David Letterman Tortured the Actor Who Played Him in a TV Movie

Letterman wasn’t a big fan of ‘The Late Shift’
David Letterman Tortured the Actor Who Played Him in a TV Movie

Long before they were spending millions on CGI dragons and John Oliver’s Supreme Court payoffs, HBO’s original content was a tad more low-key. One of their most talked-about original movies back in the 1990s was The Late Shift, based on the book by Bill Carter, which dramatized the behind-the-scenes battle between David Letterman and Jay Leno over who would get to host The Tonight Show. Keep in mind that this was back in a time when The Tonight Show was one of the most iconic programs on television, not a platform for sketch comics to hawk their cartoon primate collections.

Despite the fact that his stand-in wasn’t the one with a Dick Tracy-esque prosthetic chin, Letterman wasn’t too happy with his portrayal in the movie. The Letterman character was played by the hilarious John Michael Higgins, who would go on to appear in Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show and every other mockumentary directed by Christopher Guest.

At the time, Letterman — who had only seen clips, not the whole movie — criticized Higgins’ performance, telling Entertainment Weekly, “I’m sure he’s a fine actor, but his interpretation seems to be… well, a circus chimp. He looks like he’s insane, like he’s a budding psychopath.” He later said that the movie was “the biggest waste of film since my wedding photos,” and once again blasted Higgins, by likening his portrayal to a “psychotic chimp.”

Letterman seemed especially aggrieved at Higgins’ hairpiece. “He’s playing me with red hair,” Letterman told guest Treat Williams in 1996. Williams played Letterman’s agent Michael Ovitz in The Late Shift. When they threw to a “clip” from the movie, it was Letterman playing Higgins playing Letterman, complete with an ill-fitting red wig.

While it’s understandable that Letterman wouldn’t be thrilled about having his dirty laundry aired on cable television, beating up on Higgins, an unknown, struggling actor, seems pretty unfair. Higgins later revealed that the main reason he took the job was because he desperately needed $300 to fix the steering wheel of his Subaru. “I was clutching a coupon for an $8 haircut, while Letterman was pounding away at me every night on his show. It was so surreal,” he told The Boston Globe in 2021.

Letterman eventually booked Higgins to be a guest on The Late Show. As Higgins waited to go on, Letterman joked in his monologue that Higgins was so convincing in The Late Shift that “he’s already been asked not to host next year’s Academy Awards.” But after a prolonged opening segment, and appearances from celebrity guests Julia Roberts and James Brown, there was no time left in the show for Higgins. The Los Angeles Times pointed out that Letterman bumping the actor seemed like it was “almost as if to punish Higgins for being him in a movie he opposed.”

“My apologies to John Michael Higgins, who plays me in Late Shift,” Letterman said. “He’ll be here at his next earliest convenience. Or he’ll be in the lobby, if you people are really that disappointed about it,” Letterman added “with a grin.”

Was Higgins really booked just so Letterman could mess with him? The Times did take note of a certain mischievous “gleam” in Letterman’s eyes as he bumped the actor, but the Late Show staff assured the press that Higgins would be “rescheduled” (he wasn’t).

Bill Carter later wrote a follow-up to The Late Shift, all about the Conan-Leno drama, so maybe one day HBO will make a sequel, preferably starring Jim Carrey.

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