Never Piss Off David Letterman
John Michael Higgins isn't a household name, but you've probably seen him acting in Christopher Guest films and/or as Wayne Jarvis on Arrested Development. He also portrayed Letterman in The Late Shift, something he says Letterman still hates him for.
The Late Shift, a 1996 HBO movie based on a book by the New York Times' Bill Carter, chronicled the infamous struggle between David Letterman and Jay Leno to replace Johnny Carson as the host of the Tonight Show after his retirement. Higgins, in an interview with Starpulse's Mike Ryan, said that he knew at the time he was offered the role that the film would be controversial and that he risked facing a backlash within the notoriously petty industry for taking the role, but at the time he was a struggling actor who desperately needed $300 to fix his broken-down car.
They had a hard time casting it for that reason. And he was very powerful — and is. He didn't like the project from the beginning and didn't make it easy for me — or for anyone doing that project. It was (pauses) it was hard. I took it because I needed to fix the steering column on my Subaru is why I took it. I needed $300 or I wouldn't have a steering wheel. So, I ended up making more than $300 but in the end it's one of those jobs you just can't... I could not turn it down. I may be able to turn it down now, but I couldn't at the time. It would just be completely crazy and irresponsible.
You know, it was scary. I was scared of it. No question. Actually, doing the job itself was a tricky acting challenge but I had had harder acting challenges onstage. That part wasn't so bad, it was the appendant hoopla which was difficult for me to navigate and I didn't do it that well because I was so inexperienced. There was a lot of press, there was a lot of interviews and comparing me. And [Letterman] was saying things about me on his television program. It was difficult. I didn't know what I was doing.
I had a lot of help from HBO's publicity department who was holding my hand through it because I suddenly was in a rather glaring spotlight. Mostly not because of the project, which was good, but it wouldn't have gotten all that press. It was mostly because of the nature of the project. An inside, big Hollywood story where people were actually getting represented on the screen. People who are alive and well.
It was a great opportunity and it was really daunting and scary. It was like, "Should I do this? This could end it all. This could start and end the whole thing." Thankfully, it didn't.
Higgins also said that Letterman has refused to speak to him in the years that have passed since, though he was booked to appear on Letterman's show, only to get bumped without explanation.
There was a famous incident where he invited me to the show and I got bumped off the show. Everyone sort of tried to figure out what happened there ... it's odd though, it's an interesting job. It's really interesting to industry people. To still be talking about a job I was in 12 years ago is very unusual.
Back in February, Letterman invited the mother of the late comedian Bill Hicks onto his show so he could apologize publicly for a slight he perpetrated upon Hicks back in 1993. Maybe one day Letterman can invite John Michael Higgins to join him on the air to talk about The Late Shift and put all of the animosity to rest. We think it's be a tremendously nice gesture, not to mention something that would make for very compelling television, don't you think?