In the summer of 1987 thousands of NBC employees who belonged to the NABET union went on strike in a bitter labor dispute over pay, working conditions, and the network’s desire to hire non-union workers. The walkout lasted four months and ended in a near total victory for the management at NBC who then proceeded to lay off some 200 people, including myself.
During those difficult 16 weeks, strikers on the picket lines endured a variety of unfortunate experiences. People yelled at us. They laughed at us. Our non-union colleagues would come out of the building and ignore us. Our union leaders would show up occasionally, camera crews in tow, to do a photo op, but they wouldn’t answer our questions.
As for the “stars,” the on-camera talent, folks we had worked with for years, it was a mixed bag. Some were genuine and sincerely concerned about us. Some were annoyed (“Sorry for the glitches, folks, we’re havin’ a li’l strike here,” said one of them on the air one night.) One anchor promised to wear our small, blue union solidarity pin on camera, then carefully concealed it under her scarf. One very well-known personality walked past us saying, “You’re gonna LOSE!!” It was very discouraging.
Then there was David Letterman.
All of a sudden, there he was at the curb. All by himself. No entourage. No “handlers.” Just Dave, standing there, very low key, no fake smile, no exaggerated expressions, no nothing, really. He didn’t look like a star, didn’t talk like a star, didn’t dis us or BS us. He just…. talked! Regular people to regular people. And he listened. “How’s it going out here?” “So-so. How’s it going in there?” “Painful, really painful.” (He may have even compared it to “root canal,” but I’m not certain. Memory gets a little vague, you know?) He lingered quite a while, longer than he needed to if it were just a pro forma good deed for the day. It felt so….normal, so real, so unlike what you might expect. It stunned me. And it impressed the heck out of me.
A couple of years ago I scored tickets to the Letterman show at the Ed Sullivan Theater. If you’ve ever gone, you know. This was a major, MAJOR production, top to bottom, built around a bona fide superstar. Audiences were carefully handled, shepherded from here to there, told what to do, what not to do, where to stand, when to sit, how to clap, over and over again. Big time stuff. We waited and waited, then we sat through warmup after warmup… Paul Shaffer… Alan Kalter. Then, just before taping begins, Dave comes out for a quick hello. And he just talks. Regular people to regular people. And he stays until the crew gives him a signal, and he says to us, “I gotta go.” And he disappears backstage.
And I’m thinking about that day on the picket line.
They tape the show, and the moment it ends, the moment they shout “Clear!” and the cameras are off and no one can see or hear him but us, Dave leans over to the stage floor, picks up the house mic that’s been laying there, looks out at us and says, “Hey, thanks for coming, guys. Really appreciate it!”
In more than 30 years in this business I’ve met and worked with quite a few air personalities who’ve morphed from “Aw shucks” to “Who the hell are YOU??” when success went to their heads. It’s just nice to know it doesn’t always happen that way.
So thanks, Dave. On and off camera, you did good.