appealing – shooting from the hip, not worrying about being politically correct, not worrying about offending people, representing a populist point of view, conveying great anger, being a master of how to use television and the media – all apply to Trump. There’s no question about that. To me, in this election, one should never discount what Donald Trump has accomplished. That a reality TV star with a big business record could get nominated for the Presidency is phenomenal.

On Thursday, August 25th, you are appearing at Guild Hall in East Hampton in an unusual performance event called Bill Boggs’ Talk Show Confidential: Confessions of a Talk Show Host.

The Guild Hall show is a comedy show based all on true things that happened to me, recreating unbelievably embarrassing situations. It’s a mixed media show with some classic clips of interviews I’ve done with people. So it’s storytelling. It ran for six years at The Triad. You don’t have to know who Bill Boggs is to like the show. It’s not a history lesson, it’s really the only theatrical production that takes you into the world of what it’s really like to be on TV as a host.

 Bill Boggs’ Talk Show Confidential can be seen at 8 PM on August 25 at Guild Hall, 158 Main Street, East Hampton NY. Phone (631) 324-4050. Also, Boggs has a terrific website with info on lots and lots of stuff I didn’t have time to cover. Please go to www.billboggs.com. Finally, many thanks to Alec Cumming for his help researching this piece, and for sharing my love for classic television.